Trinity Methodist (1880-1923)

35.995663, -78.898361

Cross Street
Year built
Year(s) modified
Year demolished
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Local historic district
National Register
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(Courtesy Duke Archives)

Trinity Methodist was the second church established in Durham. Like First Baptist, it originated elsewhere and moved to Durham. In 1830, a church revival was organized in a one room schoolhouse 1 mile east of what would later become Durham, along the Raleigh Road (Angier Ave.) From this, a church was organized, which was named Orange Grove after the schoolhouse. William R. Herndon donated a building and an acre of land for the church in 1832, but Jefferson Dilliard burned the church in 1835 for reasons unknown. A new building was built in its place.

By 1860, Prattsburg was in decline and the church decided to move westward to the new but increasingly successful town of Durham. RF Morris donated a piece of land on Cleveland St. (where the First Baptist Church now stands) but the church decided on a different location, in a "grove just to the east of Cleveland St." evidently near the corner of Liberty and Roxboro.

There the frame church building existed until 1880, when a large brick structure with a 120 foot spire, remodeled in 1890 and pictured above, was built at the head of North Church St.

Below, a closer look at the front of the structure.

(Courtesy Durham County Library)

A parsonage was built immediately to the west of the structure, partially visible in the above picture.

The parsonage, circa, 1895.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

As mercantile structures were built along Church St., connecting the Church with the courthouse area nearby on East Main St., an impressive urban vista was formed, which was completed by the construction of Union Station, such that the passengers disembarking from their trains to Durham would see this sight.

Once the best terminating vista in Durham - the view from Union Station, looking north up Church St. at Trinity Methodist - circa 1905.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

Unfortunately, the impressive structure burned to the ground on a Sunday morning - January 21, 1923 -  the steeple evidently 'telescoping' to the ground as the Sunday School children looked onward (accounts differ.)

Trinity Methodist Church, destroyed by fire - from East Parrish St., January 1923
(Courtesy Duke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection - Wyatt Dixon Collection)

Trinity Methodist Church, destroyed by fire, January 1923
(Courtesy Duke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection - Wyatt Dixon Collection)

Trinity Methodist Church, destroyed by fire, January 1923
(Courtesy Duke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection - Wyatt Dixon Collection)

Below, looking north on a church-less Church St. from near E. Main St. ~1923.

The church soon began to rebuild, and used Ralph Adam Cram as their architect - who 17 years earlier had designed St. Philip's Episcopal. He built a more formal and elaborate Gothic structure - under construction in the picture below.

(Courtesy Duke Archives)

The story goes that the church ran out of money before they were able to construct the steeple of the church, although it looks like a fairly classic Gothic structure without the steeple. It was completed in 1924.

Looking north on Church St. from near Main St., ?1930s?
(Courtesy of Nicomachus. Original source unknown.)

Looking north on Church St. from East Main, late 1930s or 1940.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

The church was one of the 'big four' that stayed in downtown, although the landscape around them became less residential, more commercial, and eventually, more barren as time went on, including time with bail bondsmen and X-rated movie theaters as their neighbors. The impressive vista was severely compromised by the demolition of Union Station and the construction of a parking lot in its stead. This, and the demolition of the structures on the east side of North Church St. meant the view was no longer as visible or as impressive.

Looking north on Church, 1984.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

In 1985, the church added a steeple to the top of the church.

Steeple being installed, 03.08.85
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun)

Looking north, 1987.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

It is still an impressive view north to this structure, if you can get far away enough to really take it in. To get the shot below, I had to contort myself a bit from the deck of the parking garage.

I hope that, someday, Church St. will open to Ramseur (i.e. bye-bye deck) and streetscape will be rebuilt on the east side of Church St. When that happens (I'll be optimistic) I think this can become a very cool urban space.


What I wouldn't give to have an X-rated theater downtown. Having to trek out to Guess Rd. means that only those with cars get to enjoy the "alt porn" that our hipster creative classes demand.

Yeah, we've got Teasers, but not everyone can meet the dress code. Plus the girls there tend to skew toward the bourgeois; lots of silicone, and if they have tattoos it's not likely to be ironic.

The pre-1920s church looked impressive indeed from the opposite end of the (pre-urbanly renewed) street. And too bad about the 1980s steeple ... looks like it fell from the sky (or from a Batman movie) and landed on the building. I guess it needed to be made more "church like" (or someone was putting on airs!).


The X-rated theater was the Criterion (or the "Crit" as it was commonly called). Gary, you might see if you can find some pictures of it because I recall that it was actually an attractive building. The city fathers found it embarrassing, but it attracted lots of horny undergraduates from Duke and Carolina. Of course, it was not originally an X-rated theater, but by the late 1960's, it was pretty run-down, particularly on the inside. So was the Rialto on Main St. Since first run movies went to nicer theaters, the Criterion started showing porn and Rialto starting showing foreign films. Sometimes they overlapped. I remember seeing "I am Curious (Yellow)" at the Rialto.

Anyway the porn at the Crit was tame by today's standards. It was all soft-core. DCRollins doesn't have to go out Guess Rd. He can see more flesh on HBO.

What a loss. Imagine if we still had three movie theatres downtown.


Good to see you again. I agree that we need some more lasciviousness in downtown. It's unfortunate how tame all of the old photos of downtown are, particularly considering Durham's early reputation. But by the 1890s, churches like Trinity Methodist had turned Durham into a dry city (I don't know about county.)


I'll go with the airs.


I'll ask if you could repost that comment next week, when I do the other side of Church St., including the Criterion. Would that we still did have these three theaters downtown - we wouldn't be bereft of downtown movie-going when they decide to shut down the Carolina for the summer.


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