What Downtown Denizens Love Most About Their Bustling Neighborhoods

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Nicole Oxendine in her apartment in downtown
Nicole Oxendine takes a break to journal on her sofa, which she purchased from Classic Treasures. She has a bird’s-eye view of downtown from her ninth floor apartment at One City Center.

By Marie Muir | Photography by Cornell Watson

Stepping into Nicole Oxendine’s ninth-floor apartment in One City Center is like taking a sip of Champagne – it feels bright, bubbly and bursting with inspiration. In the living room, teal and other blue accents pop against neutral furnishings. The walls display motivational quotes and laminated sheets of paper that reveal Nicole’s meal plan, business goals and self-care routine. 

“My space is really just about creating peace,” Nicole says of her one bedroom, one bathroom. “I’ve had to compartmentalize my work. Black with pink accents, that’s my work uniform. So, when I’m wearing teal, that’s just me being me. Not working.”

Nicole’s to-do list decor is a habit inherited from her mother, who would type out reminders and tape them next to the home phone and bathroom mirror. The oldest of five siblings, Nicole was born and raised in Durham by parents Pam Oxendine and Robert Oxendine and has witnessed downtown’s revitalization over the years. 

Nicole Oxendine's downtown apartment

“I like that Durham is so integrated and you can walk into a place and see someone from any background,” Nicole says. “I didn’t recognize that, or even appreciate that, until I left and came back. And I was like, ‘Oh, Durham is really cool.’ When I came back, this shift was happening.”

Nicole studied dance at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, with professor Donna Faye Burchfield, former dean of the international school at the American Dance Festival. After undergrad, she took a year off from dance before receiving a phone call from her former high school dance teacher at Hillside High School, Lisa Wilder, asking her to return to her alma mater as a dance teacher. Nicole took the offer and found a passion for dance education as she watched her high school students transform mentally and physically. In 2009, she went on to receive a master’s degree in dance therapy at Columbia College Chicago.

 Still, Nicole recalls a feeling of isolation within the world of dance, which inspired her to open Empower Dance Studio in 2015. 

“I didn’t feel empowered as a dancer,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I didn’t appreciate or like my body. I didn’t feel accepted in this world of ballet or in the world of modern dance.” 

Nicole Oxendine has a garden on her balcony in downtown
Nicole gets many of the ingredients she uses in her meals from the small garden on her balcony.

From the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bedroom window, Nicole points to the rooftop of her business below. In 2016, Nicole moved Empower from the Hayti Heritage Center to its current location on Parrish Street, also Durham’s Black Wall Street.

“Bringing that presence of diversity downtown is really important,” Nicole says. “It’s also really important for me to have that presence as a Durhamite. You see your city shifting and changing, so let’s not sit on the outskirts … let me hop right in and show my face and show up to every space that I need to be in.”

Nicole learned about One City Center while attending community meetings as a new downtown business owner. Attracted to the building’s convenient location and underground parking garage, Nicole was one of the first residents to move into the complex in 2017. Around the same time, she noticed that her clients, predominantly Black families, were not frequenting downtown. Today, she says, that is changing. 

“As downtown flourished and shifted, what I love seeing are my families coming,” Nicole says. “They’re walking around, and you see our girls in the pink skirts shopping at Bulldega [Urban Market].”

Empower Dance Studio continues to evolve in its fifth year of business, despite the obstacles brought on by the pandemic. With student ages ranging from “0 to 75,” Nicole offers dance instruction at every level in an inclusive space. This October, Nicole plans to open a second location called The Empower Circle at 121 W. Market St. next to The Parlour ice cream shop. The new location will function as a “home base” – a store, office space and studio for recording dance classes. Locals will be able to shop company merchandise, gifts and dance costumes.

Downtown Durham Inc. opens multiple streets in downtown to pedestrian traffic with festive lights, music and performers sprinkled throughout. Join hundreds of others on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5-9:30 p.m. through Dec. 19 to shop, carry out, dine in or dine out.

Nicole has stayed busy running Empower while also managing consultant work with private development companies and community engagement. She made adjustments as she taught virtual dance classes from her living room, modifying to a limited range of physical movement and keeping the music levels down for next-door neighbors. But she’s also used the pandemic as an opportunity to rest and refocus. 

“I was on hyper go-mode, and business was really good, and it still is,” Nicole says. “… I was doing a lot of things, and it was time to sit down and focus on what the vision is. I realized that I was running the business side more than I was able to teach. In this next iteration of Empower, I’m hiring someone who’s not a dancer to run the business side so that I can get back to teaching.”  

That time of reflection led to more intention at home, too. Nicole converted her balcony into a space for meditation and growing kitchen herbs, tomatoes and zucchini. Nicole and her guests can also sit and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the city and the rooftop recreational area on the sixth floor below. The mobile app GroupMe helps her stay in touch with fellow residents. And when she’s not at her apartment, you can find Nicole at one of her favorite downtown watering holes – The Wine Feed, The Oak House or Alley Twenty Six

Lyn McClay's downtown condo
Lyn, seated on the couch, catches up with her quarantine crew in the living room of her downtown condo, which overlooks Parrish Street.

In It For the Long Haul

Built in 1903, Lyn McClay’s second-floor condo overlooks West Parrish and West Orange streets. Originally used as office space above a storefront, the building was converted into condos in the ’80s. Lyn was drawn to the home in 2005 for its unique location. 

“I wanted to get here before I was too old to enjoy living in downtown Durham,” Lyn says. 

When she first came to North Carolina in 1967, Lyn worked as a display window designer for Thalhimers’ three department stores – one downtown, one in Lakewood and one at Northgate Mall. In 1968, Lyn took a job as an interior designer for the Durham-based Claude May Company, where she worked until moving to Chicago in 1971. 

Lyn staged models, designed offices and clubhouses for apartment complexes all over the U.S. before moving back to Durham in 1973. Over the years, Lyn watched downtown make many comebacks, and she believes the pandemic will be no different. At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, she found a way to adjust to the sameness of each passing day.  

Toni Mason, owner of Sew Crafty
Lyn’s next-door neighbor Toni Mason, who also owns Sew Crafty sewing studio on the first floor of the building, thumbs through one of Lyn’s coffee table magazines in a chair that was imported from Italy.

“I have windows that look out on the street, and I wouldn’t see another soul,” she says. “I said, ‘I need a chair.’ So I ordered one, and I would take a book and go and sit outside because the weather was so beautiful. This March, the trees got white blossoms, and it was just gorgeous. So I’d take my book and go sit there. And I might see one person the whole time.” 

Visitors must enter Lyn’s condo through a whimsical wrought-iron door into a vestibule where they can be then buzzed in. Inside is a modernist dwelling filled with natural light and eye-catching artwork. 

“Daylight is really important to me,” Lyn says. “I like it as the backdrop for punches of color, you know, that you get in the artwork.”

Lyn’s art collection includes paintings by Chapel Hill-based artist Richard Kinnaird, African folk art, pottery from North and South America, papyrus from Egypt, a weaving by Silvia Heyden and the most commanding piece in the condo: a colorful quilt by Cincinnati-based artist Sherri Lynn Wood. Each piece has a story, and Lyn cherishes the chance to share the history and beauty behind each keepsake.     

Lyn McClay's downtown condo
An elaborate quilt crafted by Sherri Lynn Wood is the centerpiece of Lyn’s condo. Beneath the quilt are more treasures from Lyn’s travels.

Lyn received her bachelor’s degree in interior design from Penn State in 1967 and a master’s degree in architecture from N.C. State University in 1986. She worked for several companies over the years before establishing her own architectural and interior design firm, DesignSpec Inc., in 1973. 

“I do a lot of stuff for other people, but for my own, I like a minimalist style,” Lyn says. “But I don’t like it to be stark; I like it to have a feeling of being lived in.”

Lyn, a visiting instructor at UNC-Greensboro and an instructor with Duke University Continuing Studies, is a member of the American Institute of Architects and served as president of the Durham-Chapel Hill chapter from 1997 to 1998. Lyn is also a founding member of Durham Area Designers – an association of trained architects, designers, developers and community advocates.

“[When I was in graduate school] there were almost as many women going to study as men,” Lyn says. “The difference was, once I got out of school, there weren’t nearly as many women practicing.” 

Lyn McClay's office and study in her downtown condo
The second-floor loft acts as a study and office for Lyn’s architectural and interior design firm, DesignSpec Inc.

Lyn recalls a state-level architecture conference where she was one of six women in a room of more than 500 men. Once DesignSpec took off and Lyn began traveling more for work, she was often met with confusion. 

“I spell my name with one ‘n,’” Lyn says, explaining that it was often mistaken for a man’s name. “I would call to make my reservations for plane tickets or rental cars, and they would always say on the phone, ‘And what time is Mr. McClay arriving?’ and I would always say, ‘It’s not Mr. McClay, it’s Ms.’” 

In the early ’80s, Lyn toured a home designed by her late husband, Werner Hausler. She knew that his architectural firm, Chapel Hill-based Cogswell Hausler Associates, would be a perfect fit for her aesthetic and decided to become an affiliate designer with the firm. Lyn and Werner lived together for 20 years before tying the knot in November 1997. Sadly, Werner passed away from cancer in 1999. 

Lyn McClay and her friends
One of Lyn’s favorite pastimes is hosting her close friends – Amber Sniff, Toni and Ann Flanagan – for homemade meals.

Lyn purchased the one-bedroom, one-bathroom downtown Durham condo in 2005 and rented it to her IT consultant until 2016, when she sold her custom-designed Chapel Hill house and began renovations on her new home. She started by taking out walls to create an open floor plan complete with a kitchen, dining room and living room. A massive, white marble island sits in the center of the kitchen.  

“I never wanted to be stuck in the kitchen and not able to see what’s going on in the rest of the house,” Lyn says.

Lyn estimates that she has redesigned more than 60 kitchens for clients over the years, including one extravagant renovation: a 400-year-old house and barn in Polia, Italy.  

“They called me up and asked me if I would be willing to trade my design fee for use of the house,” Lyn explains. “So I get one month in Italy, every year for the rest of my life. We’re 16 years into this arrangement.” 

Lyn McClay's cat Koko
Koko relaxes on the couch next to pieces from Lyn’s African folk art collection.

Scattered throughout the rest of the home are more items that bring Lyn joy – framed pictures of family, Italian furniture, too many books to count. Plus Koko, her 12-year-old cat. 

The rest of the building is owned by Toni Mason, Lyn’s best friend, quarantine hair stylist and owner of Sew Crafty sewing studio.Toni, along with a few other close friends and family, make up Lyn’s quarantine crew. They take turns playing chef or ordering takeout from Mothers & Sons Trattoria, Pizzeria Toro and Saint James Seafood

“I never did anything with this floor either, just did a little bit of touch-up in the areas where it was worn,” Lyn says, gesturing to the hard pine. “That’s the thing that I like, this old part that mixes in with the new; I didn’t want to lose the identity that this is an old space.” 

Allen Gant at his home in downtown Durham
Allen Gant pulls open an industrial garage door, exposing the open floor plan of his dining room, living room and kitchen to the public sidewalk on North Gregson Street. Originally built as a grocery store in the early 1900s, Allen restored the crumbling building in 2017, transforming it into his downtown home.

Market to Modern Luxury

If you’ve driven down Gregson Street toward Brightleaf Square, you’ve passed by Allen Gant’shouse, probably without realizing it. That’s because the building was never intended for residential use. Constructed sometime between 1919 and 1921 (the exact date is unknown), the North Gregson Street structure was originally a grocery store. Over the years, it evolved from a Piggly Wiggly to the Graham family grocery to a soda shop to a print shop to its present form – Allen’s downtown home. 

One of many notable elements of the home is its entrance. With a flat exterior constructed out of charcoal gray painted brick, the face of the building is decidedly industrial in nature. The front door opens directly out onto a sidewalk and faces Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church and Durham School of the Arts’ track and field. Locals on their way to shops or restaurants could easily be tempted to peer into Allen’s home through the tinted, commercial-sized windows or glass garage door. 

Stepping inside, Allen points out slight differences in the brick and concrete to highlight how the building transformed over the years. Born and raised in Burlington, North Carolina, Allen has lived in every major city in the Triangle. He went to N.C. State University in Raleigh and then lived in Chapel Hill before he had the desire to take on his own home project in the Bull City six years ago. 

