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by Katherine Poole | photography by Smith Hardy
Chris and Jessica Gotwalt were not looking for their dream home. The couple, high school sweethearts from Florida, had moved to Raleigh a few years earlier so Chris could pursue a Ph.D. in statistics at N.C. State. Then, one afternoon, the two were taking a walk in Historic Oakwood and happened upon a house. “I had just finished graduate school. I had not even received a paycheck from my first job and we stumbled into this open house,” says Chris Gotwalt. “And that was it. We were in! We had no money—”
“We had no business buying a house!” Jessica Gotwalt interjects. “We were kids! We had no idea what we were getting into.” Still, they purchased the home in 2003. “We couldn’t believe we did it, but it was just such an incredible house,” says Jessica Gotwalt.
Built in 1875, the home was designed in Greek Revival style. Then in 1893—in typical Victorian fashion—it was expanded. “It was Queen Anne-ified,” says Chris Gotwalt, with the addition of the witch’s turret and an octagonally-shaped room. The house has since gone through many renovations, including a major overhaul in the early 1990s. At the time, the house was condemned—for the renovation, its then-owner took it down to the studs. Today, the only original interior elements remaining are the fireplaces, a piece of decorative trim and, technically, the hardwood floors. These were so badly damaged that the planks had to be taken up and turned over to preserve them.
The Gotwalts moved in with their meager pieces of IKEA furniture and, as Chris Gotwalt says, “it evolved from there.” Jessica Gotwalt works in the financial services industry by day, but by night and on weekends, she is a self-trained interior designer, DIY-er, seamstress and upholsterer. “It’s a hobby-slash-obsession,” her husband jokes. The couple, guided by Jessica Gotwalt’s instinctive eye for design, have decorated the home completely on their own. They’ve painted, trimmed, recovered, refinished and touched up. They’ve also gilded, a lot—Jessica Gotwalt has a thing for gilding. They’ve sourced all the furniture and decor themselves, collecting pieces from flea markets, thrift stores, antique shops, estate sales and frequent travels abroad.
Each room of the home has its own personality, brimming with color, pattern, texture and many incarnations of animals—Jessica Gotwalt also has a thing for animals—not just in a print, but in sculptural form, too. Lovingly curated, these rooms tell the Gotwalts’ story. The living room features a collection of framed insects and butterflies accumulated over many trips to Asia. (Jessica Gotwalt’s brother lives in Hong Kong.) A large built-in cabinet in the dining room showcases the couple’s collection of vintage barware picked up from markets all over the world. Each piece of furniture in the home has a history, like the living room sofas rescued from a neighborhood yard sale. Each item of decor has meaning: a statue they call Laundry Buddha, for example, was lugged across Southeast Asia wrapped in a protective cocoon of dirty clothes.
Chris Gotwalt praises his wife for their welcoming, eclectic, highly personal home. “Jess deserves all the credit for this. This is all her vision. She makes it happen,” he says. And she is not done yet—she probably will never be. “It’s a joke among our friends, that every time they come over, the living room is a different color,” says Jessica Gotwalt. (True to form, when we showed up for the shoot, she had a newly acquired chandelier in a box, waiting to be installed, and a roll of wallpaper on the way.) “This home is a passion project,” says Jessica Gotwalt. And—from top to bottom—it shows.