Downtown Central

"Downtown Central" is my term for an area that has been described in a variety of ways - the CBD, inside the loop, and just "downtown," in the narrowest sense. As the core of Durham, its description can potentially draw on much broader themes of the history of Durham. It is generally the institutional and governmental core of Durham, and has at times been the commercial and cultural core of Durham. The core of the core, if you will, was the intersection of Mangum Street and East Main Street - a pre-existing crossing of north south roads (Roxboro/Oxford to Fayetteville) and east-west roads (Raleigh to Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.) At this intersection was at least one store, and some farmhouses, including the house and land of Bartlett Durham, located to the southwest of that intersection.

The insertion of the railroad into this small setting in 1854 changed its trajectory dramatically. Main Street was the primary axis of linear development, which extended roughly from Corcoran to Church Street. Areas west-northwest began to see factory and tobacco warehouse development, in the area of Five Points, and along Green Street (later Chapel Hill St.) The establishment of the original courthouse east of Church Street and the Duke Factory west of Five Points stretched commercial development east and west, displacing the more industrial uses to the north and south.

Below is the "CBD" text from the Durham Historic and Architectural Inventory from 1980.

DURHAM'S Central Business District (CBD) is the historical nucleus of the city. Despite the fact that no buildings from prior to the 1890s survive, coverage of the 19th-century structures erected here, beginning around 1850, is necessary for a proper presentation of the phys- ical development of downtown Durham. This is particularly essential for an appreciation of the series of major construction projects that altered the face of downtown Durham during the first forty years of this century. Durham's significant downtown buildings are covered in detail in individual entries; thus, much of this essay addresses structures no longer standing so that the context in which the existing pre-1940 CBD buildings arose may be presented.

The true center of Durham is the northeast corner of Peabody and Corcoran streets where Dr. Bartlett Durham built his country estate, "Pandora's Box," probably in the late 1840s. In 1852, Dr. Durham sold his four-acre homesite to the North Carolina Railroad Company for a depot along its line connecting Goldsboro and Charlotte that was then under construction. The hamlet of Durham began to grow when the railroad line was completed in 1854, providing access to larger markets for the area's goods.

For several years, Durham was little more than a whistle stop. The depot was situated at the southeast corner of what is now Peabody and Corcoran streets, facing Pandora's Box, which is believed to have been converted to Durham's first railroad hotel. Most of what is now the CBD remained agricultural, and included the farms of J. R. Green and William Mangum, which met at present-day Five Points. On the basis of a photograph of the Mangum house, it is believed that the farmhouses close to the depot were not as plain as Duke Homestead, four miles north of Durham; they reflected an economic standing that permitted attention to fashion, readily available from publications easily shipped to the hinterland by rail. At the northeast edge of this district encompassed by A. J. Rigsbee's farm, an academy was established in 1852 in a frame building. In 1854, the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church built a small frame building with a cupola on Cleveland St., and in 1860 the Orange Grove Methodists moved into Dur- ham where they occupied a small frame building at the head of Church St.

By 1860, stores, saloons, and a carpentry shop also dotted the landscape. Dr. Durham's property was now owned by R. F. Morris. The fate of Pandora's Box is not certain; Morris operated a hotel on the site, but it is not known if it incorporated the house or was all new construction. Morris's other enterprise, more significant to Durham's future, was his small tobacco factory that he installed in a frame house near the railroad depot.

Very little occurred in Durham in the way of physical development or military action during the Civil War. Only the surrender negotia- tions at nearby Bennett Place are important for their indirect impact upon subsequent construc- tion. While waiting for the terms of surrender to be resolved, idle Confederate and Federal troops discovered Morris' tobacco factory. It had been purchased by J. P. Green in 1862, and by this time it was producing high-quality smoking tobacco. What followed is well known - homeward bound soldiers, well supplied with Green's tobacco, carried it to communities across the country where it was enthusiastically welcomed, and soon mail orders for more of the tobacco were pouring into Durham.s

The ensuing development of the hamlet of Durham was the direct result of this steadily increasing demand for its tobacco products. In 1865, Durham had the usual features of a small railroad town, including three stores, a drugstore, a shoemaker's shop, blacksmiths' shops and cotton gins, liveries, and a sawmill. Typical of a young industrial town, saloons and hostel- ries were among the most frequented of Dur- ham's buildings; three bars augmented the facilities at Morris' hotel. Construction proceeded at a rapid pace as the mushrooming market invited enterprising Durhamites to establish new tobac- co factories. Soon, in addition to industrial con- struction, the demand for new commercial and institutional structures, as well as for residences for the manufacturers "and merchants and their employees, began providing many construction jobs. 