Allen Gant destroyed a crumbling building into his downtown home

Allen, the director of retail at Burlington-based performance fabric manufacturing company Sunbrella, has years of experience designing textiles and working in property development. While scoping locations downtown, Allen was attracted to this building’s commercial infrastructure combined with its residential location in Trinity Park. Allen mapped out every square inch of the design during a year of back-and-forth negotiation with the city for a building permit. “The minute I got a permit, I wanted to move quickly and efficiently,” Allen says. But the building had been empty since 1975, and gaps in the ceiling caused the interior to decay. Allen was going to need a team of local experts to bring the vision of his dream home to life.

In March 2017, he hired Coby Linton and Tom Merrigan of Durham-based Linton Architecture and Russel Kennedy, Duane Tilley and Bob McCoy of Hillsborough-based Kennedy Building Company. After six months of construction, Allen’s 3,000-square-foot home was complete. The first floor features an open-floor plan and 14-foot ceilings in the living room, kitchen and dining room, surrounded by the original four walls of the structure. Exposed brick, concrete floors and rustic I-beams serve as the bones of the space, creating a familiar tobacco warehouse aesthetic. 

Allen orchestrated the interior and exterior design and made all the finish selections. Black granite counters and sleek gray cabinets give the kitchen a dark, modern touch, while a low couch and floor cushions create an ambience of laid-back luxury. Furniture designed by Allen can be found in every corner of the home, including walnut shelves made out of wood found on a friend’s farm and chairs crafted from Sunbrella fabric.  

The first floor also features two guest bedrooms – one used to be the grocery store’s chicken coop – and a bathroom. During the pandemic, one guest bedroom serves as Allen’s home office. As someone who normally travels 100 days out of the year, Allen appreciates an easy-to-maintain home. 

“I’m a minimalist,” Allen says. “At this place, there’s no yard to take care of, it’s really simple. So when I travel, I can just pack up and go.” 

Allen had to lower sections of the ceiling by 4 feet in order to build a second floor that was up to code. Other additions include a concrete one-car parking garage and a light-filled spiral staircase that was built using local hardwoods and metalwork by Zach McCoy and surrounded by recycled bricks from the original structure.

The staircase leads to a bright, white-walled lounge, which Allen has used since the onset of the pandemic as a space to build a tiny fictional town for his 6-year-old nephew. The toy town, based in 1948, includes a train set and, if you look closely, you’ll even spot a miniature Piggly Wiggly. 

Allen Gant's downtown home
Allen chose to keep many of the building’s features intact, including the original four walls of the structure.

“I wanted something that can allow my mind to breathe a little bit,” Allen says. “But also, I wanted a challenge. There are steps to becoming what’s called a master builder, or a master layout builder. I’m training myself to become a master builder. I’ve got about 200 hours in.”

The lounge-turned-workshop connects to a guest bathroom, laundry room and the master bedroom and bath. A paint gradient that fades to black travels along the walls from the east to west side of the second floor. The lounge and master bedroom have equal amounts of natural light, and the unique coloration gives the lounge a bright, creative vibe that contrasts with the master bedroom’s calming tones. Beside the bed, a brushed gold water spigot attached to the wall catches the light. Allen smiles and shares that he installed one next to every bed in the house so that guests never have to get up in the middle of the night for a glass of water.

Adjacent to Allen’s master bedroom is the largest space in the house – a 1,000-square-foot rooftop deck. In its entirety, the deck features an outdoor shower shielded by a vine-covered trellis, a kitchen complete with stainless steel appliances, a generous dining room table and a cozy lounge area. Allen gestures toward a blank wall, which is used for Friday night movies – a popular event for his family and friends that involves a projector, twinkle lights and plenty of popcorn. 

Allen Gant installed water spigots next to each bed in his downtown home
Allen fills a cup from a water spigot, thoughtfully installed next to each bed in the home.

In early 2019, Allen’s home was selected for the NCModernist House Tour, a fundraiser that sold almost 3,000 tickets and raised approximately $65,000 for local nonprofits, giving neighbors and other locals a chance to explore the home.

“People walk by all the time, and I’ll see them looking in, and I’ll just say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ and they’re like, ‘What is this place?’” Allen says. “It’s only been about a year since construction, so people still ask. They’re all welcome to come in and see it; I give tours quite often.”

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Marie Muir

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