Durham’s new boutique hotels are selling the past. What do they say about the present? | News Feature | Indy Week

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Durham’s new boutique hotels are selling the past. What do they say about the present?



At the front desk of The Durham Hotel, a man in an undersize three-piece suit with a ringmaster's mustache wants to know where I got my shirt.

It's a thin cotton button-down, navy blue, patterned with small white petals. I had changed out of a tattered Misfits T-shirt, hoping to blend in like a Ming vase. But with the elegant geometry of the dining room sweeping to my left and this bespoke figure standing before me, I suddenly feel déclassé admitting it came from Urban Outfitters.

"I never think to look there," he replies with exquisite tact.

When his colleague hands me the keycard to room 516, I gape at my companion in awe. The night before, a Wednesday, we'd gotten the same room number at 21c Museum Hotel. The Durham has 53 rooms and 21c has 125, so the coincidence is not small, and it follows from an even larger one: two boutique hotels opening in former bank buildings downtown, only blocks away from each other, within a four-month span. (And in fact, a third, Aloft, opened downtown last Friday, the second of four Aloft hotels planned in the Triangle.)

21c is an import with several locations. It started in Louisville, Kentucky, when Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson decided to funnel their contemporary art collection into a hotel-museum hybrid. The Durham has stronger local ties, with a menu by James Beard Award-winning Chapel Hill chef Andrea Reusing, who owns Lantern. 21c opened in March, with The Durham following in July.

In the days after I stayed at the hotels, when something elusive was bothering me, I kept thinking about that number: 516. Eventually, I turned to the oracle of Google. Of course, searching for numerological significance, I found it. For starters, 516 is a Long Island area code. This meshes with the feeling of having gone somewhere far away, even though the hotels are right next to my office.

In the Bible, Matthew 5:16 says, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works." This is certainly an apt credo for 21c, whose contemporary art galleries are open to the public 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, the golden aura surrounding "men" and "work" in the verse resonates with The Durham's mid-century modern concept, which makes you feel as if you've walked into an episode of Mad Men.

The dining room at The Durham Hotel - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • The dining room at The Durham Hotel

Something called Angel Numbers marks 516 as a promise of ongoing financial success. This is right on the money, as the cost of our night's lodging is around $180 at 21c and around $270 at The Durham. That's before dinner and cocktails at 21c's Counting House or The Durham's rooftop bar. (Its restaurant's opening date remains unset; the current estimate is about two weeks from now.)

Both buildings have money in their pasts, too. 21c resides in the Hill Building at 111 Corcoran St., a pre-war Art Deco skyscraper that was once the headquarters of Central Carolina Bank and Trust. The Durham, at 315 E. Chapel Hill St., is a palimpsest of flamboyant modernist and Art Deco design; the Home Savings Bank formerly did business behind its fanged façade. Both retain their original bank vaults. 21c uses one as a private lounge, while The Durham's is on view behind the lobby bar.

Indeed, in both places, wealth is never far from mind. I could afford them on my own dime only for the rarest special occasions, and what stuck with me, more than the blur of good food and drink in beautiful rooms, was a heightened awareness of class. Crossing its lines jarred my everyday perspective on the layer of privilege above me, which I was intruding upon, and the layer below, which I regarded from the unusually lofty perches of fifth-floor rooms and The Durham's imperious rooftop bar.

To get there, you ascend through an opulent historic building, most of it pay-walled behind keycards, and emerge on top of the world. Cocktail in hand, you gaze down and out over the city. Ranged around you are the silhouette of what used to be called Black Wall Street, the shells of the Jack Tar Motel and Blue Coffee Café, the McDonald's. From the vantage of New Durham, where it rises from the footprint of the old, you can more clearly see the kinds of fantasies it offers—and what story they tell an evolving city about itself.

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