The Nolinthas’ historic home in downtown Raleigh is a sanctuary for joy and healing.
Inside Van and Vanvisa Nolintha’s red brick, American foursquare-style home in the Prince Hall Historic District, the walls are all painted white.
That was intentional, says Van, who, with his younger sister, owns and manages downtown’s celebrated Laotian restaurant Bida Manda, and Bhavana, the brewery-bookshop located next door. Van wanted the home’s plain walls to absorb the yellow-orange glow of sunrises, and the apricot-purple hues of sunsets, that flow in each morning and evening through the home’s assorted historic and contemporary windows.
“One of the most important design principles to us is lighting,” Van says. “We really wanted to allow light to guide the experience of the place.”
The house, built in 1922, was once a home office to Dr. William F. R. Clark, a physician who served the historically African American neighborhood beginning in the 1950s. When the Nolinthas purchased the home at auction in 2015, it had fallen into disrepair.
In Situ Studio, a local architecture firm, came onboard to design and create an open, airy, modern space out of the crumbling mortar, rotting walls and oddly subdivided interior rooms that characterized the home’s prior condition. Van imagined a tranquil retreat that provided a respite from a busy work schedule, but one that could also function as a gathering space for friends, family and entertaining.
“The house has a remarkable history of healing,” he says. “That was important to us and aligned with our intention for it to be a healing place from a hectic public life.”
The experience of the home begins on the sidewalk lining the modest front yard, where, through a wide, glass-paneled front door, you’re struck by a piece of artwork hanging on a wall directly behind the entryway. The idea is for the wall to be a gallery-like display space for rotating pieces and visible to outdoor passersby. Now, a golden square—two painted wooden doors, superimposed with the photographic image of a woman’s face—adorns the space. It’s Raleigh artist Tim Lytvinenko’s portrait of his late mother, Nellie, a shimmering homage to her memory.
To the left of the wall is a staircase, at the bottom of which coils the end of a long chain made up of thousands of bottle caps. To the right of the wall, an original brick fireplace, decorated with candles and a walking Buddha statue, runs up to the ceiling, an altar in the temple-like home.
White oak floors wind into an open living room, minimally decorated with blue and white sofas, a marble-slab coffee table and a vast wall of bookshelves laden with baskets and pottery, literature and cookbooks. Tall window-doors that lead out to a garden and covered porch, above which hovers a small upper-level addition, frame out the space in the back.
The Nolinthas spend most of their time in this contemporary-looking living room on the right side of their home but, despite its modern feel, relics of the past peek out at every turn. The home’s exterior brick walls were painstakingly restored under guidance from a city board, the Raleigh Historic District Commission (RHDC).
“The bricks on the outside were really sacred for [RHDC] because they used a particular, unique type of mortar,” Van explains. “So the walls are all original, that we salvaged, and we were really trying to honor what’s old and contrast it with what’s obviously new. We left the back of the fireplace raw and unfinished, and allowed it to be a sculpture. It’s this beautiful bone to the past.”
The spacious posterior kitchen, a natural gathering area for guests, is perfect for a pair of professional restaurateurs and avid entertainers. There’s a wide walkway between the cooktop, counter and window overlooking the garden, and a block-like island containing the sink and offering even more counter surface. China, artwork and textiles collected during the Nolinthas’ world travels draw the eye, while flowers and plants—including a 20-year-old Philodendron—proffer subtle touches of beauty and color.
“Plants and living things were really important as we were growing up. Mom always had flowers in the house and it impacted our emotions and feelings and psychology and how we lived each day,” Van says. “As Buddhists, whenever we put flowers out, it’s an offering to the space, so it’s our offering to the home and its memory.”
Following two decades of staying with relatives and in various apartments after they immigrated to North Carolina from Laos, this home is the first the Nolinthas have ever owned. Now, they have their own separate bedroom suites upstairs, as well as a guest room suite for visitors. It took two years to design and renovate, but the pair finally moved in in March of 2017, the same week that Brewery Bhavana—which also underwent an extensive renovation—opened its doors.
Van recalls the time as a pivotal one, the beginning of an intimate new relationship between his work and home lives. For Vanvisa, the home represents a sense of permanence.
“Six or seven years ago, I was supposed to move back to Laos,” she says. “I never had it in my head that we were going to buy a house or move into a house together. And when I first saw it, I could never imagine it would look like this. We came a very long way.”
Vanvisa delights in meeting neighbors who still have stories of visiting Dr. Clark at his medical practice in the home so many years ago. The siblings are thrilled, and humbled, they say, to have been welcomed warmly to the neighborhood.
“Our neighbors are really generous and I think they’re happy we’re building roots, really committing to the neighborhood and a community that has been fluid for so long,” he says. “I’ve always been attracted to things that have memories and a history. In our home, there is so much to discover about the past. Honoring that and instilling our own style and our interpretation of its future is fascinating. It’s been a really meaningful journey.”