The boom really got underway around 1870; during the next ten years Durham's population soared from around 200 to more than 2,000. By the mid 1870s, the demand for construction crews and materials could not be met in the immediate area, and contractors from towns along the connecting railroad line began competing for jobs in Durham.1o The construction of churches indicates' that support of religion kept pace with the patronage of saloons and other colorful elements of this industrial town. The Presbyterians built a small wooden church in 187S; in 1877 the Rose of Sharon Baptist congregation replaced its frame building with a handsome brick church at the corner of W. Parrish and N. Mangum streets; in 1880 the Meth- odists lay a foundation at the site of the original wooden building for the brick Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, distinguished by its approxi- mately ISO-foot spire; and that same year the Episcopalians built a simple frame church on E. Main St.ll All of these structures were replaced with new masonry church buildings early in this century.

Examination of the five series of Sanborn Insurance Maps issued for Durham from 1884 to the turn of the century reveals the late 19th- century development pattern of central Durham. The core of the commercial district lined the four blocks radiating from the intersection of Main and Mangum streets. It quickly expanded to serve not only the town's growing population, but also the great numbers who flocked to Durham for the tobacco market. Rox- boro and Church streets just north of the rail- road tracks were lined with saloons and restau- rants. By 1884, the wide range of businesses on Main St. included offices, banks, print shops, a book store, a jeweler's shop, furniture stores, tailor shops, drug stores, and numerous grocer- ies and- general stores. The Durham Opera House occupied the upper floor of a building in the 100 block of W. Main St.

Along Parrish St. and to the north, especially west of N. Mangum St., industrial buildings predominated. One of the largest complexes was William Mangum's cotton gin and planing mill on the north side of E. Chapel Hill St., then named Green St. Most of the industrial buildings, however, were associated with tobac- co manufacturing, and included warehouses, brokerage houses and small factories. This was especially true of the triangular block between Five Points and Corcoran St., which included the Banner and Reams tobacco warehouses. Although some of these establishments remained in the CBD until well into the 20th century, they all gradually moved to the area now referred to as the Central Business District Frame, at the edge of downtown, and were replaced with commercial and institutional buildings. The smaller tobacco concerns usually occupied simpIe frame buildings; the larger warehouses, such as Parrish's Tobacco Warehouse at the north- east corner of N. Mangum and E. Parrish streets, were brick and consisted of a large one- story trading and storage floor and a decorated two-story front portion containing offices.

Until the mid 1890s, liveries and light indus- trial complexes such as planing mills were the only buildings west of the fashionable office building named the Wright Block on the south side of W. Main St. By 1898, scattered commer- cial buildings had been erected here, and the frame Queen Anne style Durham Public Library, encrusted with sawnwork, marked the tip of the triangular block at Five Points.  

East of Church St., and east of N. Mangum St. north of Parrish St., central Durham was primarily institutional and residential until well into the 20th century. In 1890, the Presbyte- rians erected a handsome brick church with mar- ble trim on their original property at the north- east corner of E. Main and N. Roxboro streets. Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church was en- larged with a sunday school wing in 1893.14 In 1889, the Norman Revival style brick Durham County Courthouse, the designer of which remains unknown, replaced the frame building that had been adapted as the courthouse on E. Main St. in 1881. A couple blocks to the north, Charles Norton built the Neoclassical Revival style Fuller School in 1897 at the northwest corner of E. Chapel Hill and Cleveland streets, the site of the first Durham Academy.

Traveling east along Main St., dwellings became larger and more elaborate, with the finest houses also extending along Queen and Dillard streets. Here, the Carrs, Fullers, Parrishes and others were constructing large Italianate and Second Empire style houses featuring mul- tiple rooflines, towers, heavily applied ornament and polychroming. None of these buildings sur- vives. A few boarding houses also were situated here. A large three-story building, in the middle of the 300 block of E. Main St., labeled as a house on the 1888 Sanborn map, was designated a boarding house in 1893; by 1898 it was named "Central Hotel." It was noted on the map that the building was surrounded by lawns and shade trees.

