Home & Garden

Yesterdays revealed

It's as if they were meant to be together -- architect Jim Smith and the Walnut Hill Cotton Gin, that is.

Smith first noticed the cotton gin while on hiatus from his undergraduate studies. The abandoned structure caught his eye as he drove the rural roads of southeastern Wake County to visit with co-workers from a local construction site.

Once back in school at N.C. State University, Smith made the cotton gin and its works the subject of a photography project. Striking black and white images document those early encounters. Smith says he would have laughed if someone had tried to tell him the gin would one day be his home.

Years passed. Smith became an architect, and the cotton gin sat empty. Then, in 1992, when Smith was involved in local preservation efforts, he learned that the cotton gin's owner had only weeks earlier donated the structure to Preservation North Carolina.

Smith and his wife, Pam Troutman, bought it and immediately began stabilizing and securing the property to prevent further deterioration. By 2003, they were ready to transform the utilitarian farm structure into their home.

As the Home of the Month selection panel commented, the Walnut Hill Cotton Gin "reveals several yesterdays."

Alonzo T. Mial built the cotton gin in the 1840s as part of the 2,700 acre Walnut Hill Plantation. It was active until the 1930s and is tattooed with dates, tallies and the names of those who worked there. Local Rolesville granite piers and mammoth timbers of hand-hewn Southern yellow pine are reminders of construction methods and materials long since abandoned or exhausted.

Animals originally powered the gin, walking in circles on the ground level, to turn the gears one story up. In later years, part of the interior structure was cut away to make room for larger ginning equipment, and some of the original heart pine flooring was reclaimed and installed in a house down the road.

Today the gin is a bright and airy residence. Smith and Troutman replaced some of the beams to assure the building's integrity, but Smith says he is grateful to those who did the earlier deconstruction, unintentionally creating a dramatic openness where spanning beams play shadow games across the living area and keep the space from seeming cavernous.

The adaptive reuse of existing structures is an important strategy for sustaining our cultural histories. Troutman and Smith renovated the cotton gin in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation of historic buildings in order to satisfy the property's restrictive covenants and to take advantage of state tax credits.

Restoration specialist Pat Schell supervised the challenging project. The appearance of the exterior is intentionally true to the original. The siding required careful repair and protection. The window patterning and trimless detailing are attentively consistent with old photographs. Nearly invisible large glass panes guard openings that were once used for loading cotton, maximizing light and views from the inside. The old red tin roof remains.

On the inside, Smith took inspiration from urban loft living. The plan flows freely with few doors or partitions, an aspect of the design that Smith and Troutman admit might not suit everyone, but it fits their lifestyle and personal aesthetic.

Smith adopted a palette of simple contemporary materials for the added elements of the house. For instance, a very steep and crude yet sturdy wooden staircase served the building for decades, but the couple chose to insert a handsome steel and wood alternative for easier climbing. Now the two staircases stand side by side in a graceful pairing of old and new.

Adaptive reuse is also a prudent approach to green building, conserving materials and embodied energy. Sustainable design principles were a priority throughout the renovation.

To insulate the exterior walls, Smith specified a spray foam product that uses rapidly renewable soy oil in place of petroleum. With its high efficiency heating and cooling system, the well-sealed building envelope minimizes the home's energy consumption.

Other eco-friendly material choices include strawboard cabinet doors, linoleum countertops and cork flooring. To replace some flooring that had been previously removed, Smith milled local trees blown down by Hurricane Fran. The resulting medley of maple, white oak, red oak and ash is a stunning tribute to low-impact design and construction.

When asked what their favorite feature of the house is, Smith and Troutman do not point to its preservation agenda or its green attributes. Instead they focus on the joy of having a home that is designed for their hearts and not for resale value.

While many around them did not wear the rose-colored glasses necessary to see the cotton gin's potential, they made their dream home a reality. Despite its long and hard-working history, the Walnut Hill Cotton Gin lives gracefully today as a home meant for Smith and Troutman.

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