After nearly a decade of home renovations, Ali Givens and husband Mort O’Sullivan have finally settled into their 1970s brick ranch in Hillsborough
By Marie Muir | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Ali Givens was driving down Old N.C. Hwy. 10 with a friend in 2011 when she spotted a “for sale” sign planted on Mijos Lane. Her curiosity grew as her eyes followed the sign up a swooping driveway lined with cottonwood trees. A charming 1970s-built brick ranch house sat undisturbed at the top of the hillside.
Ali, an artist and educator, and her husband, Mort O’Sullivan, an entrepreneur, were looking to buy a new home in Hillsborough to raise daughters Patterson O’Sullivan and Tallulah O’Sullivan and son, Gilly O’Sullivan, then all under the age of 13. They had no intention of leaving the county seat, the place where they bought their first home and had lived happily for nearly a decade.
Luckily, they didn’t have to go far after stumbling upon the four-bedroom, three-bathroom house just southeast of Hillsborough. Back in the 1970s, the 10-acre property adjoined a horse ranch. And before that, the land was owned and occupied by the Strayhorn family for two centuries. The 1750s-era home burned in the 1950s in a chimney fire and all that remains of the original dwelling are a few chimney stones and centennial trees still standing.
Not long after spotting the home, the Givens-O’Sullivan family bought it. After living there for six months, Ali and Mort came to the same conclusions about its shortcomings: It lacked natural light, views of the surrounding landscape, sheltered outdoor living spaces, a swimming pool and an art studio for Ali. In 2012, they completed the first phase of major renovations, tacking on a bedroom, two bathrooms, two half-baths and porches. They also raised ceilings and built two towers to gain access to a loft, add natural light and mark the home’s entrance.
Ali and Mort cite the book “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein as inspiration for the house’s design. The book shares floor plans that are functional and safe at every scale, even if that means going against trends. For example, the authors encourage building large public sitting rooms for gathering in during the day and small bedrooms – rather than giant ones – in order to give a family a feeling of security at nighttime.
“This house is a compilation of many patterns,” Ali explains. “Sheltering roof. Light from two sides. A kitchen that’s highly functional, rather than really pretty.”
Ali and Mort worked with California-based architect Seth Brookshire and Martha Mason Architecture in Burlington, North Carolina, over the span of a year to reconstruct the house and absorb three garages into the home’s interior floor plan. Five years after the first phase of renovations, Durham-based architect Ellen Weinstein added an enclosed outdoor swimming pool and entertainment space. Visitors have a stunning view of the square-shaped pool as they enter the front door from the side of the house and walk down a window-filled corridor bathed in natural light. The pool area is the largest living space and has played host to Carolina Friends School graduation parties and birthday celebrations.
Today, guests of the Givens-O’Sullivan family are greeted by two fluffy dogs, Rafa, a 9-year-old labradoodle, and Kipper, a 4-year-old cavapoo. They are also welcomed by the family of sheep statues grazing in the meadow. Commissioned by Durham-based sculptor and friend Brian Mergenthaler as a Christmas present, the five stone sheep represent each family member: Ali, Mort, Patterson, now 24, Gilly, 22, and Tallulah, 13. Really though, Ali and Mort could add a few more sheep to the flock since Ali’s sister, Celine Givens, and her six children moved into their own house on the far side of the property in 2012. The two families gather frequently in Ali and Mort’s large gathering spaces. “Mort and I always love to host, so we don’t mind,” Ali says. “We tend to end up here, mostly because we built the house to accommodate huge groups more than anybody else.”
Born in Alabama, Ali’s family lived in the Cayman Islands for a few years during her childhood. Brightly painted houses and palm trees filled her developing mind with color. By the time she was in high school, Ali was back in the States in Pensacola, Florida – the place where she met and became fast friends with Mort. After graduating from New College of Florida, the couple lived in New York City with Ali working at The Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Mort pursued a career in the banking industry. In 1997, the couple moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, for a year where he studied brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University. Upon their return to New York, Mort founded ARCA – a technology company that makes cash recyclers, systems that automate the process of accepting and dispensing cash, for banks. Today, ARCA is headquartered in Mebane, North Carolina, and Italy.
In 2000, Ali and Mort moved to Pittsboro to be closer to family living in the Southeast. It was here, in a class taught by Susan Powell at the now-closed Thimble Pleasures Quilt Shop in Chapel Hill, where Ali’s imagination was truly liberated. Ali’s sister, Celine, had first introduced her to traditional quilting, but in class, she learned how to “break the rules” by using thread to outline drawings that secure fabric in place. Yards of brightly colored batiks and scraps of silks suddenly became blank canvases for her still lifes and live-action compositions.
“I’ve learned how to do printing, I paint the fabrics and I do dyeing – so it’s all my own voice,” Ali says. “Also recently, I’ve started incorporating photography as well.”
Ali’s artwork is inspired by patterns and colors of the world and intimate corners of life at home. She uses fabric and paint to create scenes, both real and imaginary. Whether it’s a vase filled with peacock feathers and lilies or a larger-than-life mermaid taking on the big city, her art is warm, evocative and uniquely her own. There’s no denying that art influences the interior design of their home and that each room has been thoughtfully stitched together.
At the end of the entrance corridor, a 4-by-6 textile composition titled “Here Comes the Sun,” depicts a sun puppet in the Hillsborough Handmade Parade and shares a warm smile with all who enter. Exposed beams showcase where an original wall was capped and expanded upward with reclaimed wood from a former factory in Durham.
“I think the main spirit of this house is trying to make people feel welcome,” Ali says. “Sincerely, you can break stuff. You can scratch stuff. The space has beautiful light, and it has a wonderful feeling. We’d rather live in [the house] than have it be perfect. I love that. And I love changing things. So, the minute something gets threadbare and worn, I just do it.”
Rose-colored couches in the living room are accompanied by an old feeding trough filled with folded quilts and a coffee table, crafted by eldest daughter Patterson, out of walnut trees that were felled to build the pool. The heart-pine floors were salvaged from an old house in Pittsboro before it was torn down while the impressive light fixture suspended above the kitchen table was welded out of a piece of upcycled glass that Ali found. The bedroom doors, each painted a unique color, are antiques she picked up in Hillsborough.
“I love to use recycled materials, salvaging and finding cool parts of things that I can remake into things.” Every piece of furniture, decor and art has a story that Ali reveals with joy – as if she’s discovering the piece again for the first time. The juxtaposition of hard and soft materials and colors point to the family’s elevated style and sense of humor. “It’s serious enough, but I love fun touches,” Ali says with a chuckle. Like the stove in the kitchen – she had 190 colors to choose from and landed on the same yellow shade as a school bus.
Another intentional detail is that every bedroom has an attached screened porch. Ali describes them as an extension of each bedroom. “This porch has a bed built in, and [Patterson] slept out there all through high school.”
Outdoors, a massive pecan tree watches over the front porch, which serves as a living and dining area all year round. Garden designer Melissa Kruger selected many of the other plants from euphorbia to yucca. Four buildings behind the house serve their own purposes: Two are Airbnb houses managed by Ali, the third is an old open-air barn converted into her textile workshop and lastly, an enormous air-conditioned art studio was built in 2020.
A decade and multiple renovations later, Ali says she appreciates the home’s connection to nature and its location. “We love that this house opens at every point to the outside,” Ali says. “We spend a lot of time outside. This property backs up to Duke Forest. There are trails all behind us. And we’re close to Triangle Land Conservancy hiking trails. There’s a lot of walking out here.”