It takes a special person to see something not for what it is, but for what it has the potential to become.
Saxapahaw, an unincorporated village nestled between Chapel Hill and Burlington, is filled with people like this.
Mac Jordan is one of them. His family has lived here for more than five decades and owned the mill for a large part of that time.
Jordan hasn’t simply witnessed a lot of change over the course of his years here. He’s the one driving it — and for the better — by revitalizing Saxapahaw’s once dilapidated mill complex and converting it into a space that’s not only functional, but also livable, made beautiful by the people who call it home.
What was once a small but bustling textile community in the earlier half of the 20th century, Saxapahaw unraveled just as quickly as its backbone industry did.
“At its peak in the late ’60s, the mill employed over 300 people, and the area was alive with numerous family farms, churches, schools, and small businesses,” Jordan says. “By the mid-1990s after the mill closed, nearly all were gone or struggling.”
Before the mill finally closed in 1994, Jordan and his family realized that once manufacturing did cease there, it would not return. For modern manufacturers, it simply would not be convenient to have a facility, which is approximately 300,000 square feet, in a rural village.
Jordan, who studied urban renewal and public policy at Duke University and architecture at North Carolina State University, began to look at precedent renovation projects occurring in urban areas around the state as examples for what he hoped to accomplish at the mills. Industrial revitalization was a relatively new concept at the time, but Jordan knew he wanted to convert the mill into a mixture of lofts, apartments, and businesses.
“It was pretty ambitious and risky, and just about everybody thought we were crazy because of our location and the scale of trying to renovate a complex of this size,” Jordan says.
For Jordan’s dream to come into fruition, the project would require hefty funding, but no conventional bank would touch it. Still, Jordan persisted.
He even converted an old office space in the lower mill into a makeshift apartment for himself, the lone member of the mill’s unofficial on-site security, where he camped out for a couple of years to protect the space from vandals.
“That presence I think was necessary, and I was young and single, so I could do it,” Jordan says with a laugh.
The decision to move forward with the project despite complications was an easy one.
“I believed in what I felt I was called to do,” he says. “I really didn’t see any other future. The one I saw was of decline and desolation.”
To turn the mill into a place where people would want to live, Saxapahaw would need to become a place where they could once again envision a life, a holistic one with modern-day conveniences.
“We didn’t just want to be a bedroom suburb community to Chapel Hill,” Jordan says. “We wanted a vibrant, sustainable, local village economy.”
During the planning stages, Jordan’s family was approached by a group of educators from Chapel Hill about opening a charter school in part of the upper mill, where the dye house and cotton mill were once located. That marked the beginning of what has since become the thriving River Mill Village.
The River Mill Academy, which now houses The Hawbridge School, and the Saxapahaw General Store were the first businesses to open in the late 1990s. The River Mill Village has grown to include a butcher, microbrewery, The Eddy Pub, and The Haw River Ballroom among other businesses. Everything you could possibly need is right here.
“The less time in the car, the less time you’re running here and yonder, the better,” Jordan says.
In 1998, Jordan was able to secure a place for the former spinning mill on the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for tax breaks.
Thanks to the breaks and a bank loan, construction began on the lower mill in 2004, transforming the space into 75 apartment and townhouse units.
But the crowned jewel of the entire complex is the Sissipahaw Lofts, which are located in the upper mill and overlook the Haw River. Construction on these 29 modern and eco-friendly condominium units was completed last year.
There’s quite the mix of both longtime and new Saxapahaw residents who live in the lofts. It doesn’t matter so much when they got to Saxapahaw, so long as they’re here now.
Cynthia and Gijs van Staveren and their 15-year-old daughter Glennie moved here from Burlington in December after Glennie was admitted to the charter school.
Cynthia had always dreamed about living in a modern home, but Gijs wasn’t sold on the idea at first, believing that a converted industrial space would feel cold and inaccessible, but their loft is far from it.
“While it’s not a very big space, it doesn’t feel like a small space,” Cynthia says. “It’s kind of liberating to be here, to be honest.”
For every feature of this home, there’s another to balance it out.
The deep russet shade of the kitchen ceiling, made from reclaimed wood, provides a striking contrast to the white cabinets and stainless steel appliances.
Angular, white, wooden beams beautifully frame the open living room and upstairs loft.
There’s the back wall that almost isn’t — it’s essentially a giant window from which the light pours in all directions.
And of course, it passes the litmus test that determines whether a house is truly a home: It’s comfortable enough to make you want to take your shoes off.
“It feels good on your feet,” Cynthia says of the concrete floors. “You want to walk around barefoot all the time.”
“Even in the winter,” Gijs adds.
“We just decluttered our life, and it was great,” Cynthia says, alluding to the fact that their loft only has two closets. But in a way, her statement can be applied more generally to sum up what it’s like to live in this village.
Whether you ask the van Staverens or the Jordans or anyone here, for that matter, to describe this town they love immeasurably, they’ll all use the same words.
Healing. Retreat. Rest.
And you begin to feel these things, too.
There’s a quote from the children’s book The Big Orange Splot painted above the community-sharing shelf outside of the general store.
“Our village is us and we are it. Our village is where we want to be and it looks like all our dreams.”
Saxapahaw, in two sentences.
Presented by Andrew Roby
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