The Rubinstein family shares the incredible renovation journey of their century-old home nestled on North Roxboro Street in Durham
By Anna-Rhesa Versola | Photography by John Michael Simpson
In 2019, Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein was on the prowl for another historic home project when she came across a nearly 4,000-square-foot 1923 brick foursquare on North Roxboro Street in the Duke Park neighborhood. Water was leaking through the roof, causing ceilings to warp and plaster to crumble. Exterior woodwork and window frames were rotting. Weeds flourished inside chimney tops, and vines blanketed whole sections of the house.
It was perfect.
“It felt really good to me, so no, I wasn’t daunted,” Lauren says. “I think my husband was and everyone else in my life was, but I could see it. In fact, we really didn’t change the layout too much. Its architecture is gorgeous, with a really strong foundation.”
Lauren, an associate professor in the department of population health sciences at Duke University, is a national expert in examining how the criminal legal system impacts the health of people, families and communities. She and her husband, Eric Rubinstein, an executive vice president and chief investment officer for Leyline Renewable Capital, had fully renovated a previous home in Tennessee.
Before joining the faculty at Duke, Lauren accepted a position at UNC in 2016, so the couple and their son, Xavier Rubinstein, who turns 16 on Oct. 11, moved from Providence, Rhode Island. “We bought a house in Watts-Hillandale, sort of sight unseen, on Club Boulevard, which we loved,” Lauren says of their first Durham home, which had some updates that Lauren added to, but she was ready for a whole-house challenge. “Eric’s used to my wild ideas. He’s been doing this with me, making big life decisions and trusting that it’s gonna work out. So, he was sort of like, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’”
The Rubinsteins worked with Linton Architects to tweak some of the rooms and update the flow of the home. Raleigh-based interior designer Roux MacNeill helped Lauren with lighting selections, hardware and fixture options as well as paint and bold wallpaper. General contractor Kennedy Building Company, based in Hillsborough, provided the skill and muscle to turn designs into reality.
“When you first walk in, you can see the stretch of the house,” Lauren says. “It appears really grand but, at the same time, pretty intimate.” The first room on the right has a wall that was shifted inward to make room for a half-bath near the central staircase. Though the room is slightly smaller today, there was still space to install a new floor-to-ceiling bookcase with an opening for Xavier’s piano.
Notably, this space was also used for musical purposes by its first owners. The home was originally built by Rose and Rose Architects for Nathan Dexter “Deck” Holland and his wife, Lula Holland, who would play the piano and sing hymns in this room after church on Sundays, according to granddaughter Phyllis Phelps, 85, of Donora, Pennsylvania. Phyllis’ paternal great-grandfather was a carpenter, and her grandfather and his younger brother, Carey Holland, founded the Holland Brothers Furniture Company in 1902 in downtown Durham.
On the left side of the entryway, a colonnade marks the formal living room with an original fireplace, which was refitted for gas heat. Oak wood floors lead to a light-filled sunroom with black and white marble tiles and wraparound windows that offer a view of the 0.43-acre lot that was landscaped by Garden Environments. A row of star magnolias outside overlook the yard and pool.
Inside the dining room, the ceiling is painted the same peacock blue color as the walls. “It creates a stark boundary to this room in contrast to the rest of the house,” Lauren says about the added drama. “I like that idea of a sort of moody, formal dining room.”
The dining area opens into rooms on three sides, and large windows bring in natural light. Along one side, two glass cabinet hutches flank the opening to the main hallway and central staircase. Another side connects to the spacious white kitchen with brass fixtures. “We went with brass really almost all throughout the house because of its classic look,” Lauren says. “It’s a throwback to the era of the home. You can see in the past 18 months they’ve tarnished quite a bit, and I really like that aesthetic.”
A marble-topped island stretches across hardwood floors, which replaced the original linoleum. Two small pantries and a breakfast area were removed to expand the kitchen. Glass French doors slide into pocket walls allowing dining guests to move freely between the kitchen and the front living space.
Across from the kitchen, the family often hangs out in the den, which has a fireplace and a “hidden” door that leads to the porte-cochère. The Rubinsteins also enjoy the new enclosed back porch that they now use as a game room. One wall of windows is actually an accordion door that folds open to the multi-level deck leading down to the 14-by-47-foot concrete pool and a large, in-ground hot tub. Flames dance in a gas fire pit beneath a poolside pergola. Another accordion door downstairs in the finished basement opens to a kitchenette area – aka the “snack shack,” as the family calls it – adjacent to the pool.
The basement is fully renovated. The boiler room is now a spacious living area with built-in storage cabinets and original hinged windows. Across the hall is a guest room with a full bath that was once a coal room. The exposed brick wall still shows the scorch marks left behind by the coal-fired furnace. Down the hall, a separate half-bath was added for guests.
The central stairs on the main floor lead up to a wide landing with pine floors. To the left, two bedrooms that face Roxboro Street are connected by a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. Xavier uses both rooms as his private suite while his parents converted a similar layout on the back of the house into an owner’s suite with his-and-hers closets and a full bathroom with a soaking tub, tiled shower, now-decorative fireplace and one of the two original crystal chandeliers.
Durham resident Leslie Bruce says his parents – Thomas Kyle Bruce and Ola Jean (formerly Kirby) Bruce – purchased the house from the Hollands in 1963. “When my family bought the house, it was practically filled with all the furniture,” he says. When Leslie left for college, his younger sister, Kimberly Bruce, lived in the home until Dec. 13, 2018, when she passed away.
“People would probably think that it was a haunted house,” Leslie says about the condition of the home after his sister died. “It was just in bad disrepair, a lot of the plaster was falling off the ceiling and there were cracks in the walls. There were some rooms where the electricity didn’t work, the light switches didn’t work, and some of the light receptacles didn’t work. Even when my mom and my dad were alive, I kept telling him they needed to find an electrician to try to get those fixed, because I thought, you know, this might be a fire hazard.”
In May 2019, Leslie sold the house to Durham-based renovation company CQC Home. A month later, Lauren and Eric purchased the property and began a three-year transformation of the Holland House. The exterior underwent a dramatic makeover with a major landscaping overhaul. The driveway leading from the street through the porte-cochère and around the house was replaced with a new rear entrance at the alley behind the house. A concrete pad and carport were added, allowing guests to park and enter either through the porte-cochère or the pool area.
“They’ve done a beautiful job,” Phyllis says. “[Lauren] was so kind to send me pictures. They renewed it, and it’s wonderful.”