A Modern Update Inside the McNinch House

The site might be known for its period style, but an update to the second-story living quarters is a departure from the past

THE FIRST TIME Ellen Davis saw the 1892 Queen Anne-style home on North Church Street, the porch sagged, sunlight streamed in through holes in the roof, the brick chimneys threatened to topple over, and water damage permeated the walls, ceilings, and floors of every room. “It looked like (the previous owner) hadn’t done a single bit of work in the last 20 years,” she recalls.

Despite its roughshod appearance, Davis fell in love. She purchased the house in 1978, and set out to restore it. 

Davis updated the main level of the 6,000-square-foot home to create The McNinch House, an iconic fine dining restaurant in Fourth Ward celebrated for its menu as well as its period details.

In the restaurant, Davis restored the original carved wood moldings and fireplaces and chose rich paint colors, velvet draperies, and ornate chandeliers to reflect the era of the Victorian home. When it came time to do a recent redesign of her personal residence on the second floor, Davis took a different approach.

After living in the home for almost four decades, Davis decided the Victorian-era colors and furnishings no longer reflected her taste, and she set about redesigning her living quarters. The reimagined space is bright and modern, but retains the original layout and all of the period details.

“In the beginning, I had a grand idea of how beautiful it would be, and once I started working on it, I realized how much time, effort, and money it would take to do it right,” she says.

Davis sanded and refinished most of the woodwork on her own, including the mantels over four of the fireplaces on the second floor. To preserve an original carved architectural piece mounted from the ceiling in the narrow hall, she perched on the top rung of a ladder to scrub, sand, and stain the piece until its original grandeur was restored. Looking back, she admits, “It might not have been the safest thing to do, but I was determined to get it done.”

Ellen Davis owns The McNinch House restaurant, which serves an upscale tasting menu in a historic home. Few guests know that Davis herself lives upstairs. She meticulously restored both stories of the building.

Davis channeled the same determination into finding the furnishings and accessories for her home. The rooms are a mixture of metallics with pops of purple; whimsical accessories and modern artwork are prominent throughout the spaces.

Davis has scoured antique stores and markets to find beautiful plateware appropriate for the McNinch House dining room. 

The sitting room at the front of the house is painted a light lavender and outfitted with a pair of silver slipper chairs, a carved metallic table, and an oversized curved desk topped with a cut crystal lamp. Davis refers to the space, which overlooks North Church Street, as Mattie’s room.

“Mattie (McNinch, the last original owner of the home) used to look out the window and shout at people on the street not to park in front of the house,” Davis explains.

The colors from Mattie’s room are repeated in the front parlor, where a tufted sofa and a pair of Louis XVI chairs covered in peacock blue fabric are arranged around a purple, tufted ottoman—all pieces Davis found on one of her regular shopping expeditions to High Point. The tiles on one of the home’s nine original fireplaces were too damaged to salvage, so Davis chose one-inch tiles in a rich purple hue to match a favorite pair of shoes.

The master bedroom adjacent to the parlor features a curved, damask sofa in a light shade of pink, to match the pink-and-green ribbon tiles on the original fireplace. The ribbon details carry through to the mantel, which Davis spent countless hours refinishing. A dressing table—another find in High Point—has a black alligator finish and rhinestone accents. The bed—with its tufted leather headboard and rich purple bedding—is the centerpiece of the room and a great vantage point for admiring the eclectic collection of accessories that includes a ceramic pink flamingo on the mantel.

“I am really taken with flamingos,” Davis says. “I started with one, and they just kept multiplying.”

The city has changed around the McNinch House over the decades; the home was built in 1892.

Like most homes of its era, the McNinch House did not have a proper master bathroom. Davis transformed a nursery into a modern, spa-like retreat, complete with an expansive tile shower, claw-foot bathtub, ornate mirrors, and a crystal chandelier.

The kitchen, located in the former servants’ quarters, was one of the most difficult rooms to remodel. It’s one of the smallest rooms on the second floor, but it has six walls, two windows, a fireplace, and two doors. Getting the layout right required creative thinking.

“I got wine boxes (from the restaurant) and stacked them up where I thought the cabinets should go, to see how it would look,” she explains.

The resulting design includes two banks of cabinets and two separate furniture pieces from IKEA for additional storage. Davis painted the fireplace white and hung a vibrant painting of butterflies over the mantel to bring a pop of color into the gray-and-white room. A square Lucite table is a new addition to the space.

“I had the (Lucite) chairs, and, when I saw this table, I knew it would be perfect, but I thought it was too expensive,” she recalls. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I went back and bought it. I was right. It’s perfect in the kitchen.”

While Davis admits that she’ll never consider the house finished, she is pleased with how the latest changes updated her living quarters while maintaining the historical integrity of the home. “I’m responsible for making this place as pretty and as well-preserved as I can,” she says.

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