Chapel Hill News

Big house plans for Small Street

The oldest house in Pittsboro has a new site — South Small Street — and new owners — Ray and Janet Carney — who intend to give the grand old dame a new lease on life. Considering the Patrick Saint Lawrence house has been moved three times over the past 225 years, she deserves some good hands restoring her now.

The house was built in 1787 on the old courthouse square as an inn and residence by and for Patrick Saint Lawrence, an entrepreneur and one of Pittsboro’s original town commissioners. The old courthouse square had 125 lots surrounding it for homes and retail. Eventually the retail and expansion of government services saw the houses moved or repurposed.

The Patrick St. Lawrence house was moved around 1907, again in 1955 and most recently in 2011, in each case to allow expansions of Chatham County facilities, according to Lauren Werner, Director of Education Outreach for Preservation North Carolina.

The house has a paneled wall in its front hall that has hinges allowing it to be hoisted to the ceiling to transform the large front parlor into a ballroom with the wide front staircase as the perfect place from which to make a grand entrance. Adjacent, smaller, main-floor parlors allow intimate conversations and a place to rest from the festivities of the ballroom.

The cost of building such a house in the late 1700s, possibly the only one of its kind in North Carolina, may have led to Lawrence’s fiscal demise a few years after his home’s completion, according to the background story on Preservation North Carolina’s Website ( click on “Buy Properties” then “Historic Properties for Sale” then “Terry-Taylor house” then in body of text “Patrick St. Lawrence house”).

The Carneys, who purchased the house for $40,000 from Preservation North Carolina, say they won’t have the original owner’s fiscal problem restoring the house today because they have 30 years experience in restoring and renovating period homes in western New York state where Ray has worked as a vocational teacher of carpentry and cabinet making in the public school system and his wife has made her career as owner of Carney’s Antiques and Upholsterer.

Her shop is in one of the two commercial buildings the Carneys have restored. The couple currently lives in Wyoming, New York, in one of the three period houses they have restored. They have also restored a unique 1840’s barn for use as an antique store.

All of this while Ray has concurrently built new homes through his day job as a vocational teacher and Janet has restored antique furniture and painted and wallpapered homes and helped her husband restore vintage cars.

“I’m restoring a 1934 Ford coupe right now with a flat-end mercury engine in it,” Ray said. “Janet does the upholstery.”

The Syracuse University basketball fans say they enjoy keeping busy, especially doing things that will bring in extra income as a bonus. They are selling one of the Corvettes they’ve restored to defray the cost of their Patrick Saint Lawrence house purchase.

By day, Ray teaches in what he says is one of the nicest mill shops in New York state for cabinet and stair making. In addition to public school students, many home-schooled children in the Wyoming, NY area attend Carney’s classes.

Carney and his students go out on site and build homes. The land and materials are the home owner’s responsibility. Carney says the customer pays everything but the teacher’s wage. Carney teaches the students to read and work from architectural blueprints. Last year they completed a 3,800-square-foot home; and this year one of 2,500 square feet is under construction.

We used to take the school kids to Home-a-rama, where they would build a house in a new development and real estate agents would sell the houses as “spec” houses,” Carney explained. “We didn’t feel the excesses or the demise in the housing industry as much as some other markets. But our economy was a straight-line for several years. This year we put kids into the carpenter union for the first time in three-and-a-half years. They are looking for people now.”

Carney estimates that his restored 1820 Federal transition house in New York has a value of $170,000, but he says he can’t complain because he got the house for “free” although he had to tear off the second story board-by-board in order to move the house to its present 3-plus-acre location. The boards had to be numbered so as to be reconstructed at the home’s new site. He managed to save all the fireplaces in his New York home and plans to do the same and then some for the Patrick Saint Lawrence house.

The Pittsboro house, which now has three fireplaces, will when the Carneys are finished, once again have six fireplaces and a 24-foot, two-stack front porch with pillars. The Carneys have been looking at historic photos of the house and would appreciate more from anyone who has old photos of what has been called “The Old Yellow House” because of exterior yellow paint on the siding since the early 1800s. Photos could be sent digitally to or actual photos to Lauren Werner, Preservation NC, PO Box 27644, Raleigh, NC 27611.

Upon inspecting the house himself, Carney found mortise pockets for the beams of the original porch and evidence of where corner fireplaces were in upstairs bedrooms. The Carneys are working with Preservation North Carolina to figure out what styling the porch railings would have been. The original lathe and plaster walls were removed during the home’s prior moves. The Carneys will replace the current walls with blueboard, which is a form of drywall that requires a coat of plaster to finish it. The couple believes the floors are the original heart pine. The woodwork, also original, has been painted white over the years.

Janet scraped layers of white paint off the paneled wood down to the original faux grain-paint (see inset photo). She plans on scraping the wood panels and trim throughout the house to restore it to its original paint motif.

The paint on the unpainted newel post was removed by the previous owner and the Carneys could not find any evidence of graining or “Faux Finish” on this newel post that appears to be made of English oak. There are three newel posts on the balance of the balustrade system and Janet says she will scrape them to determine the original finish treatment for the rail system.

“I will scrape right down to the faux paint and not go any further,” Janet said. We’ve been doing this for the past 30 years. This house is the perfect fit for us, really.”

“We won’t get very many surprises, because we know what we are getting into,” Ray said. “The home we live in right now was moved, so we’re used to living in one or two rooms until the others get done.”

The Carneys estimate that it will take four years to restore the Patrick Saint Lawrence house, including the fireplaces, electrical, plumbing and heating. The first order of business will be to put a new roof on the house during their 2013 Easter vacation. Carney says his son and a couple of other friends will put tan architectural shingles on the house to mimic the original wood shingles.

Ray Carney says he will be 64 when he retires next spring. He decided he wanted to do one last house restoration during his retirement.

“I made the mistake of telling him a couple of years ago that I had enough energy to do one more,” Janet said. “I didn’t think we would go quite this large, but I’m up for it. I’m excited. We make a good combination because he has building skills, and I have the interior design. I upholster furniture, wallpaper professionally and paint.”

They chose North Carolina because of its central location between family in New York and Florida and because Carney has a brother living in the Charlotte area. The Carneys found the Preservation North Carolina Website last year and started looking.

They chose Pittsboro after a trip to the Triangle where they spent four days in a hotel in Raleigh and took daytrips looking for a house they could remodel in a location where they could walk to a downtown with shops.

“Pittsboro is a super place,” Ray said. “The people were so nice and friendly. And when you do get a chance to get in the house and see the wood, you couldn’t reproduce it now. We were sold.”

The house is on a quarter-acre lot, which is not large by the Carneys’ standards. Janet plans to put a formal garden in the back yard. The house is a generation earlier than the house in which they currently live, due south between Rochester and Buffalo.

“We want to do the (Pittsboro) house justice,” Janet said. “It is 225 years old and we are going to put it back like it was. The color of the house will stay the same color it has always been. Once we get down there and can really get to work, things will go pretty fast.

“We enjoy history and old fashioned homes,” Ray said. “We have put houses back to their original beauty. We want them the way they were built originally, but with enough modern amenities so that they are enjoyable places to live. There is a lot of handwork and I have the hand planes to do the work.”

“It may not be 1787 (when finished), but it will be 1800 to 1820,” Ray said, “It is a Georgian style coming into the Federal period. And we have the best antique and reproduction furniture. The house will be set up like it was.” For example, in the large room at the top of the stairs, Janet plans to place a faux-finished grandfather clock from the early 1800’s, a Chippendale style settee, and an early chest of drawers. There will also be several oil paintings or reverse painted Federal mirrors.

While Preservation North Carolina appears to have gotten a gem in Ray and Janet Carney buying the Patrick Saint Lawrence house, the organization is still looking for families to buy the adjacent homes, the McClenahan House and the Terry-Taylor House, which stand as bookends to the Patrick Saint Lawrence house on South Small Street.

The houses, both of which require complete rehabilitation, are priced at $30,000 each through Preservation NC. All of these homes are within Pittsboro's Historic District and eligible for historic preservation tax credits. Their location on South Small Street allows them to be used as private residence, retail or office space. Pittsboro is 30 minutes south of Chapel Hill and 40 minutes west of Research Triangle Park. It is also adjacent to the State's newest Natural Area - 960 acres along the scenic Haw River and 20 minutes from Jordan Lake State Park.

For more information contact Cathleen Turner, Regional Director of Preservation NC’s Piedmont Regional Office at 919-401-8540 or Please include your name, mailing address, and name of property in the e-mail.