Diane Eckland loves restoring historic homes. Since starting Shade Tree Construction Co. in 1983, she has restored historic homes from Hillsborough to the edges of Chatham County.
One of her most exciting restorations was the Smith-Cole house on Smith Level Road near the Orange/Chatham County border. She says she would have done that restoration for free just to see the 1840s treasure’s nail-less construction methods and wide oak timbers.
Eckland has also built additions onto historic homes that were larger than the original structure. The addition she put on the house at 321 Margaret Lane in Hillsborough won her a 2009 Preservation Award from the Hillsborough Historic District Commission.
The Franklin-Rosemary Historic District of Chapel Hill has been the recipient of many of Eckland’s talents. She has renovated homes at 204 Glenburnie, 611 E. Rosemary, 204 N. Boundary and is currently working on a house at 803 E. Franklin.
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Ernest Dollar, executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, says Eckland has worked on some of the most historically important structures in Chapel Hill.
“The Preservation Society has always been excited about her work, because she gives new life to old homes by making them livable for today’s tastes,” he said.
Labor of love
Perhaps her largest labor of love is the restoration of the circa 1905 Pratt-Wells house at 704 E. Franklin St., for which she received a 2009 award from the preservation society. Eckland and Edward Smith, a former vice president of the preservation society, bought the Pratt-Wells house in 2007 to rescue it from years of neglect, according to Smith.
“The house was in terrible shape: shag carpet on the floors; chopped-up rooms; tiny porches added to little porches,” Eckland said. “Potential buyers were turned off by how bad a state the house was in, but we could see the potential.”
Joseph Hyde Pratt, known as Father of the Blue Ridge Parkway, built this stately Colonial home with Craftsman simplicity in the early 1900s, before serving his country in World War I.
He also built cottages at the rear of his two-acre property, using one as an office, as well as homes on East Franklin Street for friends working at UNC. His building efforts were seen as the beginning of residential expansion east of Boundary Street, according to Smith.
Hyde died in 1942, before completing his scenic highway through the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia to Georgia. In 1952, Dr. Warner Wells, a neurosurgeon returning from Japan to accept a position at UNC with his wife and four daughters, purchased the home from Colonel Pratt’s widow, according to Smith.
“While in Japan, Wells met Dr. Michinika Hachiya, who kept a diary about the 1945 Hiroshima bombing,” Smith wrote after talking with Wells family members. “Wells translated the journal into English and edited it as ‘Hiroshima Diary,’ released in 1955 to become a best seller. Wells and Hachiya contributed the book’s royalties to a Japanese foundation that provided care to orphaned victims of the bombings.”
Some copies of the book are still in a large, old, custom-made chest in the attic of the Pratt-Wells house. These convey with the house, which is now situated on almost an acre of land and shares a driveway with adjacent cottages and homes. The driveway connects Park Place to East Franklin Street, allowing two ways to scoot around UNC’s campus. The 4,489-square-foot house and detached two-car garage with storage above are being offered at $1.75 million, $100,000 below tax appraisal.
Over the course of nine months, Eckland restored the house and made many improvements in the interior layout which now features four bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths, multiple large porches, and a private pierced-brick, walled courtyard and spacious brick patio. The two-story home also has an unfinished walk-out basement (approximately 1,500 square feet) and large walk-up attic.
But it is the original and reclaimed heart pine floors, sawn oak cabinetry in the gourmet kitchen, and luminous original window glass and antique lighting fixtures that will capture the hearts of visitors to this house which glows day or night under a canopy of oak trees. The windows and French doors throughout the house have original glass.
“The glass is just like jewels when you look at it,” Eckland said. “This house has some of the best glass in it that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this (restoration work) for 28 years now.”
Examples of how a thoughtful builder can create functional spaces from chopped-up interiors are the East Franklin Street home’s laundry and master bath. Eckland made a spacious (12 foot x 16 foot), light-filled, second-floor laundry from what were four tiny porches when she first walked into the ailing house.
The master bath is a combination of three spaces: an old sleeping porch, an old bath and a closet. The new bath features a large soaking tub beneath an oval window that originally had been on an interior wall of the sleeping porch.
After Eckland completed the restoration, the house was part of the 2008 Preservation Society Holiday home tour.
“People who had seen the house before our restoration were bowled over by the transformation,” Eckland said.