326 East Main Street / Johnson Motor Company

35.99297, -78.897583

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Local historic district
National Register
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326 East Main, 2007

During the early 20th century, the large, elaborate dwellings in the 300 and 400 blocks of East Main St. (the two blocks between Roxboro and Dillard St.) were progressively torn down to make way for commercial and institutional structures. One of these structures was the Presley J. Mangum house, built in the 1880s. Mangum was Durham's first postmaster.


PJ Mangum house, 1898
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun)

Mangum moved out to West Point in 1891.

Between 1902 and 1907, the house at 314 East Main St. seems to have either been significantly modified, or torn down and rebuilt. By 1907, it is a two-story boarding house known variably as the Sans Souci Hotel. Ms Octavia Thomas (widow of Dr. RW Thomas) is listed as the proprietor of the Sans Souci in 1907. By 1911, it is called the Central Hotel, with "Miss Mangum" as the proprietor. (The Central Hotel appears to have been previously located in the elaborate JR Day house next door.)

By 1915, it seems to have gone out of business, perhaps supplanted by the more elaborate Hotel Lochmoor and Hotel Malbourne one block to the west. It was occupied by Ms. Lena Hessee during the late 1910s and early 1920s.

The Johnson Motor Company was constructed on the site of this house in 1926. To get a sense of how things have changed, the Johnson Motor Company hired prominent local architect George Watts Carr to design their structure (this was his first commercial commission, and he traveled around the country looking at other car dealerships before settling on one in Baltimore as the model for this building.

It is stated that the Scarborough House on Fayetteville St. was built out of materials salvaged from a house that preceded the Johnson Motor Company at this site. If this is true, it isn't clear to me whether the salvage came from the earlier Presley Mangum house, or the Sans Souci Hotel.

The Johnson Motor Company, started by J. Eric Johnson, began as the Five Points Automobile Company, located you-know-where, in the 1910s. The company also ran the Durham Battery Service Station, which became the Central Service Station.

A "Central Filling Station" preceded the construction of the Johnson Motor Company on the site immediately to the west of the eventual dealership location - I don't know if this was run by Johnson first, or came under the dealer's ownership after the construction of the dealership.

Alexander Motor Company (with the elaborate entrance awning) and Johnson Motor Company in the background, late 1930s.

Looking south at the Central Filling Station, late 1920s. The Johnson Motor Company is out of frame to the left.
(From "Images of America: Durham" by Stephen Massengill)

"Wrecked Plymouth at Johnson's" - 03.17.47
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun)

By the late 1940s, Johnson had demolished housing across the street to build a used car lot.

These small dealerships were in their waning days by the early 1970s.

Johnson Motor Company, 1968
(Courtesy Noell Nicholson Schepp)

Showroom, 1968
(Courtesy Noell Nicholson Schepp)

Parts Department, 1968
(Courtesy Noell Nicholson Schepp)

Garage, 1968
(Courtesy Noell Nicholson Schepp)

Garage, 1968
(Courtesy Noell Nicholson Schepp)

The Johnson Buick parking deck, 1968
(Courtesy Noell Nicholson Schepp)

Left, Alexander Ford. Right, Johnson Motor Company, January 1976. Looking southeast from E. Main. (Photo by H. McKelden Smith, Courtesy of the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office)

I'm not very knowledgeable regarding automotive history, but my sense is that, prior to the 1960s, there were far fewer models of car, and that people would order their vehicle more routinely, rather than the dealer having a significant amount of stock. Regardless, the overall shift towards a more suburban city and behavior led to a drastic change in the form of car dealerships.

The Johnson Motor Company appears to have shifted primary operations away from here in 1978. After that, the building became "Star Buick" until 1984 and then offices for J. Eric Johnson, Jr. From 1986 until 1990, the property was occupied by "Euroclassics, Ltd." .

The Johnson dealership building is now owned by Durham County, and has primarily been used by the Sheriff's Dept. Much like the Alexander Ford Dealership next door, its beautiful large front windows have been removed/modified. I hope the building will see some more vibrant use at some point in the future.

