318-320 West Main / 120-126 East Chapel Hill St. - Belk-Leggett

35.99663, -78.902915

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318-320 West Main

Belk-Hudson, later Hudson-Belk, and, still later, Belk-Leggett was one of the (if not the) first chain stores to enter Durham. A partnership between the Belk company, which had started in Monroe, NC in 1888, and the Hudson brothers of Anson County, NC, Durham's store opened in 1919, 4 years after Belk's first incursion into the Piedmont with the Hudson brothers - located on Fayetteville St. in Raleigh.

Belk was first located at 326-328 West Main St. - it appears that they moved to 322-324 West Main at some point in the late 1920s.

318-320 appears to have been built between 1923 and 1928 as Gilmer's, Inc. By 1934, the building had been taken over by Belk's. 





1920s view - you can see "Belk" on the side of the 322-324 W Main building.
(Courtesy Duke Archives, Wyatt Dixon Collection)






Looking north from the south side of West Main st.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

All of these buildings extended through to East Chapel Hill St.



Looking east from about the location of the Penny Furniture building, late 1920s. The Washington Duke Hotel is in the distance on the right. Roney street (which ran in front of the Carolina Theater) is at the second set of lampposts on the left. The East Chapel Hill portion of 318-320 is just beyond the Belk's sign.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

This less-than-optimal photo shows all of the 300 West Main facades by the 1940s. United Department Stores (formerly United Dollar Store) had taken over 322-324 and 326-328 West Main in the late 1920s, and Belk had expanded to the east by the 1940s.






(Courtesy Duke Archives, Wyatt Dixon Collection)

And below, another oblique view looking northeast-ish up West Main St.



(Courtesy Duke Archives, Wyatt Dixon Collection)





318-320 West Main - Belk-Leggett - 1950s.



120-126 East Chapel Hill, 1950s

(Courtesy Durham County Library)

By the 1960s, United had gone out of business,and Belk took over those buildings as well. The false front facades took over downtown en masse. Belk bricked up all of the windows and put on a uniform facade.






Looking northwest - "Friedman's" is the current Ringside building.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)







326-328 West Main (the westernmost buildings) suffered a partial collapse during all of the manipulation of its facade.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

The completed facade, 1962. Looking east on West Main St.




(Courtesy Durham County Library)

From what I've read, Belk appears to have been THE department store downtown by the 1960s - it was certainly, by far, the largest once it had taken over all of this space. But it also appears to have been a principal downtown destination.

Perhaps because of its stature, it lasted longer than most downtown. But eventually, the lure of the mall was too much, and in 1975, Belk departed for the now-departed South Square. After attempts to sell the building (and attempts to find a 'shopping center' tenant to turn it into a "minimall" by the Zuchelli, Hunter and Assoc. consulting firm, hired by Nello Teer to "try to bring something back to downtown") the owners prepared to demolish the buildings. John Flowers, president of the Historic Preservation Society, said that the historic society had no interest in the future of the building, according to contemporaneous Herald-Sun article - that this group of buildings "[was] not a great piece of architecture." There was a great deal of conviction that the vacant lot would be more appealing for future development than the buildings.

In August 1977, the buildings were torn down.






Looking northwest, August 1977.
(Courtesy Herald-Sun)






Looking south, August 1977.
(Courtesy Herald-Sun)






Looking southeast, August 1977.
(Courtesy Herald-Sun)







Looking northeast.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)


(Photo by George Pyne, courtesy Milo Pyne)

(Photo by George Pyne, courtesy Milo Pyne)

(Photo by George Pyne, courtesy Milo Pyne)

The development never came - as was the case with any number of 'speculative demolitions' downtown. The Herald-Sun built an addition over a portion of the space, while much of it became surface parking. I think they may have used it for only a few (<5) years before moving out to the Boulevard.

Herald-Sun addition under construction

(Photo by George Pyne, courtesy Milo Pyne)





Looking northwest, 2007.



I remember well being taken to shop at Belk downtown with my Mom. The candy counter at the foot of the escalator was without question the finest spot in the world. I imagine it's still there somewhere if one looks close enough in the parking lot--it could not have been the slightest bit destructible.

Thanks for the comment - I love getting info from people who actually experienced these places. I can now almost picture that candy counter myself...


I grew up in Durham and remember well the Belk Leggett Company. Belks was one of the few downtown stores people my age (45) would recall with clarity. I remember the pink tile facade and the fact that we had to park away in a special Belk lot and then walk past the front of the Carolina Theatre to go to Belk's entrance. At this time (c. 1970-1974), the Carolina Theatre usually showed what was termed "dirty movies", i.e., x-rated features. My Mother---and every other parent in town, from what I could tell---was very much bothered by this. As a child, we were fascinated by the marquees and posters outside the Carolina advertising that sort of movie.

Once inside Belk's, you would have thought you were in another world....Belks carried the best label and had the original bargain basement. Belk was THE pre-eminent department store in Durham and had no serious rival other than possibly Thalhimers, which had smaller branches at Lakewood and Northgate. If I remember correctly, Thalhimers had purchased Ellis Stone, but I really don't remember going downtown to Thalhimers----my Mom preferred Belk Leggett. She never called it Belk's----always "Belk Leggett".

I also remember that Belk's was the first store that I had ever been to that had escalators. I think Sears may have had them too, but I can't recall for sure. Although I am certain it's hard to believe in 2008, but people didn't travel like they do now and so I had never been to Raleigh or the other malls in the state. I thought that going to Belk Leggett was way cool.

I also remember that Belk's was near Roses and we would also go there after we were finished at Belk's so that we did not have to go find another parking space downtown. Once we went into Raylass (which was next door) by mistake and I remember that freaked my Mom out!

When the Belk Leggett store was torn down in 1977, a lot of Durham history went with it. The buildings may have held little architectural interest, but there were a lot of memories there. I recall a Durham Morning Herald (now Herald-Sun)story about the "ghost" at Belk's. Apparently there was a haunted elevator that would suddenly start with no one pressing the button. Belk's employees seem to take this ghost in stride. The newspaper story seemed to also take it very seriously---in fact, I remember the headline was "Belk's Ghost Still Stands Watch".

I also remember Belk-Leggett fondly. There was a very small elevator that my mother and I used to reach the children's clothes area. A tall, elegant, well-dressed lady with hair pulled into a stylish bun frequently waited on us. She had a wonderful sense of style and always recommended the perfect outfit for me. I also remember parking in the lot several blocks away, and if you showed your Belk's bag to the attendant, you didn't have to pay for parking. Years later, when I was going off to college, my mother took me to Belk's to purchase sheets and towels. Ironically, I still have a remnant of one of those towels over 40 years later -- threadbare to be sure but of superior quality to what I might purchase today. I have remained loyal to Belk's through the years regardless of where I have lived -- partly because of my early association with that downtown store.

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