Blended house works well for brother, sister in Winston-Salem

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When Carol O’Keefe’s husband, Dennis, died from cancer in 2008, she decided it was time to relocate from the Boston area. She was an office manager with Staples, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

“I asked my (financial) advisor one day if he thought I could retire. He said I was in good shape financially and there wouldn’t be any problem,” O’Keefe said.

Since Dennis and Carol had no children, it seemed like a good idea for Carol to move closer to family. That family was John Farmer, her brother, and Kristin Farmer, her sister-in-law, who have a home and organ-restoration company on six acres on Fraternity Church Road.

The company has been featured for its work restoring the Hook & Hastings Organ at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Winston Salem. The inaugural recital will be in November.

“I thought I would buy some land nearby and build a home over there,” said O’Keefe, pointing to the east side of the home. But John told her that he would rather walk downstairs to pick her up than roll down the hill in a wheel chair to help her.

The siblings have lot in common — including a sense of humor and the same birth date, Jan. 4. John is 64 and Carol is 69.

So Carol lives in the lower level of the Farmer home. She worked with the John, Kristin and the contractor, Lawrence Cline, to re-imagine the area. Stored organ pipes had to be moved to a barn.

Some plumbing had already been installed in the lower level. John had been thinking of inviting his mother, Mildred, who had Alzheimer’s, to stay with them. But she died in 2001. When Carol moved to North Carolina in 2011, she stayed upstairs with the Farmers while the remodel was designed and executed.

She worked with the plumbing that was already in place. She has a large walk-in shower and no bathtub. “I don’t take baths,” Carol said.

She has an office with built-in bookshelves and a computer set-up with a half curtain covering utility boxes. In one corner of her lower-level home she has curtained off an unfinished area for storage and a work space for her bead-jewelry hobby.

Her bedroom, with a large bay window, looks onto a sloping lawn below. With its bright lemon yellow and gold walls, paneled windows, modern granite countertop kitchen, living room and dining area, her new home defies the word “basement.”

The two households have melded but still retain unique identities. Upstairs is the three-bedroom home designed by John and Kristin, who doodled their ideas on a paper pad before starting the construction.

The couple are empty nesters with two daughters living in Asheville and one daughter in Silver Spring, Md. They have a 3-year-old grandson, Andersen, evidenced by the red high chair in the dining area.

The house is a Southern farm style with red-cedar siding and porches on every side.

“With the covered porches, the upstairs is about 4,000 square feet. The downstairs is around 1,400 square feet,” John said.

Pinewood floor boards are secured with square nails. The upstairs has a lodge-like feel with white-oak posts and beams secured with mortise, tenon joints and oak pegs. John did much of the construction himself. The home is evidence of a craftsman who makes his living in wood building and restoring wooden cases for organs.

Throughout the upstairs are samples of Kristin’s craft — faux painting — a skill that is also key to the family business.

Two pine stair cases are painted to look like marble. A metal door is painted to look like mahogany. The give-away is a metal clip that clings to this surreal “wood.”

Kristin uses her skills in faux painting and stenciling when the company gets a commission to restore 19th-century organ cases and pipes.

Created in lower-weight pine wood, many old pipe organs were faux-painted to look like more expensive woods.

Sharing the same home has its advantages.

“When one of us goes on vacation, the other one watches the dogs,” said Carol. Her dog, Jasper, and the Farmer’s dog, Jack, roam with abandon on the rolling landscape around the home — a happy life for two rescue dogs.

“And when we entertain, it’s usually together,” John said. “We might start with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in Carol’s home and then move upstairs for the main course.” On ordinary days the three may share cooking duties and sit on the lower-level patio outside Carol’s home enjoying the view of her gardening skills.

“We are not yard people,” said Kristin Farmer. They told Carol she had a blank slate.

Carol, a member of the Advance Garden Club, has designed and planted two large, rock-encircled gardens on the lawn, a rock garden near the patio and an herb garden near the barn where Kristin works on pipe restoration.

She planted a mini orchard with blueberry bushes, pears, plums, figs, persimmon, bush cherries, goji berries and mulberry.

Carol pays her portion of the electric, cable and phone bills — and for all of the landscaping. She paid for a barn to be built so the organ pipes that were stored in the basement would have a new home. She financed her remodeled home downstairs and does not pay rent.

Inside and outside, upstairs and downstairs, the house is filled with plants. Some sit on Carol’s porch waiting to be planted.

“These” she said, pointing to bee balm and other nectar-producing plants, “are going into the bee garden.”

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