Story of a House: A taste for living

by P. Gaye Tapp
photographs by Juli Leonard


The quintessential American interior decorator Billy Baldwin once said, “Great blends of pattern, like great dishes, must be carefully tasted. And constant tasting is what teaches a cook how to taste.”

Martha and Paul Michaels of Raleigh have developed their own taste in just this way, over many years, and in many houses. Today, they’ve achieved a near-perfect mix in their current home, which embraces food, family, friends, and art.

Martha is at the center of it all. She would agree that this latest home is her greatest: Instantly warm and welcoming, while managing to be elegant and refined. Martha can be described in much the same way.

The couple is known for their Southern hospitality, and she is considered an expert cook, so it’s no surprise that the heart of the house is its spacious, state-of-the-art kitchen, where guests congregate. An expansive central living room and works of art throughout the house are focal points; a comfortable breakfast room overlooks a broad covered porch with a dining and sitting area, and a walled garden lies just beyond.

It flows together beautifully, and that’s no accident, says Paul, an attorney with Michaels and Michaels P.A., whose confidence in his wife’s design sensibility is absolute. “Martha’s the daughter of an architect. She has a great eye for both art and design,” he says. “She knows what she likes instantly and has a great sense of proportion.”

Martha and Paul both have art in their DNA and strong ties to the arts community here. Paul has served as a founding member and first chair of the Friends of Arts N.C. State board of advisors and president of the board of advisors of the Friends of the Gregg Museum; Martha is a long-standing member of the Raleigh Fine Arts Society; and together they support the N.C. Museum of Art, CAM Raleigh, Artspace and other local arts organizations.

More than 25 years ago, when they married, the couple found sit-down dinners for the family essential, and today Martha’s daughters are quick to get in the kitchen and share their inherited love of cooking. With the addition of spouses and children, today a family meal means cooking for 16.

Though not formally trained, Martha knows what makes a good cook great: The best ingredients from local markets and good planning. She also has a few “must haves” for the kitchen – two dishwashers (to eliminate clutter) and a gas range with six burners. Recipes from the collection of cookbooks filling the kitchen bookcases provide inspiration.

Paul knows his way around the kitchen as well. Soon after marrying, the pair embarked on cooking classes designed for couples, and today Paul is often sous chef. On the rare night Martha wants to order a pizza, he always makes the call.

Of their many established traditions, a favorite is hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner at their beach house. The guest list is the same each year, and so is the menu. Martha prepares osso buco, which is one of her specialties, and Paul chooses the wine.

Entertaining at home 

When entertaining at their Country Club Hills home in Raleigh, their courtyard garden is the perfect setting. There is a sense of order to the green square of lawn surrounded by neat brick walks.  While the grandchildren most often use it as a racetrack, there are benches along the path for those more interested in taking in the view, which includes a bocce court – the site of many spirited games. This is the second house they have built with a court after falling in love with the game at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.

The house’s piece de resistance, however, is not outside, but the art throughout the house they’ve has collected over the years. Although they didn’t go about purchasing art for the sake of collecting, an impressive collection is precisely what they’ve created, and it has served as a fitting backdrop for receptions they have hosted for the Gregg Museum and the Raleigh Fine Arts Society.

Major purchases are agreed upon, and while he is drawn to the abstract, she prefers the figurative. A sun-washed gold and sienna palette dominates the first floor of the house and provides a seamless backdrop to the canvases, but the effect is not contrived. Describing their taste in art as homegrown, the two have confined most of their purchases to works by North Carolina artists. “Knowing so many of the North Carolina artists has been a bonus,” Paul says. Among them: Maud Gatewood, “with her dry humor and ever-present cigarette,” Thomas Sayre, whose “brawny work belies his artistic sensitivity,” and Mark Hewitt, who has “wonderful stories about creating his pottery.”

Paul and Martha Michaels have not stopped collecting, but they’re running out of room. The beach house is full of canvases, too, and they often have to give something up in order to add something new. Their children are often the beneficiaries, which makes it all come full circle.

It is apparent that for this couple, the canvases they own are a part of their lives and imbued with memory. Art is not just a matter of taste, it is a matter of home and family.