Veterans Administration (va) Hospital

36.00946, -78.938935

Cross Street
Year built
Year(s) modified
Architectural style
Construction type
Building Type
Can you help?
You don't need to know everything, but do you know the builder?
Log in or register and you can edit this.


Construction of the VA hospital, looking southwest, 1951
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)

The VA may seem like a bit of an odd building to profile, but its location and construction presaged the transformation of a mostly rural area on the fringes of Durham into a busy, highly developed medical corridor today.

In November 1945, the Veterans Administration in Washington, DC requested of Congress funds to construct 24 new hospitals. On the same day, the Durham Chamber of Commerce contacted Congressman Carl T. Durham to begin advocating for the establishment of one of those hospitals in Durham. The following day, they met with Duke President RL Flowers, and WC Davison, Dean of the Duke Medical School, to enlist their support, as part of their argument would be the partnership between Duke and the VA hospital. On December 6, 1945, Congressman Durham informed local officials that Durham had been penciled in as the location of one of the 24 new hospitals; a new policy that VA hospitals would be located near existing medical centers was key in pushing Durham onto the short list.

The original budget was pegged at $4 million, and the House Appropriations committee appropriated $3,974,000 in January 1946 for construction in 1947. Site selection took several months. During this time, a counter-movement arose to locate the VA hospital at the former Army hospital at Butner; a chief argument was that it would save money as, during the site selection process, estimates for the construction of the VA had risen to $8 million.

Additional political machinations ensued, including the wooing of the chief medical director for the VA by Durham officials (he also accepted the invitation of Duke Medical School to present diplomas to the medical school graduates.) The medical director visited Butner, and subsequently reiterated that Durham was a more suitable location, and it was formally approved by President Truman on June 28, 1946.

WL Foushee owned the 18 acres of land on Erwin Road that was chosen for the hospital location - evidently a mostly wooded tract at the edge of residential development to the east along Erwin Road and to the north along Fulton Street (Hickstown.) The land to the west was nearly all forested.

George Watts Carr was named architect for the 10-story, 500 bed hospital on August 2, 1946, and completion was scheduled for July 1, 1948.

A dispute ensued over the extension of water and sewer lines, and who between the VA, Duke, and the City would pay. In the end, the city paid $58,910, Duke paid $37,250, and the VA $40,000. The VA took out an option on the land in late 1946 for $30,875.

In July 1947, the VA announced that construction would be delayed until 1951 because of escalating costs and shortages of building materials. In September of that year, Durham attempted to have a planned 1000 bed neuropsychiatric hospital co-located with the VA general hospital. However, Salisbury was selected as the site of that hospital.

The VA exercised its option on the land on January 6, 1948; the transfer was held up for months in a dispute over who would pay the $123.58 of property taxes owed on the land. The VA refused, as did WL Foushee, the owner. ES Booth, president of the Chamber, eventually paid the property taxes with Chamber funds to allow the transfer to proceed.

In October 1948, the city, state, VA, and Duke reached an agreement to widen and straighten Erwin Road from Cooke Street to NC 751. Construction drawings for the VA were completed in early 1949, and Thompson and Street General Contractors of Charlotte, NC won the bidding on the construction package in December 1949 for $5,685,400.

Construction was 50% complete in June, 1951, and construction was completed in 1953.

Looking west from ~Trent Drive at the under construction VA, ~1951. The edge of Duke's hospital is at the left edge of the picture.
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)

Looking northwest, ~1952 at a nearly complete VA Hospital.
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)

Completed VA Hospital, 1953.
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)

(Courtesy Chris Graham)

The location of the VA helped to steer the growth of medical services in western Durham towards Erwin Road - most notably, the extension of Duke Hospital and associated research buildings to Erwin Road over the course of several decades. Erwin Road was further widened in subsequent decades, and served as a thoroughfare connection between the Durham Freeway and 15-501 during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.

Today, the hospital is considerably expanded beyond its initial footprint, although it is now a 274-bed hospital rather than a 500 bed hospital - reflecting the overall movement away from prolonged inpatient hospital care.

Several years ago, there was talk of a mixed-use development - a partnership between the VA and private development - that would locate at Fulton and Erwin. I'm not sure what happened to this, but subsequently, extensive development has occurred and continues to occur immediately to the west of the hospital straddling Lasalle St. It has been an oddly delayed response to have a significant retail presence along Erwin Road given the number of office/hospital employees nearby. Duke's insistent camouflaging of its research buildings behind stands of pine trees on Erwin Road hasn't helped.

VA Hospital looking northeast from Erwin Road, ringed by various additions, 04.25.09

Find this spot on a Google Map.



Wow! In black and white, the old VA looks sharp!

I couldn't help but notice the Duke nurses' dorm, at the corner of Trent and Erwin, in the second aerial photo. It's now the John Hope Franklin Center -- one of the oft-overlooked gems on Duke's campus.

Any hope for a profile of the building? I'm curious to see what it looked like prior to its 2001 restoration.


Next week.


awesome aerials

Have you done any research on Alexander Ave off of Ewin Rd.? It was named after William Alexander Smith. I am his great great grandson, Clint Smith. He owned a 2 story house there with an ajoining store. He also owned the land and made the deed in his wife Sarah Catherine Cox's name, which was Recomended to him by his good fiend Mr. Erwin, owner of Erwin Cotton Mills. Mr. Erwin also supplied the lumber for his friend, Alex, to build the home. (This is listed in a family history of ours.) The home was near the front half of Alexander, near Pace St. I have always wanted to figure out where the home was, or even if it is still standing! There is a large 2 story restored Victorian brick home directly across from Pace St. on Alexander Ave. that I have also always wondered about. Do you have any information on this Street? Highly interested. It is a very interesting area. Thank you, Clint


I'm just starting my research on Alexander Ave., so thank you for providing me your information. I will certainly be profiling it sometime in the next few weeks. As for the large Victorian, it was moved there - but you can read more about that tomorrow. :)


Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments.