Jenny Hoffman’s personal oasis is a haven for history, creativity and community
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
After years of designing and renovating homes for others, builder Jennifer “Jenny” Hoffman finally got to reimagine a space for herself.
“I wanted to find a place I [could] afford to renovate,” says Jenny, a native of Kenmore, New York, a blue collar village north of Buffalo. “I’ve always loved functional buildings – industrial, agrarian and vernacular. Interpreting those forms for modern use is pretty much my whole aesthetic. … What was really fun about this project was that it was for me.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Evergreen State College in Washington state in 1998, she earned a master’s in architecture and planning from the University at Buffalo before arriving in Durham in 2003. For 12 years, she was a stay-at-home mom, raising a daughter and two sons. In 2015, Jenny obtained her general contractor’s license and founded J. Hoffman Studio Design + Build.
In 2018, she came across a listing for a Black-owned dairy farm west of Carrboro that had been converted into a wedding venue. Three years later, the property was still on the market, and this time Jenny was in a position to make an offer.
A LAND OF MEANING
In April 2021, Jenny purchased the 5.5-acre parcel at the end of a road near Highway 54 where the land slopes past an empty grain silo to a pond and dam. Property records show that one of the original structures was built in 1880. Jenny says the building at the front of the property may have been an old schoolhouse so she reached out to the Orange County Historical Museum and the Chapel Hill Historical Society to learn more about its history but was unable to uncover helpful information. Meanwhile, an inspection revealed extensive termite damage, rendering it beyond repair. However, the milking barn and other structures were salvageable.
“I was so moved by this space,” Jenny says about the area’s complicated history before, during and after the Civil War. She says the previous property owner, Roger Snipes, had grown up on his family’s dairy farm, and when Roger retired, he enclosed a large patio and concrete pad between the milking barn and a second barn to cobble together a 6,000-square-foot event space called Snipes Farm Retreat.
“There was no place habitable,” Jenny says about the existing buildings, though she saw the potential in making the former event space into a home. “I couldn’t carry two mortgages so, I was like, ‘Well, there’s only one way I can pull this off.’”
In June 2021, Jenny and her three kids moved into the smaller barn. They used plywood and other materials to carve up the space into a makeshift home heated by propane.
“The teenagers hated it,” she says. They set up a temporary kitchen – the waterline still strings across the porch to the other building. An outdoor shower stall was installed with the help of Hope Renovations, a nonprofit organization that counts Jenny as a member of its board of directors.
LEFT Jenny chats with friends on the wraparound patio. She has not yet decided what to do with the smaller building where she and her three teenagers camped out during the construction of the main house.
RIGHT Jenny, center, with subcontractors from Garcia Paint Co.: Cristian Cordero, Daniel Vazques, Deybin Garcia, Manuel Ramírez, Martín García and Luis Vasques.
“Yeah, we lived in that barn for 10 months,” she says with a sigh. Jenny became more familiar than she’d like to admit with the habits and habitats of local insect and amphibian populations. “The frog cacophony is really loud in frog season,” she says, her eyes widening for emphasis. “It must have been that first summer when we moved in, there were baby frogs that would get in, and they liked the cool concrete floor so they would stay in there. I’d try to catch them but then they would go under the couch.” Jenny says she still regularly sees and hears other wildlife – rabbits, deer, coyotes and foxes – but thankfully just not under her couch.
The crunch of gravel along the circular driveway announces the arrival of guests before they have a chance to ring a trio of brass bells by a glass door facing the entrance patio. Inside, step down to a concrete aggregate floor where cowboy boots and galoshes stand in a corner across from an open laundry and mudroom. A small kitchen once occupied that space when the farm served as an event venue.
Along the same front hallway, what was a two-stall women’s restroom is now a renovated full bath with a copper basin sink atop a soapstone counter and cabinetry made from reclaimed wood on site. The wall outside the bathroom had been the exterior wall of a smaller building before additions were made to expand the barn in earlier times, Jenny says.
Step down again and the kitchen opens onto dual indoor/outdoor living and dining spaces with views of the silo and farmland. The retreat’s corner men’s restroom is gone, replaced by a wraparound kitchen counter with two window sinks. Also gone are the numerous wooden platforms of varying heights floating across a rough, uneven concrete floor. Today, a level, polished and heated floor is a welcome feature in the winter months.
Up two steps from the living room is a short, open hallway to another two steps up into one of two downstairs bedrooms that were once used as milking stations. “This room originally had ceilings about here,” Jenny says, motioning to her shoulder. She explains that cows were led through an opening and stood on a platform where a worker would milk from a lower level. The now 6-foot bedroom window that faces north was where the cows would exit the barn.
LEFT Jenny showed her appreciation to several subcontractors with a thank-you lunch this fall. In the back, Fernando Rubio-Vivar chats with Cara Nance, Jake Niles and Shelby Bishop as they wait their turn at the buffet.
RIGHT Willa steps over Jenny’s feet while Peanut sits with Cara Nance. Shelby Bishop and Graham Denison stand by for shenanigans.
To insulate the concrete walls, Jenny created a new stud wall that also added a visually appealing shelf that wraps around each room. The bedrooms are connected by a modern Jack-and-Jill bathroom.
In the main living space, a two-story boarded wall is made from wooden planks that originally lined the hayloft. At the ceiling’s peak, the original beams still bear the vintage grapple fork and a track and pulley system used to haul bales of hay in and out of the loft. Below that are new beams that stabilize the roof, which now has a new metal cover that replaced the aging tin.
Follow the open stairs to the second level to find another sitting area before entering the primary suite with a walk-in closet and full bath. A large soaking tub sits in the corner of the bedroom with a view of the grain silo and the star magnolia tree. A glass door in an opposite corner of the room will one day open onto a new deck leading to the base of the tree at ground level.
“I think partly because I am a builder, I will always be tinkering and adding,” Jenny says. “I built this place at the height of the pandemic with prices going up for me just like everybody else, and I got to a point where I had to stop spending money. It’s still a work in progress.”
A GATHERING PLACE
LEFT The exposed beams and ductwork shows the evolution of the structure. Seeing the vintage grapple hook is a daily reminder that the space was originally a hayloft.
RIGHT Jenny kept the prominent features of the original barn
Jenny says she’s always enjoyed entertaining and has already held a barn-warming party with musician friends testing out the acoustics inside the silo. “I’m pretty proud of [the home], given that it was built in 10 months, and it turned out nicely,” she says.
She also still muses about different ways the farm could have options to accommodate an aging aunt or other family members who may need temporary housing. For now, Jenny is happy to build a community of friends who want to hang out on the wraparound patios or ride electric dirt bikes around the silo.
“I’ve always loved having family and friends around,” Jenny says. “I tend to be the one who hosts holidays and parties for my family. Now that my kids are grown and moving on, I’m grateful for the community that the farm welcomes so often.”
LEFT The window in this downstairs bedroom was once the opening where cows would exit the barn after milking.
RIGHT Jenny preps vegetables for friends and family she expects to arrive any minute. Having two large window sinks is especially helpful when hosting parties.