A Look Inside Three Modernist Homes in Durham

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Our cutting-edge home designs are the envy of the Triangle

Modernist homes in Durham
Photo by Louis Cherry

By J. Michael Welton

Durham’s pedigree for modern architecture is long, strong and enduring.

Consider the public realm: There’s George Milton Small’s 1957 Home Security Life building, once the city’s police headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street. A powerful piece of midcentury modern design, its future was uncertain for a time – but now it’s slated to be restored by the nationally known Fallon Company.

Its developers might look to downtown’s renovated Hill building on West Main Street for inspiration. It was designed in 1937 by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects for New York’s Empire State Building, and transformed in 2015 into the 21c Museum Hotel by Deborah Berke Partners. Deborah, a gifted modernist, is the first woman to lead the Yale School of Architecture.

Then there’s architect Perry Langston’s 1968 Home Savings Bank on East Chapel Hill Street. It was also updated in 2015 by Los Angeles-based Commune Design studio, which transformed it into the sparkling Durham Hotel with a rock star rooftop lounge. Rounding out this downtown trio of modern hotels is the once-empty-and-forlorn 1962 Jack Tar Motel, now reborn and rebranded as Unscripted Durham on North Corcoran Street near West Parrish Street.

Susan Brill Hershfield and Michael Hershfield
Photo by John Michael Simpson

But modernism on Durham’s residential front is alive and thriving, too. Nowhere is that more evident than at Cassilhaus, a 2009 breakthrough design by Durham’s Ellen Cassilly Architect. At 4,100 square feet, the Duke Forest home is a mashup of home, gallery and artist’s studio – a concept that earned it a full-page feature in The New York Times.

To follow are three examples of the approximately 200 modernist homes in our neighborhoods. Each in its own way responds to its site and the wants and needs of its owners. And each, like the monumental buildings in downtown’s public realm, is part of the reason why Durham’s innovative designs are a cut above the rest.

Modernist homes in Durham
Photo by Holly Dwan

Light and Family Near Duke Forest

Architect Louis Cherry looked long and hard at his client’s newly purchased split-level on a steeply sloping lot in a neighborhood filled with homes from the ’60s and ’70s not far from Duke Forest.

“We started with the notion of retaining the first-floor main level and some of the perimeter,” he says. “But as the project evolved, we discovered more problems with the existing structure and were only able to salvage the foundation.”

Modernist homes in Durham
Photo by Louis Cherry

Louis designed a 4,000-square-foot home that’s mostly opaque on the street side and transparent at the rear. The idea was to allow as much light as possible into the house and connect indoors to out – and to be unobtrusive. “There’s privacy – it’s discreet and simple, and also creates a neighborliness,” he says. “It’s not aggressive, but quiet in the way it sits among the trees in the neighborhood.”

His clients – a couple with children ages 6, 8 and 10 – wanted connections not just between nature and home, but between parents and children, too. Louis designed a built-in breakfast table and created family-friendly spaces where all can gather.

Modernist homes in Durham – living room
Photo by Louis Cherry

“There are a lot of sight lines and visual connections where the kids come in, and a balcony in the living spaces to create connections among the family,” he says. “There’s a strong vertical circulation from the basement up to the kids’ loft, all open with visual connections.”

It’s all the result of an inquisitive research process. Louis encourages his clients to talk about how they want to live in their house, rather than run through a list of rooms. “It’s an experience and a collaborative process to envision a lifestyle,” he says.

And here, it succeeded. “It is full of light and we love it,” one of the owners says. “I’ve been working from home during COVID in this beautiful space, and it’s wonderful.”

Modernist homes in Durham – office
Photo by Louis Cherry

A New Gallery in Hope Valley

Ellen Cassilly is a modernist who’s equally adept in the smaller world of residential additions. Case in point: a 500-square-foot extension for Susan Brill Hershfield and Michael Hershfield. Patrons of gallery openings at Cassilhaus, the Hershfields recently found themselves running out of room for art in their oft-renovated 1955 rambler in the Hope Valley neighborhood.

They mentioned their predicament to Ellen’s husband, Frank Konhaus, when he was delivering artwork. “Obviously, you ought to call Ellen about an addition,” he told them.

Modernist homes in Durham – sunny room
Photo by John Michael Simpson

Familiar with Ellen’s gift for design after she converted their garden shed into a yoga studio, the couple followed Frank’s advice. “We asked her to create a room that could be used for hanging art, with a lot of additional wall space,” Michael says. “She got rid of a room that had been a converted carport, and she created an addition to open into a sunroom with a fireplace.”

She also brightened up the space with soft northern light, retained views from kitchen to garden, and added a glass-enclosed window seat that punches through a wall. “It pops you out into space and gives another plane for displaying art,” Ellen says.

Modernist homes in Durham – office
Photo by John Michael Simpson

Then she brought in Hillsborough-based wood-whisperer Nick Strange to design an office with a desk of walnut, wenge, bubinga and figured maple. In a lily-gilding gesture, artist Martha Clippinger painted a mural on the exterior’s garden-facing wall.

Ellen essentially created a space where the couple can sit in the afternoon, admire their art and look out to a well-designed garden. “She did what we asked her to do,” Michael says.

Modernist homes in Durham – fireplace
Photo by John Michael Simpson

At Home in Lyon Park

Interior designer and Hylton Daniel design + construction Owner Alicia Hylton-Daniel’s first foray into the design/build process took place in Durham’s Lyon Park neighborhood in 2016. A graduate of Meredith College with a decade of experience in commercial design, Alicia wanted to exercise her new general contractor’s license. She bought an abandoned house and lot and rethought what could be done with it.

She took out an existing structure, one that snugged up tight to the street. Then she inserted a two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot house deep into the site. “I tucked it in and pushed it back,” she says.

Nicole McCoy in front of her modern home
Nicole McCoy recently moved from downtown into her new home in Lyon Park. Photo by John Michael Simpson

The original home was on a nonconforming lot, so she could add only 25% more space to the one-story home. She wanted a design that was grand but intimate, too. “I cut out a little terrace at the kitchen and dining room area at the center, so it doesn’t feel like a long, narrow box,” she says. “The bedroom is at the back, and there’s a Juliet balcony with no stairs.”

The home’s second owner is as crazy about her new home as its first owner, who was reluctant to leave when the family outgrew the space. Current owner Nicole McCoy is an accountant who teaches at N.C. A&T State University, a season ticket holder for the Durham Bulls and a member of First Calvary Baptist Church around the corner. The home’s location is ideal for her, and its design fits her needs.

Modernist homes in Durham – kitchen
Photo by Holly Dwan

“It has well-built rooms that are large, the transom windows let in lots of light, and there’s privacy,” Nicole says. “There are hardwood floors throughout, each bedroom is a suite, and there’s still a half-bath.”

The ultimate compliment came when a Realtor who owned an abandoned house next door offered to sell it to Alicia. She bought it, then designed and built a complementary, distinctive three-bedroom, 2,300-square-foot home – and promptly sold it. “I thought about how to place the bedrooms so they’re private,” Alicia says. “And if someone is working from home at the front, that volume is wrapped in corrugated metal, while the rest is clad in cedar.”

Modern home designs living room fireplace
Photo by Holly Dwan

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