Paul Caldwell didn’t make it past the den.
After the newly painted hallway entrance and a peek inside the renovated kitchen with new appliances, Caldwell, 75, turned the corner to a den with matching couches and ceiling fan and had to sit down.
“I’m just speechless,” the retired UNC public safety officer said. “This is my house (of 50 years) we stayed in, completely like brand new.
“They did beautiful job,” he said, his eyes welling with tears. “I never imagined it looking like this.”
The dozens of volunteers who had worked on the Church Street home the past month may never have imagined it either. For weeks, they had torn away floorboards, replaced rotting joists, removed and replaced bathroom fixtures, and rewired.
In the crawlspace below the house, they replaced a rusted hot water heater – Caldwell and wife Belinda, 66, had been without hot water for months – and laid down a plastic vapor barrier.
In the attic, where daylight had filtered through slats in the roof, they blew insulation.
The Orange Chatham Association of Realtors chose the Caldwells’ one-story house in Chapel Hill Northside neighborhood for its 10th Fix-A-Home project. It was the biggest, most extensive remodel the group has tackled.
And Friday, after a month away from their house, the Caldwells returned amid storm warnings for the big reveal.
Volunteers laid cardboard down inside the doorways and passed out plastic footies as others kept watch for the couple, who were running a few minutes late.
As they arrived, Paul Caldwell hugged Anne Hoole, the Fix-A-Home committee chair, who just weeks earlier had stood in the single bathroom, stipped to the beams, staring down at the crawlspace dirt below.
While her husband sat collecting himself in the earth-toned den, Belinda Caldwell inspected the kitchen. A stacked washer/dryer sat in the corner, replacing appliances that had been in the small, screened back porch. New stainless steel sinks gleamed.
She headed to the den.
“You satisfied?” she asked her husband.
“You need to go look, honey,” she encouraged him. “It’s gorgeous. You need to go. You need to go.”
The Realtors choose a household each year looking for people who are committed to home ownership but who lack the means to make necessary repairs.
This year’s Northside project comes as the town and university and their partners are investing in the historically black, working-class neighborhood, where many single-family homes have been replaced by student rentals. Northside lost about 40 percent of its African-American residents between 1980 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census, but the number grew last year to 717, up from 690 in 2010.
In addition to tending their home, fronted by Paul’s vegetable garden and landscaping, the Caldwell’s have been active in the community and their church as they raised seven children. Belinda is retired from the university. Paul, despite diabetes and a heart condition, works as a crossing guard at nearby Northside Elementary School.
I got some nosy neighbors. One came up and said, ‘Paul, you’ve got a new porch on your house.’ I said, “I don’t want to hear no more.’
As the couple walked through their home, their children followed them through the hallways.
Shawn Caldwell, 54, said he grew up in the house, four boys in one small bedroom, two girls in another.
“The bathroom, it was like you had to wait your turn or get up early,” he said.
Jason Caldwell, 35, said the new central heating and air conditioning will make a big difference for his parents, who had been relying on inefficient space heaters and wndow air conditioning units.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “They give so selflessly to others. ... They give of themselves before they will take anything for themselves.”
Out on the front steps – now widened to make the real porch Belinda had told Paul she would love to have someday when she moved in many years ago – the couple and Fix-A-Home volunteers posed for a group photo.
Mike McKinney of Carrboro Crawlspace Solutions reached to shake Paul Caldwell’s hand.
“If you ever have to go in that crawlspace – even if you just want to look at it – you’re gonna like what you see,” he said, and everybody laughed.
Minutes later, the crowd thinning out, Belinda Caldwell sat on the living-room sofa, her hand cupped over her mouth as she looked up at the familiar shelves her husband had built, now surrounded by new floors, furniture and fixtures.
“I like all of it,” she said.