The House Next Door

28 Nov 2021

The very personal journey of downsizing

By Elizabeth Sugg »  Photos by Brandon Williams

Happily-ever-after came to a standstill for Tess Gillespie when her husband died eight years ago. An out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis robbed Bill Gillespie of his twilight years, and he spent the last months he had faithfully making use of his economics degree to set the course for a life without him as the financial rudder for his wife and children. Both originally from Massachusetts, when the couple moved to Pinehurst from Florida in 2004, they built a house on a lot that had a small guest cottage. It’s where the two lived while construction took place on what would become the main house on the property. Their life began in Pinehurst in the house next door.

What has become a haven, a cozy cottage in miniature to Gillespie was a forlorn guest quarters when Bill and she bought the property “It was rented the first time we were here looking. I didn’t even go in!” Gillespie says with a laugh. Now this delightful dwelling has become a two-fold blessing — the upstairs a one-bedroom space with a small kitchen and bath, perfect for visits home for her adult children, and the 820-square-foot downstairs where Gillespie planned every square inch of her downsize from the main house to the place that she seemed destined for after Bill’s death.

“When he was sick, he asked me to wait a year to make a decision on the house, and he encouraged me to never sell the small one, that it could always be a source of income,” shares Gillespie.

One year became three years. And during that time while the guest house was rented, Gillespie was living in the main house, rarely eating at a table, preferring to simply curl up on the couch. Life became mechanical inside the house where once life had once been so full. One day Gillespie asked herself, “Why would I live here?” So the decision was made to sell the main residence that she and Bill had built, and keeping her promise, she split the property in the sale and the guest house became her home.

“My little house was always the happy house. It’s where we started out, and there’s no sickness or sadness there,” Gillespie explains.

The downsizing from a 3,200-square-foot house to one a quarter of that size was a true reckoning for Gillespie as she continued to grapple with the loss of Bill. As she tackled the sorting of the house, she planned a three-prong sale and donation of the furniture and household items that wouldn’t move with her. First was a yard sale, the second an estate sale, and the third was a pickup from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.

Taking it in stages “gives you time to sort and time to process,” says Gillespie.

So Gillespie had the sales and diligently whittled down her belongings to a manageable size to move next door. Moving day arrived, and the couch she wanted to shift over wouldn’t fit in the front door, nor another key piece she had kept. Gillespie who had once owned a drapery business that sewed exclusively for Laura Ashley Home Furnishings — who knew to measure every square inch of a window and room, had not done so for the guest house itself; she had just managed the emptying of the main one. Grief had taken over her long history and know-how in textiles and fashion, plus the experience of all the moves the family had made through the years. She had been passing through time robotically, and now with movers at a standstill, furnishings not going through the door of the small house, Gillespie had a meltdown. The movers left, and she cried until she slowly began to gather herself.

And a new focus was born: to create a plan for the home she was returning to. Looking at the rooms with new eyes, she measured and began to figure out the best way to make sense of the spaces the small house offered. Remarkably the 820-square-feet has an entryway, a library, a living room, a kitchen, a master bedroom and sitting room, and a hallway that leads to the one bathroom and multipurpose closet. Each space is in miniature so every inch becomes real estate you can’t waste on things that don’t matter. Deconstructing the amount that accumulates through years of having a family was what Gillespie thought she had already accomplished with her three-prong approach moving from the main house, but this tiny abode was going to require even more paring back, and she began to curate and validate the inclusion of everything moved into it. It became the challenge that awoke a return to a life with purpose.

Rather than a couch in the living room, Gillespie pushed a fainting couch up against the wall to create an “end”. Bill had bought the piece when she was pregnant with their last child, and it was very definitely going to be part of her furnishings. To keep closet doors from opening into the space of each room, Gillespie took the doors off and used her sewing past to make beautiful fabric “doors” that could simply be pushed to the side. In the living room the furniture is upholstered in white to create a spacious feel, while in the library, a bold blue Ralph Lauren plaid creates a cozy air that blends with the bookshelves filled with family volumes and treasured reads.

“A sense of calm came to me,” Gillespie softly explains. “This was where I was supposed to be….and I still feel that.”

Downsizing is a journey. Couples may embark on doing so together, or the process may be prompted by the death of a spouse, age, or a time when life requires that transition. Throughout the photo collage of Gillespie’s home are ideas to earmark for when a simpler life beckons. For Gillespie the process freed her up to begin a new chapter in her life, in the happy home next door.

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