A New Dawn on Sunset
A couple breathes life into an old downtown Asheboro building
By Cassie Bustamante
Photographs by Amy Freeman
Right: Photograph by Lauren Brooks of Hello Cheetah Photography and Monclay, LLC Media
In the heart of downtown Asheboro sits a three-story, brick building that, over the last 100-plus years, has housed, among other things, a post office, a doctor’s office, a tailor, a clothier and even a photography studio. Now, thanks to designer Christie Luckenbach and her husband, Eric, the Sunset Avenue structure they’ve dubbed “The Commerce Building” is home to The Taco Loco as well as five modernized apartments, including that of the Luckenbachs.
Their own home, which takes up a majority of the top floor, is a perfect balance of sleek modern lines and time-worn patina no professional faux-finisher could duplicate. But it wasn’t even close to move-in ready when they originally purchased the building.
It was a glorified “pigeon roost — just nasty,” Eric recalls of the entire third floor. But Eric knew that Christie could make it into something special. “That’s the beauty of her talent.”
Eric knew immediately he wanted to purchase the building after visiting it with its then owner, former Asheboro Mayor David Jarrell. But “he did not want to sell it,” says Eric, who countered: “If you give us a chance, we will do it right. And we’ll spend the money. We had it in our minds that we wanted to invest in Asheboro.”
While the Luckenbachs, both born and raised in Asheboro, had not previously considered themselves property developers, their close friend, Jen Parrish, challenged them to “put the money where their mouth is.” After spending much of their 32 years together traveling, Christie and Eric felt ready to apply what they’d seen in cities all over the world. “We’re just always looking at buildings and what you can do with them,” says Eric, blue eyes full of wanderlust. “That’s kind of our fun in a way.”
Finally, with Mayor Jarrell’s blessing and Parrish’s encouragement, the Luckenbachs bought 134 Sunset Avenue in January of 2018 and started making plans to recruit a dining establishment that would anchor the first floor before working on the rest. As huge fans of The Taco Loco, a popular dive on the outskirts of town at that time, the Luckenbachs set their sights on bringing the restaurant downtown. Christie got to work designing the entire space with The Taco Loco in mind to show its owners what was possible for their business.
Christie says the inspiration for the eatery’s eggplant-colored walls paired with green accents came from a photo of bright, vivid guacamole ingredients. The choice of purple became a sizzling debate between the couple, but, in the end, Christie won. And her designs lured The Taco Loco to The Commerce Building. (The Taco Loco is currently closed for renovations and due to reopen soon. Its adjacent cantina remains open.)
“Without her drawings,” says Eric, who has come around to the purple, “it probably never would have happened.”
The biggest perk? “We eat it all the time,” says Eric. “Last night!” they say in unison.
And, of course, the restaurant owners are happy customers as well. “It’s completely changed their lives,” says Christie.
Once The Taco Loco was in place, Christie began designing the top two levels, which would eventually become five apartments — three on the second floor and two on the top floor, including what they call the “premiere” apartment, their current residence.
However, the original plan was to claim the entire third floor for the couple and their two sons, Beau and Ben. But during their renovation process, life threw them a curveball that changed their plans — and their lives — forever. In July of 2020, 14-year-old Ben Luckenbach passed away suddenly.
“Brilliant child, just brilliant,” recalls Eric of his younger son, Ben, who was working towards being a master level chess player.
“Playing chess blindfolded! I said, ‘Ben, you really gotta rub that in?’” adds Christie, her soft freckles crinkling as she laughs.
Despite suffering through a parent’s worst nightmare, the Luckenbachs, feeling bolstered by the empathy and support of their Asheboro community, remained strong and pushed through the project. “It was a really good distraction,” says Christie. “In all the bad,” adds Eric, “you gotta keep going forward.”
The couple adjusted their plans and decided instead to split the top floor into two apartments, a one-bedroom intended for 21-year-old Beau and their own two-bedroom.
With the help of Trollinger Construction, Christie worked to maintain as much of the original footprint as possible throughout both the second and the third floor. “It’s easy to demo,” she says, “but it’s expensive to build back.”
She salvaged anything she could. Original wood floors have been refinished throughout, with Christie keeping some of the quirky characteristics created over time, such as burn marks made by a tailor’s iron on the second floor.
In the couple’s own apartment, a long rustic beam operates as a shelf. Is it original? Not exactly. It’s been fabricated from a first floor joist that had suffered water and termite damage. Recovering what they could, they simply repurposed the rescued pieces.
While some features aren’t original, they are purposefully of the era. Christie, who has a self-proclaimed “door fetish,” knew she wanted six-panel doors throughout, but “they became popular as headboards and became really expensive.” Luckily, she “caught wind of this house being torn down on the corner of Park and Church.” After some investigating, it turned out the owner was a former client who gladly gave her all of the doors — enough for this project and another, plus some to spare.
In the studio-style living space, original exposed-brick walls and arched windows lend a historic atmosphere while sleek light fixtures plus a cozy Italian leather sofa afford modern comforts.
Another new addition is the floor-to-very-high-14-foot ceiling gas fireplace that quietly displays dancing and mesmerizing flames, and, according to Christie, “does put off heat” while creating a calming ambience.
In the kitchen, European style stainless appliances pair with dark cabinetry and black granite countertops and slab backsplash with white veining and hints of taupe and brown. It’s a modern chef’s dream kitchen — and Eric loves to cook.
But the best feature in the main living space has got to be the location and the view. From their apartment windows, Christie and Eric can see and hear — what some people might consider a bug, not a bonus — the train going by. “It’s awesome,” says Christie. “We’re like children.”
Eric interjects, “This has not gotten old!”
And when downtown Asheboro hosts its summer concert series, can they hear that, too? “Yes!” the couple exclaim.
“They’ll have like a Fleetwood Mac cover band and you can just open the window and you’re a part of it,” says Eric. “It’s awesome — so awesome,” adds Christie.
Tucked away from the main living space, the two bedrooms boast original beadboard walls with layers of old crusty paint that create nostalgic appeal. “I don’t think they did any repairs on these walls so they’re a little rough, but I love it,” muses Christie.
Outside of their apartment door is another space with beadboard. Here, both the walls and banister are painted black with exception to one exposed brick wall and one taupe wall. “That’s original because I knew I would never be able to duplicate this patina,” says Christie of the latter. “It’s incredible . . . but don’t touch it!” Why? Well, for one thing, it hasn’t been painted in decades so as to preserve a little signature from former Mayor Jarrell’s granddaughter, left there when he owned the building.
Opposite the “autographed” wall, a collection of rustic antler mounts brings a touch of their former country home to the city. “Beau and Eric harvested those off of our farm,” says Christie. “I just imagined them being on that wall. It’s modern, but natural.”
The Luckenbachs refer to this hall outside their apartment’s door as their “foyer,” originally created and intended to be shared with older son Beau, who planned to live in the one-bedroom apartment adjacent to theirs. However, two days before the big move, Beau expressed his doubts. Christie recalls Beau saying, “I don’t think I can move into the city.” She adds, “He loves four-wheelers and side-by-sides.”
With the growth Asheboro is experiencing, it wasn’t hard to rent out Beau’s apartment, which went in an “instant,” just as the three units below them did.
Although he’s not living right beside his parents, Beau visits often these days. In fact, with their convenient location in the heart of Asheboro, “He’ll call and say, ‘I am getting ready to drive by,’” says Christie. “And we’ll run to the window and we’re waving at each other!”
Photos of Beau’s little brother, Ben, as well as mementos and reminders are also sprinkled throughout the apartment and even in the rest of the building. On the second floor, an original miniature door in the wall opens to a tiny cubby, which holds a memorial to the Luckenbachs’ son. On top of that is a chess piece, a white knight. “Because he was like a knight,” says Christie.
And right outside their apartment door on the wall, a trio of artwork makes up a little gallery dedicated to Ben. There’s a sketch of Ben being welcomed into Jesus’ arms, a gift from Christie’s hairdresser. An old wooden chessboard that Nic, one of Christie’s favorite workers, unearthed towards the tail-end of the renovation, hangs below the drawing. When Christie arrived at the site and saw it leaning against a wall, she couldn’t believe it. She asked Nic to protect it and make sure it did not get thrown away. She looks at the board, her brown eyes filled with tears. Knowing that the chessboard had been in that building throughout the renovation process, Christie vocalizes what it meant to her: “Ben has been with us the whole time.”
The last piece hanging in the trio on the wall was created by Nic and his wife, Morgan. It’s a wall hanging featuring two black-and-white rainbows, one inverted, to represent the circle of community. Specifically, for Christie, it represents “how we’re giving back to the community that had given to us when we lost Ben.”
And the Luckenbachs hope to keep on giving back to Asheboro, a city that raised them and carried them through some of life’s biggest challenges. “It kinda goes back to our friend Jen,” Eric says of the friend who encouraged them to invest in their hometown. “She has a saying: ‘You can’t change the world, but you can start right where you are and start making changes.’” OH