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This Old House … is this new office

Vintage homes make distinctive spaces for law firms

This is the second installment of a two-part series on attorneys who work from unconventional office spaces.

The Bailey-Tucker House, a two-story colonial revival brick home built just across the street from the Governor’s mansion in Raleigh in 1917, is rich in history. Former Gov. Jim Hunt used it as a guest home—Andy Griffith was said to be particularly fond of it—and as more or less an extension of his official office in the mansion.

When the state put the house up for sale in 2015, Duane Hall, a real estate attorney, decided to buy it and convert it into his new office. He’s one of a number of attorneys who have found that old homes can find new lives as office spaces that create a welcoming environment for clients and attorneys alike. As in the Bailey-Tucker House, an old living room can turn into a spacious waiting room, a dining room into a conference room. The attorneys’ offices, up the grand staircase, had previously been the guests’ bedrooms.

McAllister's office

McAllister’s office

Unsurprisingly, such restoration is not the low-cost option, and businesses pay premiums to occupy such distinctive spaces. But Hall, who helps defray the cost by renting out office space in the house to two other attorneys, said that for him the house is an investment, and the benefits of working in such a space more than make up for the added expense.

“People feel more comfortable here. It’s not as sterile as the normal type of office,” Hall said. “Almost every person that comes in, they get relaxed and they start looking at the house … the kitchen still looks like it did when guests would stay here.”

In the garden of good and evil

If the local community lacks a rich stock of old houses in want of restoration, another option is to simply purpose-build one from scratch. When Ken McAllister built a new office for his law firm in High Point, finished in 2003, he modeled it after the architecture of the famous Mercer House in Savannah, Georgia. The historic home is perhaps best known as the setting for the movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” which McAllister quipped might also be an appropriate name for a law office.

McAllister said he looked at many historic buildings when planning the construction, but fell in love with the Mercer House, which was built in 1868 in an Italian architectural style (from the outside, it bears a passing resemblance to the Bailey-Tucker House, actually). Clients generally assume that the building is a restoration, at which point McAllister explains the building’s history to them.

The office’s exterior is modeled directly on the Mercer House, and the interior incorporates old-style wood flooring and a wrought-iron staircase. McAllister said that he designed the interior of the office with an eye toward making it an inviting place to work. (He also noted that unlike its inspiration, no one has been shot there—yet.)

“We have very tall ceilings. It was important to me that everybody have ample light for our own mental health,” McAllister said. “It’s not quite as modern, but the layout, I think, is good. It’s somewhere in between someone working out of an old house and working out of a new office building.”

Outside the marble palace

Stroll along the rectangular grid streets of southwest Raleigh, on the diagonally opposite end of town from the Bailey-Tucker House, and you’ll see plenty of charming old houses that have been converted into office space for a variety of small businesses, including law offices. A modest white house with an old-fashioned second-story balcony hosts New Direction Family Law, a three-attorney firm.

Jennifer Bordeaux, the firm’s director of public relations, said that the firm moved into the space in June 2016, having previously occupied traditional office space in a downtown high-rise. She said that when the firm was looking for new space, it looked at both converted houses and at more industrial locations before finding its current home.

Hall's office

Hall’s office

“Some bigger law firms can have that marble palace kind of feel. For us, that wasn’t our M.O. We wanted the space to feel welcoming and warming, and just be de-stressing,” Bordeaux said. “We feel like we’re coming to a second home. I think it helps build that camaraderie for us.”

Bordeaux said that the location does present some technological issues with the way things are wired, and is a little pricey because of its location, but on the whole the firm has been very happy there. The conference room is a former dining room, with furniture still in place. The aesthetic is soothing and encourages clients to open up more, which is especially important for family law practitioners, she said.

The attorneys lease their current space, but eventually want to be able to purchase. As it happens, the firm has grown more quickly than expected, and is now scouting out new, larger spaces. The plan is that the next office will also be an old home.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

 

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