(Courtesy Preservation Durham)
Per the Preservation Durham 2012 Pyne Award Nomination (in italics):
Before 15-501 was a four-lane thoroughfare between Durham and Chapel; before the construction of I-40 through the Triangle; and before Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble, and parking lots dominated the intersection of I-40 and 15-501, two artists moved into a dairy farm at this location.
The year was 1959; the artists, Ormond Sanderson and Robert Black, were craftsman sculptors. Their goal was to use the farm and its scattered outbuildings to house their studios, home, gallery, and store. They transformed these buildings and the space between them into an eclectic, modern wonderland, pairing traditional crafts with Scandinavian and Japanese design elements.
The compound began with the existing farm buildings: a two-story house served as living quarters, a freestanding kitchen as a store, a blacksmith building as a studio, and a barn as storage. Mr. Sanderson and Mr. Black moved some buildings and dismantled others. They enclosed new areas, built additions and utilized salvaged materials from the farm and historic building elsewhere. From 1958 through 1969, the space was in constant evolution. Gradually the old blacksmith shop became the core of the primary residence and studio space, connected to other buildings by an enclosed courtyard decorated with Mr. Black and Mr. Sanderson’s sculptures and populated with farm animals. Highlights of the space included poured concrete, slate and salvaged pavers for flooring, etched glass doors in the living room created by Mr. Sanderson, cast cement and tiled fireplaces, and a dramatic butterfly roof that Mr. Black designed—all heavily influenced by contemporaneous modern and Scandinavian Design. As the venture thrived, the pair expanded by building a storefront and parking on 15-501, and renting out the space.
The artistic, multi-use campus continued for years until the completion of I-40 in 1984. This made access to the storefronts very difficult, and subsequently most of the businesses closed. With the construction of New Hope Commons and other shopping centers, Straw Valley was nearly entirely abandoned and fell into disrepair.
Miraculously, Straw valley withstood considerable development pressure, and in 2007, Scott Bednaz purchased Straw Valley the intention of restoring the building and grounds. Mr. Bednaz wanted to continue the concept of Straw Valley as an artistic campus, using the storefronts for local shops, and the residence and courtyard for wedding and banquet facilities. Despite funding and investment setbacks, Mr. Bednaz has found tenants for the front storefronts and has stabilized and renovated the primary rear structures and courtyard with the help of Don Tise and Craig Carbrey of Tise Kiester Architects. Mr. Bednaz is dedicated to his vision for Straw Valley continuing as a creative gathering space, and it is evident in his careful preservation of Mr. Black and Mr. Sanderson’s residence. He has preserved the living and studio spaces, furnishing them with pieces from the original Straw Valley and period antiques. He has also preserved the courtyard spaces and sculpture while adding outdoor seating for a coffee shop and event space. Mr. Bednaz continues his plans to renovate more buildings on the property and expand the campus with plans for a boutique hotel, all the while telling the story of this unique place.