When Brandon Martin looks at photographs of downtown Burlington taken in the early 1960s he likes how busy it appears. It was the hot spot in town for retail shopping and commerce. It was a hub for social life. He thinks it could be that way again.
“If you look back at photos from the 1960s that area of downtown was vibrant and thriving,” Martin says. “When Holly Hill Mall came that was step one in the collapse. Now you see downtowns like Durham that have made comebacks. Mebane, even though it’s smaller, has come back and Graham is doing fantastic. So in looking at what’s going on in Burlington, I wanted to be a part of it.”
Martin is among the latest investors in downtown property, taking over one of the more visible and deteriorated buildings, the two-story structure at the corner of Davis and Worth streets. The building at 135 W. Davis St. was most recently a Subway sandwich store — but recently is an overstatement. It was a long time ago. The structure — beside the Downtown Barber Shop on Davis Street and directly across from Zack’s on Worth Street — had become one of the symbols of decay in downtown. It has been vacant for years and in decline, damaged to the point where it was impacting the barber shop beside it.
That is changing.
Martin, owner of Epic Construction in Burlington, plans to renovate the site. The first floor will be occupied by the Davis Street Tap House. The second floor will be a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment. Martin is developing both projects. The Davis Street Tap House will be similar in concept to the Pour Taproom in Durham and sites in Greensboro and Charlotte. I wrote about it after a visit to Durham for a food tour there a couple of years ago. The sites feature craft beer taps and wine taps and customers can sample the selections by helping themselves and pay by the ounce as they leave. Read an explanation for how it works here. It’s a fun way to try new beers and wines without being stuck with 12 ounces of a brew a customer doesn’t want.
Martin originally planned to put in a restaurant and wine bar. But the building is only 1,400 square feet on each floor, which limited his options. He also noted that several restaurants may be opening downtown in the next several months, including the new Burlington Food Hall on Front Street.
“With all the restaurants coming in we didn’t want be competition but a complement to them,” Martin says. “So we nixed the restaurant.”
According to the Davis Street Tap House website, the building is one of the oldest still standing in downtown. If that’s incorrect, I’m sure my friend and city historian Walter Boyd will set me straight (UPDATE, and he did). According to the website, “The building was built by Burlington’s second Mayor Christopher Columbus “Lum” Townsend in 1886” as a farm implements store. The second floor housed meetings of the city’s Board of Aldermen when Townsend was elected mayor.
Martin acknowledges that the building needs a lot of work. The engineering and design plans are being competed and Martin hopes to have the Davis Street Tap House open by late summer or early fall. When that part of the renovation is complete, the second floor work will begin. Epic Construction has specialized in building storage facilities and custom homes. The renovations will have to meet certain standards because it’s in Burlington’s Historic District.
“The building was in awful shape. We went all the way back to the shell. We completely gutted it,” Martin says.
Martin says this venture is only the beginning. He’s looking to purchase and develop other downtown properties. There has been movement in downtown in recent months. The Brothers Vintage Toys and Games store opened on the same block of Davis Street in October 2019. Last week it was announced that Casey and Emily Lewis, owners of Owl and Rabbit Gallery on Front Street, purchased three buildings on Spring Street. One would house Owl and Rabbit Gallery, another would be a bakery and the third is the site for the Company Shops Nighttime Cafe.
“I like downtown, the vibe. I see what it can be,” he says. “I do feel that downtown Burlington is on the comeback, if everybody can weather the storm.”
The Davis Street Tap House also has a Facebook page.