The former Johnson Motor Company, looking southeast, 2007.

Looking southeast, 2007.

The former Johnson Service Station, looking south-southwest, 2007.

In 2011, the county completed a renovation of the building, which improved the exterior (although I wish they didn't have the blinds in the front windows - they are north-facing, and the replacement? of the front facade windows with white vs. the copper looks terrible.)


It is currently used as the home for Durham County's Criminal Justice Resource Center.  The facility also houses the County Library's Digital Access Center.

UPDATE, March 2019: At a January Stakeholder Advisory Group meeting held by the Durham Housing Authority as part of its DHA Downtown & Neighborhood Planning (DDNP) process, a design rendering for the "Preferred Concept" for redeveloping this block of East Main to Queen and Ramseur Streets suggested the neighboring Alexander Ford Motor Company building would be torn down, while the Johnson Motor Company building would be repurposed and preserved.

 (From page 16 of the DDNP report)

Obviously the campaign to renew and expand investment in affordable housing - especially in the rapidly developing downtown district - deserves attention and support.  Still both of these iconic buildings should be protected as contributing structures to the Downtown Durham Local Historic District, something respondents at public DHA meetings clearly endorsed.  Their preservation would improve the integration of any future project on the site into the historic fabric that helps make Durham the great city it is.

For more on the DDNP process check out the DHA website, and consider attending one of their upcoming Community Concept Plan meetings.


If there is nothing going on in the Johnson Motor company (beautiful!) building, then could the county put it's social services offices there instead of building the planned modern building on the corner of dillard and main??? Has it been used lately? Thanks for your awesome blog!

The Johnson Service Station is listed in the city directories until 1972. The Johnson Motor Company is also listed in the late 1970's as "Star Buick", and appears until 1984. After that the 326 East Main building is listed as "Johnson, Eric Jr. ofc (offices)" - I guess the owner kept the building and used it as office space? From 1986 until 1990 there was also a business at 326 called "Euroclassics Ltd." (presumably a car dealership), after which the property changed hands entirely.


Many thanks. I wish I had a set of the city directories easily accessible, as it would make things much easier. I just can't make it to the library frequently enough to look everything up.


In her Durham County tome, Jean Anderson states that "[a]t the end of the 1890s, on the site of the Presley J. Mangum house at 326 Main Street, was built the Sans Souci [hotel]. It was presided over by Mrs. Octa Thomas and later by Mrs. Lena Hessee. The Sans Souci was demolished in 1926 to make room for the Johnson Motor Company."

Intrepid researchers can chase down the half-dozen citations she makes to the Globe and Herald.

To fill in some for absent.canadian Eric Johnson sold the property to Durham County apparantly around 1990. As I understand they turned it over to the sheriffs dept.. which took advantage of the reinforced concrete construction to build a satelite jail house in back. The building did have a three story auto elevator which was often used to move cars and people between floors. The elevator was disabled I think prior to the counties purchase.

When operated as a car dealership, the parts dept took top floor, sales and general service first, paint/body in the basement.

Showroom was very beautiful with marlbe columns, wall and tile floor. Illuminated wall sconces. Showroom well maintained and classy through Star Buick era and until E. Johnson sold it to county.

Amazing how it was operated verticly rather than now dealerships are done on one level.

Star buick (royce reynolds)was part of what is crown dealerships owned by reynolds family of greensboro

James Eric Johnson was my grandfather and I was always told that he owned the oldest family owned Buick dealership in the world.. The way he got into the automobile business was that he would ride the train to Greensboro and pick up a car and return with it to Durham to sell it. The parking garage on the corner of Roxboro St. was the first parking garage in Durham. On November 7, 1935, Alfred P. Stone, Jr., president of General Motors, chose Johnson as a charter member of his newly established Dealers' Council.
Long time employees of Johnson included George Mebane (and his three wheeled motorcycle), Jesse Hester, George Tilley, and Hubert Pearce.
Johnson was a Representative of the Carolinas-

Image removed.

In reply to by PeterK

Renovations here. The county still owns the building. Criminal Justice Resource Center

Image removed.

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