Walter Profile: Architect Ellen Cassilly

Grub Durham, 1200 W Chapel Hill St, Durham, NC, July 7, 2017. Photo by D.L. Anderson

Building Up the Bull City

Architect Ellen Cassilly’s Durham

by Michael Welton
photographs by Lissa Gottwals

Driving through Durham with architect Ellen Cassilly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a section of the city where she hasn’t made a difference. There’s Central Park and the pavilion next to it, home to Durham Farmers’ Market. There’s Leaf, a shade structure that was the first design-build project from N.C. State’s Summer Studio, in 2009. There’s Liberation Threads, the ethically sourced fashion shop on Chapel Hill Street, and the apartment above it.

The list goes on, wherever your tour might take you: “On Mangum Street we did this yellow one and that red one there,” the 56-year-old designer points out. “On Parrish Street we did Chet Miller – it’s tiny.”

Tiny is not uncommon in Cassilly’s work, though she’s taken on some fairly sizeable projects as well. Her own home, which she designed with husband Frank Konhaus, is a series of three pods linked together to overlook Duke Forest. References to Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Alvar Aalto abound. There’s a 2,400-square-foot residence, an 800-square-foot studio for visiting artists, and a 900-square-foot connecting gallery to display their work.

“Who would have thought of that but Frank and Ellen?” asks Raleigh architect Frank Harmon. “They created their own community. She’s interested in doing things that haven’t been done before.”

Harmon should know. Cassilly worked with him from 1993 to 1998, tackling a wide range of projects. “She saw my office as doing the kind of work she’s sympathetic to – it’s very much about place and the people that I work for,” he says. “I involve my clients as much as possible in the designs.”

From Paris to Raleigh
Cassilly approached Harmon after a four-year stint in Paris, where – straight out of the University of Pennsylvania – she’d worked in the office of Pritzker Prize-winning Christian de
Portzamparc. “This, from a 25-year-old woman,” Harmon says. That job on her resume was Harmon’s first hint at her resourceful confidence: “She gets into a phone booth and starts calling architects – and lands a job with one of the top three in France.”

When Harmon brought her in for an interview, Cassilly told him: “I’m going to stop working here one day.” Cassilly recalls Harmon was nonplussed: “Why are you telling me that?” Harmon asked. “I haven’t offered you a job.” Cassilly replied: “Oh, you’ll get to that.”

And he did, eventually putting her to work on a new amphitheater for the North Carolina Museum of Art, one that’s now celebrating its 20th anniversary. “She was great,” says Dan Gottlieb, NCMA’s director of planning and design. “She was talking us through a lot of practical pieces of the puzzle for a peculiar kind of design – and a slim budget that stretched well beyond what she had.”

Stepping up – and out
In 1997, Cassilly bought a midcentury modern bank building in Durham’s warehouse district, paying $232,000 for 10,000 square feet in one of the sketchiest parts of town. It’s now one of the most desirable. “It was a very scary day,” she says. “I was working at Frank’s office, and I said: ‘I bought a building.’ ”

“Frank said: ‘What are you going to do with it?’ ”

“I said: ‘It could be Frank and Ellen West – or it could be Ellen West,’ ” referring to her future independent business’s location in Durham, she says. “I was being pretty clear.” She set up her practice – and never looked back. She started with two projects and some well-designed signs posted on Club Boulevard. The firm has eventually grown to five people, with its work now split evenly between commercial and residential designs.

Seven years back, architect Phil Freelon asked her to collaborate on his fifth-floor penthouse atop the Kress Building down

town. “I had design ideas but didn’t want to do the details, and I wanted assistance from someone I respected, who showed a track record of excellence,” Freelon says. “That turned out to be Ellen.”

Cassilly had already designed most of the condos in the building, so the learning curve was minor. “She had great ideas about how to configure the space,” he says.

More recently, she’s worked at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, designing smaller structures that delight visitors and employees alike. They include a greeters’ pavilion, a way station at the entrance of the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, and a restored tobacco barn for an outdoor learning center.

But her finest effort there rises from a prairie meadow where 40 pine and cedar trees were cleared in 2016. Out of the harvested timber, Cassilly created a rustic garden classroom, and left behind a design opportunity for Stefan Bloodworth, curator of Blomquist Garden. He wove a series of wall screens – essentially see-through wainscoting knitted out of tree branches – that add a spiritual element to the place. “People ask me: ‘Is this a church?’ ” he says. “And I’m not going to argue with that.” The charm of the classroom, with metal roof ridge that rises and eaves that drop, is nothing short of enchanting. “When you first look at it, you say ‘Oh – a little shed,’ ” Cassilly says. “And you get closer and you say: ‘Ohhh – it’s much more complex than that – there’s the lattice work, the lowered eave and the extended prow.’ It’s like a deer blind, but you sit in it and observe nature.”

On the commercial front, Cassilly recently converted an aging PURE gas station-turned-storefront-church into a restaurant called GRUB, complete with rooftop bar, outside order window, and shaded picnic benches. Her choice of materials was diverse: banquettes covered in Raleigh Denim, barn-wood interior paneling, and outside, a four-foot-tall dividing wall composed in Florida decorative block.

Home work
Cassilly’s residential work speaks volumes about her gift for listening to both people and places. For Jennings Brody’s 300 square-foot addition to a boxy 1948 1,450 square-foot home, she tore down walls, introduced natural light, and added a kitchen island that’s now a gathering spot for Brody’s girlfriends. “I feel like she changed the energy of the house,” Brody says.

For an 800 square-foot interior at the 1940 William Sprinkle House, she redefined the living area and added space for house concerts around a grand piano. She opened up a porch overlooking a decades-old camellia garden, paying homage to its former jalousie windows with glass display shelves. Most intriguing is an electronic mesh “phantom” screen she inserted – one that can be raised or lowered in 60 quick seconds.

Her creativity is also on display in a two-story guest house for the Berliner residence on the edge of Trinity Park, where she opened up a double-height living space to accommodate a 12-foot-tall pilot whale skeleton, adding a music studio above. Paul Berliner is an ethnomusicologist who specializes in the African mbira instrument, so she curved the roof of the guest house with four laminated pine beams, mimicking that instrument’s steel keys.

And for a three-floor condominium in Durham’s former Book Exchange Building, Cassilly broke 7,800 square feet of space down into manageable pieces. On the main level, a fireplace separates the kitchen, living, and dining area, where the wooden frame of an antique elevator hovers over the table. Office space and bedrooms are on the second level, and on the third is a guest suite with a Murphy bed.

As Durham continues to reinvent itself with grand hotels like 21c and The Durham, as well as One City Center, the 27-story mixed-use tower, bigger projects surely will come Cassilly’s way. “She’s perfectly capable of doing large things, and I wish she would,” says Harmon. It’s bound to happen. She’s already designed everything else under the sun in Durham.