After three years at sea, a Charlotte couple builds their dream home along sentimental Selwyn Avenue.
by Caroline Portillo • photographs by Chris Edwards
production by Whitley Adkins • photography assistant: Rebecca Bridges
floral arrangements by Shelly St. Laurent of Foxglove Fine Flowers • makeup for Hodges Miller by Josiah Reed
In the stairwell outside Wade Miller’s home office is a map of the world. The map is dotted with yellow pushpins and string, which track a course from the Caribbean to the South Pacific, from French Polynesia to Australia — a journey by sailboat that Wade and his wife, Hodges, took from 2016 to 2019.
At sea, the couple discovered they could fish for their dinner, woo an island chieftain and anchor at port with minimal bickering. They also learned they could buy a lot and design a home from across the world — with a little help from Zillow, Pinterest and Charlotte-based Elite Design Group.
The result is a stunning, 21st-century take on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin house, known for its iconic prairie style of architecture, with plenty of sexy ’70s touches and details recalling the couple’s incredible travels: a framed photograph of a Tahitian man, covered head to toe in tattoos, in the downstairs half bath; a wall of intricate necklaces, gifts from locals in French Polynesia, in the couple’s dressing room; coffee- and cream-colored nautilus shells from New Caledonia perched on shelves lining either side of a large soaking tub.
“The whole experience of living on the water for three years shaped so much of who we are and our perspective on life, our thoughts on cultures and people — especially people who are different from us,” says Hodges, 40.
“We weren’t like, ‘Ooh, let’s bring Tahiti into the house,’” says Wade, 41. “It was a natural outgrowth.”
In true Frank Lloyd Wright fashion, the home was designed with a meditative approach to the environment: As you retreat upstairs on the floating staircase, it feels natural to pause at the expansive two-story window designed to showcase the lush oak tree outside. The waterfall-edged pool, its color reminiscent of the South Pacific waters, is lined with greenery and manicured hedges. An accordion glass wall opening off the kitchen offers a sense of connection to the outdoors — a seamless flow to the backyard and pool.
Inside, the décor is fresh and the art is playful. Consider the huge photograph from Burning Man that greets visitors when they walk in the front door, or the nearly life-size print of David Bowie that ushers you into the kitchen. A neon peace sign greets you at the bottom of the stairwell.
It’s also a home designed for the impact of the couple’s almost 2-year-old daughter, Mia. The sunken living room — a layout that offers intimacy in an open floor plan, Hodges says — has comfy oversized sofas and a large fireplace. And, as if plucked from every child’s dreams, a hidden door in the room’s walnut wood paneling reveals a secret playroom.
“We have friends with kids, and we noticed their living rooms are always covered with toys,” Wade says. “So we said, ‘Why not make a little space right off our living room that can be covered with toys, but we can shut the door when the grown-ups come over?’”
A U-turn and a dream
Selwyn Avenue has always held special significance to the Millers. Hodges, a Myers Park High School grad, grew up in a white brick colonial on the tree-lined street. And it was while driving down Selwyn with her best friend that she saw Wade for the first time.
“We saw this handsome man with no shirt on, running down the road, and my best friend said, ‘You need to pull over and talk to him.’” Hodges recalls. “So I pulled a U-turn and introduced myself.”
Wade grins: “My reaction was, ‘I guess this running thing is working.’”
But a couple of months later, over a picnic at Freedom Park, Wade was honest: He was planning to leave his native Charlotte for a while and travel the world by sailboat. If Hodges had no interest in ever leaving her land life, they probably shouldn’t continue dating.
Hodges was not only unfazed, she was game. Wade had gone on a brief sailing trip in college but had little experience at sea. So the two used tax return money to buy a used sailboat and took to the waters of Lake Norman. They joined a yacht club and learned the ropes from sailing veterans.
Meanwhile, Wade and Hodges also dabbled in mountain climbing and rappelling. They hiked Mount Rainier in Seattle. They summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest point in Africa. Then they made official their plans to set sail.
