When Kimberly Davis entered the time-battered doors of 300 E. Main St. two years ago, she knew instantly this was the place. Paint peeled from the walls; broken glass littered the floor; pigeons roosted in the eaves. But Davis envisioned freshly painted walls, glossy hardwood floors and people gathered in celebration.
"I just wanted something that was really different in Durham. I wanted something that was like, 'Wow,'" she says, remembering her first tour of the property.
After 22 years of neglect, the vacant, historical brick building on the corner of Roxboro and Main streets in downtown Durham is undergoing transformations to become a chic event space. Spearheading the restoration is Davis, 30, event producer and founder and CEO of The Image Collections, the agency that will occupy much of the space.
Built in 1924 as a Masonic Lodge and later christened the Eligibility Building, the structure was acquired by Durham County during the Great Depression, according to Gary Kueber, CEO of Scientific Properties and author of Open Durham, an online archive of the city's historical properties.
It also held a car dealership, a furniture company, overflow space for the county jail and the county public health department, which relocated in 1992—though its faded gothic lettering can still be seen above the Roxboro Street entrance.
Fast-forward to 2007, when David Revere, a real estate developer from Los Angeles, bought the building and adjacent empty lot. "What drew me to the building was the great façade, and it had a great structure," recalls Revere. "And the fact that it had been neglected for so long."
Revere had originally thought to convert the space into offices, but he was charmed by Davis' vision to fuse modern style with historical elegance in the form of multiple event lofts, inspired by the likes of Manhattan and Miami. According to current plans, the ground level will soon feature an airy event hall, with a kitchen, corporate event space and administrative offices toward the back. The third floor, with its lofty ceilings, is slated to hold a ballroom, bridal suite, boardroom and mezzanine. The second floor is currently available for lease.
"I like to see it as a hotel without the rooms," says Davis. She describes The Image Collections as a "sangria of services," a one-stop shop that handles every detail of an event, from planning, production and management to catering, communications and design. The firm hosts corporate, private and social events. The first event, a wedding rehearsal, will be held in July.
Before any of this happens, the building still needs a lot of fixing up. Rehab began last November and has involved installing electricity, plumbing and light fixtures. The opaque glass blocks, which had obscured the front façade since the 1940s, were recently replaced with fresh windows, while the other windows are being restored. The staircase is not up to code and plans are in progress for a new elevator, dark hardwood flooring and chandeliers. First Federal Bank is financing the project, estimated at more than a half million dollars, according to Revere.
The renovations have uncovered a handful of historical treasures, including a bomb shelter in the basement, a Cold War-era air raid siren on the roof, a bevy of old radiators and a mysterious walk-in vault. On the ground floor, beneath several layers of plaster, Revere uncovered a retro Coca-Cola mural. The vintage discovery sparked a relationship with the soft drink company, which is now in talks with Davis about partnership.
The refurbishment of 300 East Main could bring vibrancy and cohesion to a stretch of Main Street that is spatially and socially isolated. Between the flourishing Five Points intersection to the west and the trendy Golden Belt complex to the east, the building shares the corridor with the Durham Housing Authority, the Criminal Justice Resource Center, a few law offices and a handful of churches.
Next door is Old Havana, a Cuban sandwich shop, which added a rare splash of flavor to the block when it opened in 2011. Roberto Copa Matos, who owns the eatery with his wife, says the location was initially a hindrance. "It's been challenging, because we are somehow isolated," he says.
Two years later, Old Havana is bustling, a result of the gradual eastward movement of urban development "from Ninth Street to Brightleaf to Five Points to probably somewhere around Monuts and Bull City Burger right now," describes Kueber.
Having spent five years developing and managing Golden Belt, Kueber has witnessed the Roxboro boundary become more permeable as people venture into, and business invests in, other parts of downtown—and the makeover of 300 East Main signals this migration. "Its revitalization could help bridge the divide and bring some fun to a quiet part of the city," he says. (Disclosure: Scientific Properties also owns the Venable Center at Roxboro and Pettigrew streets, which houses INDY Week.)
"It means a lot, that people aren't fearful of coming to this end," Davis says. Under her direction, 300 East Main will engage the Durham community at diverse socioeconomic levels. "This is going to be the people's space. I'm not just an owner. It's not just like, 'Come have your event, I'll take your money.' It's not going to be like that."
During the holidays, she plans to host a Martha Stewart-worthy Thanksgiving meal for Durham's homeless and hold a Christmas party for children from low-income families. She wants to throw an event to celebrate single moms on Mother's Day, as well as showcase the work of local artists who can't afford gallery space.
Davis says her plans have received positive feedback from the community, and historical preservationists are pleased too. The site made Preservation Durham's "Places in Peril" in 2011, a watchlist of the city's endangered historical landmarks.
"We were concerned about it because the more something sits, obviously with open windows and roof leaks and all that kind of stuff, it's just deteriorating," says Wendy Hillis, licensed architect and executive director of Preservation Durham, a nonprofit that defends Durham's historical architecture.
Hillis applauds the renovation of buildings like 300 East Main, noting that restoration is significantly more sustainable than building from scratch. "You're basically recycling," she says.
Design-wise, older buildings feature spacious hallways, high ceilings and grand atriums that you see less frequently in today's construction, which tends to focus on maximizing square footage.
"There are different qualities that you would get from an old building that you're just not going to get from new construction based on economics," Hillis says. "There's also a huge difference just in the quality of materials that you get now versus then," she adds, referring to the old growth wood and terrazzo stairs that will be refinished in the space.
"It is our old buildings that, downtown, are creating this unique Durham feel and making us different from Cary, making us different from Southpoint mall," says Hillis. "I think that's what's driving a lot of the business down here, the unique sense of place."
This particular place has won the heart of Davis, who claims she'll be there for a while. "It would take a typhoon to knock us out of this building."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The great restoration."