Witness the Modern Transformation of a ’60s Chapel Hill House

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A change agent takes a 1965 home into a new chapter, keeping its soul and story

By J Michael Welton | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Shannon Tennyson is a change management consultant with a passion for design and architecture. Those were precisely the qualities needed to fulfill her role as the second owner of a 1965-era home on Franklin Street. She bought it in November 2020, sensing that it was no ordinary midcentury modern ranch. This one, she felt, was different. She was right. Thought by some to be a Sears kit home, it’s actually a prefab structure marketed by Kingsberry Homes out of Chamblee, Georgia, as the Kennington model. Kingsberry specialized in low-cost homes that could be shipped, with plans, across the country.

Shannon was introduced to the home by a mutual acquaintance of one of the adult children who grew up there, and it made a strong first impression. “There’s something about how it perches up on the hill,” she says of the house tucked into its lot on two-thirds of an acre. “When I visited it, I couldn’t get it out of my head – it stuck with me.”

The home likely arrived in Chapel Hill in parts, on the back of a tractor-trailer. It had been ordered by Frank Fearrington, a native of Chapel Hill who worked at UNC for 42 years, including a stint as purchasing director. An amateur draftsman, Frank modified the home’s plans to fit his Franklin Street lot.

ABOVE LEFT: Chapel Hill High School junior Callie Tennyson, Shannon Tennyson and Carter Tennyson, a freshman at UNC Charlotte, in front of their 1960s-era home.

The Tennysons play the trivia game Wits & Wagers with friends Jill Brown, Michael Brown, Brent Stonebraker and Cecilia Stonebraker.

When he died at 90 in 2017, Frank’s obituary noted his inquisitive mind and capable hands – and called out that he and his friends had built their own boat and skis to water-ski at Hogan Lake. “He could fix any and everything; loved to tinker and invent helpful gadgets, and was a talented craftsman, architectural sketcher and oil painter,” it read.

Abundant light and comfortable chairs make for a cozy seating area.

His daughter, Jan Ammons, has a photo of her father drawing, along with original plans of the house and promotional materials from Kingsberry advertising the model. She recalls conversations with her father about it. “I remember him saying that parts of it came in on a truck, but that some parts and pieces also came from Lowe’s Hardware,” she says. “Also, he drew plans on the side – he was a pretty good draftsman and did several homes in Chapel Hill.”

Shannon says a favorite part of the process was choosing light fixtures like the showstopping gold one in her room. “I love to experiment with lighting by selecting different style lights that can work together, but also lend a unique personality to each space,” she says.

Jan’s brother, Steve Fearrington, remembers his father working on the home as it was being built but doesn’t believe he did it all himself. “He had some others involved, like for the footings,” he says.

When designing a room, Shannon says, “I like to bring in elements that are unexpected – hence an indoor swing and the occasional use of exterior lights indoors.”

Whatever the details were, this much is certain: When Jan and Steve’s mother, Jeanette Fearrington, died two years ago, Shannon stepped up to buy the home before they could put it on the market. It needed updates, so she initiated a renovation. Shannon wanted to modernize it but keep its 1960s soul and story. “I intend to keep it intact in terms of architectural style and do that as economically as possible,” she says.

Shannon’s no stranger to home design and construction. She was heavily involved in the development of her former home in Chapel Hill. “I helped design a custom home with an architect 10 years ago – a contemporary, barn-style house on 10 acres,” she says. “I have an appreciation for details like exposed rafters, mitered corners on siding instead of corner boards, and high- pitched rooflines.”

With the Franklin Street home, she and her contractor had their work cut out for them. The foundation, roof trusses and bones were solid, but there were serious issues elsewhere. “Copper pipes had led to many microleaks behind the walls, so there was actually a lot of mildew in areas with water connections,” she says.

To date, she’s only updated the main level, with the basement to follow. Interior walls around the stairs have been removed, while drywall and subflooring near water connections have been replaced. The original Lennox furnace in the basement was replaced with a modern unit in the attic. They replaced and widened the stairs to meet code, added a new master bath configuration and updated the hall bath.

“In terms of the footprint, the old ‘family room’ became the dining room, and I reconfigured the entry from the garage into the home by moving the doorway over to enter the home via the utility room,” she says. “An additional three feet were taken from both sides of the garage, on one side to expand the kitchen and [on] the other side for a new mechanical room for the furnace.”

Her material palette consists of hardwood flooring, shiplap siding, wood cabinetry and painted wood floors. “I chose finishes in a way that I won’t have to update anything, even 10 years from now,” she says. “I used modern, neutral and classic tones that are not too bold in finish, color or pattern – I typically chose Farrow & Ball colors for interiors.” She leaned on local vendors from Ferguson BathKitchen & Lighting Gallery and Kitchen & Bath Galleries to Sherwin Williams and Fitch Lumber & Hardware for fixtures and supplies.

Outside, she’s cleaned up the landscape, tearing out 50-year-old shrubs with roots the size of tree trunks, replacing the flower beds and trimming the vegetation. She painted the exterior, power-washed the patio, replaced decking and windows, and added a new path to the front door.

In the kitchen, Shannon chose light colored cabinets and quartz countertops to brighten up the space and picked subway tile backsplash laid in a herringbone pattern.

Her vision for the lower level is to convert the existing garage space into a music room for her college-age son, Carter, who’s a drummer, and add an office and another room that can be used as a family room, bedroom or as part of an in-law suite.

“My intent is to maximize the use of a furnished in-law suite as a flex space, suitable for my guests or for short- or long-term rental possibilities,” she says. “When my kids are [both] off to college, I could also envision using the in-law suite myself, in order to live part of the year abroad and renting out the upper level as a short-term, furnished rental.”

Shannon painted the original brick fireplace black for a dramatic effect.

Whatever the outcome, Jan and Steve fully approve of what Shannon’s doing with the home they grew up in. “She has a really good appreciation for it and has brought it to a whole other level,” Jan says.

“I’m amazed at what Shannon is doing with it,” Steve says. “It needed a facelift, and it’s really getting one now.”
More than that, it’s getting a new lease on life. 

Before & After
Shannon took great care when making decisions during the renovation. “For this home, it felt important to maintain its 1960s character as it was being modernized [as] I didn’t want it to become an unrecognizable version of its former self,” she says. When it came to paint, Shannon gravitated to light and medium shades as she prefers wall colors to harmonize, and she filled the home with meaningful items.

Shannon replaced the rotted decking and power-washed the original brick patio and retaining wall. “This exterior space is quite charming so it quickly became a favorite spot when the kids have friends over,” she says.

For the front of the property, Shannon trimmed trees and replaced older shrubs with smaller plants that would not obscure the view through windows or entrances. The roof, windows, gutters and garage door were replaced, too.

“I chose to paint the exterior brick and large fascia boards [a] light color in order to visually create more height to the home. There are additional landscaping and other exterior improvements still planned,” she says.

For her bathroom, Shannon says she removed extra walls and a closet to open up the space and kept all plumbing in its existing location to save on costs. She splurged on a curbless shower to maximize the footprint and create an uninterrupted visual flow. “The 1960s-style vanity is a nod to the home’s age, and I chose a natural alderwood piece to add warmth,” she says.

The author writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Metropolisand Dwell magazines. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand,” and editor and publisher of a digital design magazine at architects andartisans.com.

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