608 Liberty Street

35.992861105383, -78.890513721853

Year built
c. 1910
Year demolished
Architectural style
Construction type
Building Type
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Photo of 608 Liberty from Durham Urban Renewal Records, May 1965.
608 Liberty Street in May 1965 (Durham Urban Renewal Records, Durham County Library, North Carolina Collection - online via DigitalNC).

Before Liberty Street was extended east of Dillard around 1930, the section starting just inside the Lynchburg & Durham (later Norfolk & Western, now Norfolk Southern) Railroad and extending towards East Durham was known as Lottie Street. Changes in numeration make it difficult to establish the date of construction and first residents of what would become 608 Liberty with precision. Architectural features and later documentation suggest this house was built in the first decade of the 20th century, when property in this immediate vicinity was owned by Ferrells and Wilkersons.

Since a gullied area including the predominantly African American section known as Peachtree Alley (later Peachtree Place) separated this vicinity from downtown, it seems likely residents would have taken small streets down to East Main or up to Holloway to reach other parts of the city prior to the extension of Liberty Street.

1913 Sanborn Map showing area north of East Main Street.
1913 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing area north of East Main, including Peachtree Alley (online via Library of Congress). This house appears at the far top-right corner near where Lottie crossed the railroad eastward. Structures that would later be 602 and 604 Liberty Street appear just to its left before Clinton cuts to the south.

In 1914, this house was sold by J. P. and Jennie V. Moore to W. T. Farabow - who seems to have lived in the Burch Avenue neighborhood across town and never moved to this location. Instead, the William A. and Hattie M. Yearby family became tenants from around 1917 until the early 1930s. He worked for Model Laundry, then based on Foster Street.

Unfortunately, William A. Yearby fell victim to the Spanish Flu outbreak sweeping Durham in the winter of 1918-1919, leaving Hattie a widow with several of their children still in the home. They remained here for another dozen years, apparently hosting boarders to help generate income.

When the Yearbys moved out, rental advertisements for the house at 608 Liberty appeared in mid-1930s Durham newspapers. Tenants named Lamm and Temple lived here at least briefly around that time. In 1936, Farabow heirs sold this house to members of the Fuller family, who owned adjacent property and operated a grocery across the street. Eva Fuller married a man named Jesse Sykes, and by 1940 they had moved in here with their young family.

The Sykes likely built the cinder block outbuilding at the rear of their property for a fishing supply and bait shop business they operated.

Bait shop building behind 608 Liberty, May 1965.
Cinder block structure behind 608 Liberty used as a Bait Shop by Jesse Sykes, shown here in May 1965 (Durham Urban Renewal Records, Durham County Library, North Carolina Collection - online via DigitalNC).

Jesse and Eva Sykes sold the property to their son - Jesse, Jr. - and his wife Patsy Hurst Sykes in early 1963, but there would be little time for the next generation to settle in.

In classic Urban Renewal fashion, the plan for the nearby Liberty Street Apartments included clearing not only the site for the buildings themselves, but also surrounding areas to allow for streamlined traffic arteries. The course of Fayetteville Street south of the main railroad was to connect with a rerouted and extended Elizabeth Street to the north, and the houses on the 600 block of Liberty Street were in the way. The Sykes' home was surveyed and appraised in 1965 - the contractor for the Redevelopment Commission producing the two above photos from May of that year along with a $5,150 estimate.

1965 plat for Liberty Street Urban Renewal area.
1965 plat showing the Urban Renewal area between East Main, Dillard, Liberty, and the Norfolk & Western Railway corridor (Durham County Register of Deeds).

The Sykes were apparently not eager to accept, holding out for a second appraisal in 1967 that pushed the estimate up nearly $1,000 before completing the sale in June of that year. Their bait shop found a new location on Miami Boulevard by 1968, when newspaper ads for demolition bids indicate their former home was finally pulled down.

It's easy to look back on the myriad mistakes of the Urban Renewal era and pass judgement. While the reconfigured street pattern actually did not require the footprint of 608 Liberty, it might have been odd for this lone house to be left standing - wedged between the North Elizabeth thoroughfare and the railroad. Still, even if the buildings astride Liberty Street were showing their age by the mid-1960s, they formed a kind of gateway on this approach to the city center that was lost along with the housing and commercial establishments.

Looking west from the railroad tracks on Liberty, 1966. At right is the Herndon's Warehouse flea market that would remain into the 1980s.  608 Liberty is the first house on the left (Courtesy Herald-Sun).
Looking west down 600 block of Liberty Street, January 2023.
Similar view west down Liberty, January 2023 (N. Levy).

As with many parts of the city cleared as 'blighted', there have been long years of waiting for anything better to come. The site where 608 Liberty once stood may not be atop any list of priorities for the redevelopment of city-owned properties, but it's a shame to see an untamed mess of overgrowth and illegally dumped trash on a prominent and centrally-located corner.

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