First Main Public Library : Five Points - East

35.996792, -78.903458

Year built
Year demolished
Architectural style
Construction type
Building Type
Can you help?
You don't need to know everything, but do you know the architect?
Log in or register and you can edit this.

The opposite point of Five Points was the first home of the main Durham Public Library, which was housed in a small wood-frame building

Courtesy Durham County Library, circa 1910


Looking northwest (towards Five Points) from West Main St.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

The main public library was established in 1897 as the first public, non-subscription library in North Carolina. The "Canterbury Club" - a women's social group - began fundraising and enlisting support from other groups to build a library for Durham. Ms. Lalla Ruth Carr donated the land at the eastern point of Five Points, said to be worth $2500, as a location for the library, which opened in 1898.

When the library moved to its building on East Main Street in 1921 (still standing!), the wood frame structure was torn down and replaced with a flatiron building, called the Piedmont Building that same year. This building had a flat face, unlike the rounded front on the opposite point. (Which you can see the shadow of in this, evidently, late afternoon picture.) The building was built by the Piedmont Club, a newly organized 'men's club' that intended to build a structure that would provide facilities for their club (as well as retail space on the first floor - much like the Temple Buildng and Masonic Temple building further east on Main St. The building contained a ballroom and kitchen area on the third (top) floor. Judge Sykes was the president of the Piedmont Club, Foy Robertson the vice-president and JM Markham was secretary-treasurer.

Looking east, circa 1925
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

Aerial view, looking east.
Courtesy Duke Archives
Parade at Five Points, looking east
Courtesy Durham County Library

Piedmont Building, 1940s

By the 1950s, the flat front of the building was a place for advertisements and a clock. (Notice the Washington Duke Hotel in the background - large brick building to the left, as well as the exterior cladding that has been placed over the three mid-block buildings that were Belk Department Store - the way to 'modernize' in the 1950s. I'll come back to these buildings later.)

Piedmont Building, looking east, 1954
(Courtesy Duke University)

Looking east at night, 02.01.58
(Courtesy Herald-Sun)

Piedmont building, looking east, ~1960
(Courtesy John Schelp)

Unfortunately, in November of 1965, this building burned.

Looking west from the Washington Duke Hotel, November 13, 1965.
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

Looking west-southwest from East Chapel Hill St., November 13, 1965.
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

This 1966 shot shows the building - which frankly looks salvageable in this photo - after the fire. It appears that the city may have planned to demolish it through urban renewal anyway, as it was appraised in 1964 by the urban renewal folks - before the fire.

Courtesy Durham County Library

View of the fire damage from the Snow Building, 11.15.65
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

In September, 1966, the building was torn down.

Courtesy Durham County Library

And thus attempt number one commenced to turn this focal point into a viable public space:

Creating "Five Points Park" - 10.19.67
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

And it became a bastion of peace and loveliness, frequented by folks out of the Chamber of Commerce brochures...

Look Maude, it's a beautiful tree..... (03.30.68)
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

Wait, this isn't what we boostery folk planned on...

"Malcolm X demonstration, 02.21.69"
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

This may have been one of a handful of times that this plaza hosted this many people.

With the demolition of Durham Drug and Belk-Leggett, the 'plaza' has a large parking lot behind it. We're currently in the midst of remaking it as public space.


Five Points, looking east, Fall 2006
Multiple buildings behind (to the east) of this building have been demolished as well, which is why this very, very important space seems so empty. It is truly unfortunate that the city is rebuilding a 'plaza' at this point. The last thing downtown Durham needs is more open space. This space desperately needs buildings to give the necessary definition to make it feel like city instead of emptiness. That's what happens when you have economic development people doing urban design. This plaza will likely be as empty as the 1970s "Muirhead Plaza" version it replaced.

Five Points, looking east, 07.24.08


I guess the location for the demolished Washington Duke was where the city just put through the Corcoran/Foster St. connection? I like the connector, but I also understand your points about empty space: it would seem a city needs a certain level of density to, well, be a city. Or at least to feel like one. (BTW, I hope I'm not over-commenting, but I do like your blog, and find your posts really thought-provoking.)

I appreciate your comments; I'm glad that someone is reading! You are right about the Washington Duke and the Corcoran/Foster connector. It will certainly be the subject of an upcoming post. Density is still an epithet in many people's minds; I think those people often jump to images of NYC or similar, and react strongly. It seems that the streets and spaces people like in cities have some degree of definition - the ratio of street width (including setbacks) to building height is important. One of my favorite studies to quote is that people walking by vacant lots perceived that distance to be twice as far as people who walked the same distance past buildings. I think open space, if done badly, makes us uncomfortable.

In Duke Park, there's a small traffic circle in the Markham/Glendale intersection. IMO, the city didn't put up enough arrow signs in the middle of it for it to be easily distinguished as a traffic circle by unsuspecting motorists. Someone recently tore off a fire hydrant with their car probably by being surprised (and driving too fast, of course). Anyway, the circle has been discussed on a neighborhood mailing list; some residents actually wanted the street corner curbing cut back (and make the island bigger and other things as well) as part of making the circle more of an impediment to vehicle traffic. I can hardly think of a less pedestrian-friendly thing to do to an intersection than give a pedestrian more street to cross. If any concomitant circle enlargement isn't done right, the whole intersection will become even easier to speed through. People think they understand this stuff, but they often don't. For instance (IMO), putting sidewalks through people's yards isn't always a win; I wish the city instead would do more urban trail work the way it seemed (7-10 years ago) they were going to.

hey! found you via Joe. very interesting stuff. I'm on the Durham Open Space & Trails Commission, and we recently sent forth a request for the Planning Dept. to develop an actual Urban Open Space Plan for Durham, because, as you so aptly note, Durham just hasn't done a very good job of handling its open spaces in the past. Too much of it in the wrong places, creating more in bad spots, encouraging inappropriate and even outright detrimental uses, etc. Hopefully if we can get a real Plan in place, that can be changed. I'm going to forward a link to your blog to some of our members. cool!

Thanks for your comment. As you've inferred, I am a fan of open space, but those who decide to create open space downtown don't seem to have looked at any other models or research as to what makes vibrant open space vs. dead open space in a downtown. I hope you get traction on the request for the urban open space plan.

Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments.