A drive along Dollar Avenue brought Kelly Witter back to her former neighborhood of Trinity Park
BY MARIE MUIR | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN MICHAEL SIMPSON
Kelly Witter’s front yard in Trinity Park is frequently filled with Durhamites of all ages, whether it’s a national holiday or just your average Tuesday afternoon. Stop by to say hello, and you’re in danger of drinking a glass of wine (or two) and becoming fast friends with at least five new people. Kelly’s house is a brick, two-story Colonial Revival on Dollar Avenue that was built by John L. Atkins Jr. and his wife, Delores Atkins, in 1939.
Or, as others know it, the house to the left of the blue tree sculpture, which was made by local artist and former city council member Frank Hyman and commissioned by Kelly’s next-door neighbor Ellen Dagenhart. Ellen, a Realtor at Marie Austin Realty, correctly predicted that Kelly would purchase the home after their first showing in 2016. Now they share the same driveway. “Kelly’s a very entertaining neighbor, and she’s the worst empty nester you’ll ever find,” Ellen says.
Kelly fell in love with the area after she moved from Buffalo, New York, to Durham to attend Duke University in 1980. She earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and math, a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, and a master’s in business administration – all from Duke.
Several years of Southern sunshine and a summer spent attending grassroots festivals like the American Dance Festival and Festival for the Eno was all it took to convince Kelly to permanently move to the Bull City shortly after grad school. She couch surfed or rented with friends for a few years, and in 1987, Kelly took a job at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development in Research Triangle Park.
“I’ve always felt connected [to Durham],” Kelly says. “It’s not forcing a place to work, it just worked for me.”
Today, she serves as the environmental engineer and director of EPA-RTP’s Community Engagement and STEM Education Program, which Kelly started in 2003 to increase communication of EPA science to students, educators and the public with the goal of increasing the public’s knowledge on how saving the environment also advances human health.
“I never thought I would stay someplace my entire career, but I love working at
the EPA,” Kelly says. “I love the mission of protecting human health and the environment, and I love the people. I was talking to a high school friend a couple of weeks ago, and she said, ‘You just did not want a job where you had to wear a suit every day.’”
In 1988, Kelly purchased her first home on Ruffin Street in Trinity Park for $70,000. But before long, babies were on the horizon, more room was needed, and so Kelly taped up for-sale fliers in the window of Wellspring Grocery. The Ruffin Street house sold for $84,000 in 1994. Kelly and her former husband lived in a 5,100-square-foot house in Hardscrabble – a subdivision in North Durham – for the next two decades.
Kelly has many joyful memories from raising her three kids, Cody Leovic, Dillon Leovic and Cassidy Leovic. There was hardly a dull moment, between hosting holiday parties and attending Durham Public Schools events.
After her youngest child graduated from Riverside High School, Kelly realized she had outgrown her suburban lifestyle. It was time to downsize and move back to Trinity Park. Overwhelmed by a lifetime of accumulated items, Kelly followed her dad’s advice: “The best way to get something done is to begin.” Weekday nights were reserved for packing boxes and weekends were booked with back-to-back open houses.
The fall before Kelly found her current home, she recalls a different open house on Dollar Avenue.
“It was so funny because the street between Englewood and Club was blocked off for a block party,” Kelly recalls. “At the open house, they had my favorite water, LaCroix, and my favorite beer, Hoppyum IPA. I looked at the real estate agent and said, ‘If I was ready to downsize my house, I’d make an offer on this one!’”
But she didn’t. Kelly continued to search for a house big enough to host her kids, but small enough for an empty nester – something that would work for “the next five years.”
In April 2016, her friend John Sheer and his brother visited to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert. However, Bruce canceled the show in solidarity with the people and businesses protesting the state’s recently passed HB2 law. In lieu of the concert, Kelly and her guests wandered around downtown.
“We’re driving around at a slow pace, and all of a sudden we end up on Dollar Avenue in front of this house with a Marie Austin Realty sign for sale,” Kelly says.
Kelly moved in four months later, carefully mapping out each corner of the 1,800-square-foot house before she was settled.
“I was purging stuff,” Kelly says. “Whatever room I was in, I’d have a pile for consignments, give away, donate, recycle and trash. I would go once a week to local donation places.”
Her first year on Dollar Avenue was a blissful blur.
“I’d walk from room to room and say, ‘Oh, I’m so happy,’” Kelly says. “I still do that now. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather spend a pandemic. I’m so lucky.”
After graduating from Appalachian State University, Kelly’s daughter, Cassidy, moved into an apartment in Trinity Park with her girlfriend, Hannah Koon, their cat, Sushi, and Siberian husky puppy, Novella. Cassidy loves her mom’s house and looks forward to their weekly dog walks – Kelly recently adopted a golden retriever puppy, Fiona – or wine in the backyard.
“We had been looking at houses for a while,” Cassidy says. “I loved all of them, honestly, but this one definitely fit my mom the best. I love how old it is. The house we were moving out of was brand new and furnished with a bunch of antiques from my mom’s parents. It’s so clear that the furniture that fit OK in our old house is really at home [here]. All of the pieces work together to make it such a warm and inviting place.”
Kelly is content with the house’s current state, for now. Renovations by former homeowners have made it a cozy sanctuary for her children and friends.
Minus the occasional mudroom dance session or dining room dinner, Kelly spends most of her time outside. Behind the house, a stone patio and chairs encircle a fire pit. Chairs and tables in the front yard also accommodate socially distanced gatherings, like Kelly’s latest blind wine tastings, where each participant guesses the wine type and ranks the wines from best to worst.
Instead of opening presents, Kelly celebrated the holiday season in the backyard with her kids by hosting a “study abroad”-themed wine tasting. She purchased bottles from The Wine Feed from each of the countries where she and her kids had studied: Kelly in France, Cassidy in South Africa, Dillon in Croatia and Cody in New Zealand.
In many ways, Kelly shaped her kids’ appreciation for the city where they grew up.
“Before Durham was trendy, [my mom’s] love and pride for the city was so apparent [that] I was embarrassed,” Cassidy admits. “She would wear this pink shirt from Dolly’s Vintage that said, ‘Durham love yourself ’ that would make me cringe. As I got older and experienced the city more, I began to understand the love that was there for Durham.”
Now the family has found even more to love in this new neighborhood. “It’s my happy place here,” Kelly says. “I knew it from when I lived on Ruffin Street, I was totally in my happy place. I knew I wanted to be back in Trinity Park.”