Colonial Inn remake, tribute to jazz giant and new dining revive Hillsborough history

Updated: Former Hillsborough residents provided more information about the history of the Osbunn Theatre facade on July 24.

Two renovation projects are restoring pieces of the town’s history, while a local artist spearheads an effort to paint the first downtown mural: a tribute to jazz pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn.

The Osbunn Theatre marquee has been covered with plywood since its last picture show in the 1960s. Hillsborough’s Historic District Commission approved work last week to restore the marquee and add a modern restaurant space to the property at 122 W. King St.

Summit Design and Engineering also is working with the building’s owner, 126 West King Street LLC, to restore the original brick veneer and arched windows.

Larger, plate-glass windows will overlook the sidewalk, and soft theater lights will illuminate the marquee from below, project manager Patrick Cummings said. They also hope to backlight the Osbunn name on the marquee and restore its Art Deco centerpiece. If they can find the ticket booth, that also could be restored, Cummings said.

The theater, built in 1922, was named for owners Oswinn and Bunn Forrest, the News of Orange reported. The brothers also ran a general store and a Chevrolet dealership nearby, Hillsborough native Bob Hastings said. The theater closed after the death of its subsequent owner, Bill Chance.

Hastings shared more information about the building July 24 and an email that he had received from Chance’s son Donald Chance on Friday. The longtime friends worked at the theater, taking tickets and selling popcorn, when they were young men, Hastings said.

Chance’s email notes that the building’s “original brick front wall was badly cracked and had to be replaced before it fell into the street” sometime between 1946 and 1948. The theater was closed for about a month to replace the wall with glazed brick and a steel support beam. The stucco was added to cover the “ugly” brick, Chance said.

The wooden sashes for three arched windows on the second floor had rotted, he added, and one was replaced with a steel sash. The windows in the projection room “were so rotten several panes fell out onto the sidewalk below, so they were boarded over for safety.”

Jeff Woods, the building’s most recent owner, operated it as Carolina Game and Fish for 28 years before closing in October. He sold the building to 126 West King Street LLC, one of 22 limited liability companies under the umbrella of Hillsborough Holdings LLC. George Horton, a local developer and president of Telesis Construction, owns several downtown buildings through Hillsborough Holdings.

The former theater will be a great location for their new restaurant, Sejal Patel and Nick Singh said. The Nomad will focus on small plates, seasonal flavors and locally sourced ingredients, Patel announced July 25 on Facebook.

It will be “a historical culinary experience for the palate,” said Singh, co-owner of Viceroy, a Indian-British fusion gastropub in Durham. Hillsborough resident BJ Patel, also a Viceroy co-owner and Sejal Patel’s cousin, will be a partner in the new restaurant.

“We’re going to have food from Asia, South America, Africa, Europe,” Sejal Patel said. “We want to do small plates that are shareable, and then give the diner an experience, so that as they go through the menu, they can try different parts of the world and experience the kind of food and also the different types of cooking techniques that are used in different parts of the world.”

Like Viceroy, the restaurant will serve vegan and gluten-free dishes, Singh said, and celebrate its history.

“Restoring the building is I think the most exciting thing for us outside of the food,” Singh said. “It’s being able to re-create something that was originally there a hundred years ago and seeing the residents of this day and age enjoy that.”

Colonial Inn 2019.jpg
The Colonial Inn, at 153 W. King St. in Hillsborough, is undergoing significant renovations to restore its restaurant and guest rooms. The work also will add a second building with additional guest rooms at the rear of the property. Tammy Grubb tgrubb@heraldsun.com

Colonial Inn

A few doors down, construction is starting at the 181-year-old Colonial Inn.

The inn, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was sold last year to owners with experience redeveloping historic buildlings. Allied DevCorp LLC could reopen the building and a two-story guest wing, next spring. It will have restaurant, bar and event space.

The building at 153 W. King St. is largely sound but needs serious repair, officials said. The Town Board approved the plans in September.

Demolition work completed in May uncovered log walls in the inn’s oldest section, antique wallpaper and crystal doorknobs, exposed brick and rock, and oak floors. The newest and most damaged sections were removed.

The inn has a storied history, hosting thousands of Sunday dinners, celebrations and tours over the years. The anticipated regional draw has reinforced concerns about whether there is adequate public parking. The inn will not provide on-site parking, but its owners have secured 35 shared parking spaces at a nearby law firm and two other private lots, project official Justin Fejfar said.

The town has about 170 spaces on or near West King Street that stay busy throughout the day. Orange County also provides public parking nearby in the 400-space Eno River Parking Deck, at the Orange County Courthouse and the Orange County Board of Elections.

The town is seeing more intensive land uses downtown, such as at the Colonial Inn, but most of those businesses operate at night and on the weekends, creating more shared parking opportunities, said assistant town manager and planning director Margaret Hauth.

“There is ample, free public parking in downtown Hillsborough,” she said.

Strayhorn Mural.jpg
Hillsborough artist Max Dowdle will start painting the first mural for the downtown business district in August. The mural will pay tribute to jazz great Billy Strayhorn, who spent his summers and breaks at his grandparents’ home in Hillsborough. Town of Hillsborough Contributed

First mural pays tribute

Artist Max Dowdle reached out to the town about painting a mural, economic development planner Shannan Campbell said. He found willing partners in Knox Enterprises LLC, which owns 226 S. Churton St., and its tenant Volume Records and Beer.

The mural, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” will honor Strayhorn and collaborator Duke Ellington’s signature composition and feature Strayhorn playing a piano on a field of yellows and blues with a train in the background. The painting could start in early to mid-August and take about two weeks, Dowdle said.

He worked with Volume Records co-owner Tony Lopez to draft the design, Dowdle said. Hillsborough Tourism Development Authority and the Hillsborough Arts Council are sponsors.

“They (the store’s owners) wanted something that was really reminiscent of the train tracks and a tunnel. That blue, somber kind of colorization seems to really work well for jazz and blues and a sort of smoky feel,” Dowdle said.

A state historic marker recognizing Strayhorn is located just north of the single-story stucco building.

Strayhorn, an Ohio native, often visited his grandparents’ home in Hillsborough as a child. His father and grandfather worked at the Eno Mill, and he would take the train to visit an uncle in Durham, the Orange County Historical Museum reported.

At age 22, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s orchestra, becoming an influential figure in American jazz. He stayed with Ellington until his death at age 52 in 1967 and also was active in the Civil Rights Movement alongside his friend, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dowdle said he welcomes public interest in the project.

“One of the things I like about public art like this is it’s free for everybody to enjoy,” he said. “Also, when people can watch the process of it happening, they can see that art doesn’t just appear. It actually takes work and people have to have the skills to be able to do it. ”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.