The couple upgraded to a 50-foot catamaran christened Coco de Mer, with four bedrooms, four bathrooms and a large bank of solar panels to run off the grid. Hodges left her corporate wellness job. Wade arranged to leave his custom homebuilding company, Copper Builders, in the hands of his best friend. And in 2016, as their two-year wedding anniversary approached, the newlyweds ventured out.
Around the world and back again
While at sea, Wade and Hodges witnessed an intimate portrait of countless cultures. They downloaded all of Wikipedia, thanks to a fellow sailor who had it on a flash drive (“Sailors are the worst pirates,” Hodges says). The online encyclopedia was invaluable for navigating local customs.
“In some countries, you would have to go and introduce yourself to the chief before you were allowed to lay on the beach,” Wade says. “You would go to the chief and bring a gift and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to spend time on your island. Is that OK?’” Those conversations often ended with a gift exchange, dinner and an unforgettable experience. Once, they spent three weeks on an island with no running water or electricity, eating and drinking with locals who made their own rice wine and farmed black pearls.
But while they were halfway across the world, Wade and Hodges were also thinking about their life back in Charlotte. When they returned, where would they want to live? So on rainy days — when they had internet service — the couple would get lost on Zillow. When they found the 0.7-acre lot on Selwyn, “it was pretty easy to think ‘this is the place for us,’” Hodges says.
Wade’s company would build the custom home, and he enlisted JJ Barja of Charlotte-based Elite Design Group to help design it. Wade remembers sitting on the boat in New Caledonia with his iPad, reviewing the architecture plans and marking them up with an Apple pencil before sending them back. The Millers officially started building in fall 2018 and moved in a little more than a year later.
Upstairs, the nursery is a playful mix of patterns, color and geometric shapes, from the gray-spotted wallpaper to the oval-shaped crib to the framed prints hanging above — artist Thom Pastrano’s modern interpretation of iconic Sesame Street characters. The couple spotted the prints in a gallery in Australia soon after they found out Hodges was pregnant.
In fact, much of the striking art displayed in the Miller family’s home was bought during their travels. They picked up Soledad Duran’s four Basquiat-inspired paintings, framed and displayed along the floating staircase, in Panama.
The Millers don’t fancy themselves as highbrow collectors. Some paintings and prints were bought, rolled up and carried with them on the boat. “We just see a piece we like and do our best to get our hands on it,” Wade says.
In the case of the David Bowie piece adorning the wall in the living room, Hodges spotted it in a rug advertisement. She then tracked down the artists, an international design duo known as Craig & Karl, who sent her a signed print.
While neutral walls help the living areas feel airy and spacious, pops of orange and teal — the colors of their sailboat — enliven every space. Wade’s home office is surrounded by teal-colored built-ins filled with travel books and nautical touches. But the space’s pièce de résistance: a teal 1965 Mustang convertible that’s housed in the adjoining room. Technically speaking, it’s the third-car garage. But the hardwood, temperature-controlled room with built-in shelves displaying miniatures of other classic cars make it feel like the kind of place you’d want to sip an Old Fashioned and unwind.
The housewares themselves are also a testament to the Miller’s love of travel. The orange stove is Italian. The kitchen cabinets are from the Czech Republic. The sparkling water on tap in the scullery? A luxe touch inspired by a coffee shop they visited in New Zealand.
‘The ocean is in our blood’
The couple sold their sailboat in 2019 in Australia, the last leg of their three-year journey. And though they still head to the beach for most vacations — “the ocean is in our blood,” Wade says — they aren’t planning another sailing trip for a few more years. These days, Hodges prefers scuba diving, and Wade, who’s taken up kitesurfing, is considering training for another trek up Mount Rainier.
But when the couple needs a more visceral reminder of life at sea, they walk past the pool to the corner of the backyard, where an outdoor shower shaded by a fig tree awaits. SP