For several years, Durham's foremost 19th- century hostelry was the frame Hotel Claiborn which Julian S. Carr established on the site of Pandora's Box and later Morris' Hotel, which may have been incorporated in Carr's building. Around 1890, Carr greatly expanded it as the Carrolina Hotel, a rambling 73-room Queen Anne style building punctuated with elaborate towers and a wraparound veranda, that was Durham's finest hotel until it burned in 1907.

As in the case of the tobacco warehouses, it was the threat of fire and the higher insurance rates charged for frame buildings that primarily determined a rapid shift from wooden to mason- ry commercial construction in the CBD. The hazards associated with frame construction were made apparent in a most emphatic way when two fires in early 1880 destroyed most of the south side of the 100 block of E. Main St. and the north side of the 100 block of W. Main St. By the late 1870s, a few of Durham's businessmen had erected new brick buildings when they felt financially secure enough to pay greater atten- tion to fashion as a projection of a successful image; this trend paralleled the beginning of Durham's first stylish neighborhoods. Prior to the fires, however, most of the commercial buildings were frame, probably with the popular decoration of a false parapet on the main facade. Beginning in 1881 with the John L. Markham Cash Store, modestly decorated with a corbelled brick cornice, all commercial construction in down- town Durham was masonry. As throughout North Carolina, the majority of Durham's moderately sized two- and three-story commercial buildings, erected from the 1880s to 1920s, were brick and similarly decorated, often with the addition of decorative metal cornices.

Downtown Durham's largest and most prosperous businesses erected very stylish buildings in the last two decades of the 19th century. At the northwest corner' of W. Main and Corcoran streets, in 1887 Richard H. Wright built a three-story building occupied for many years by the Fidelity Savings and Trust Company. Sporting rich corbelled brick cornices at the second story, the Second Empire style Wright Block was capped with a mansard roof, pedi- mented dormers and intricate metal cresting. Around 1892, the First National Bank moved to new quarters at the southeast corner of W. Main and Corcoran streets, opposite the Wright Block and rivalling it for dominance of the intersec- tion. The two-and-one-half story First National Bank Building epitomized the Queen Anne style with multiple rooflines, colorfully patterned brickwork, and a curved tower that projected from the upper stories above the corner entrance.

None of these large commercial buildings of late 19th-century downtown Durham remains standing. The masonry construction did not render them invulnerable to the fires that con- tinued to plague the business district. Those landmark buildings that survived the series of fires in 1894, 1895 and 1897 later fell to the wrecking ball when they were considered less valuable than their strategic sites. The only 19th-century commercial building surviving in the CBD is at 111 W. Main St. and is actually only a portion of a larger building constructed in 1893.

Early in this century, Durham's CBD began to take on its present character. A new burst of economic growth was launched by new prosper- ing textile factories and by the formation in the 1890s of the American Tobacco Co. In central Durham, major construction projects yielded distinctive commercial and institutional build- ings that soon replaced most of the remaining 19th-century industrial structures. Well-known architects, some with national reputations, be- gan to play an important role in the determination of central Durham's streetscapes and skyline.

Construction in the first years of the 20th- century of three public buildings, in classically derived styles, lent an aura of elegance to the CBD. In 1904, a new City High School replaced J. L. Watkins's Tobacco Prize House on Morris St. A spherical dome on a circular base domi- nated the severe neoclassical styling of the red brick building. At the southwest corner of Corcoran and E. Chapel Hill streets, the Beaux Arts pedimented pavilions, pilastered piano nobile, and carved and scored stone surfaces lent- a sense of monumentality to the three-story Academy of Music. Durham's municipal offices, meat and fish markets, and an opera house - with a seating capacity of more than 1500 - were all brought together under the roof of the Academy. Next door, facing W. Main St., a two- and-one-half story Beaux Arts block decorated with a heavy dentil cornice and carved swags above round-arched doors and windows was erected in 1904 as Durham's new U. S. Post Office.

Two other handsome commercial buildings were constructed on W. Main St. during this decade. Durham's first skyscraper, the Trust Building, stands next to the 1904 Post Office site. Built in 1905 for banker John Sprunt Hill, the six-story building is said to have been the tallest structure in the state at that time. The design of the building is attributed to Durham architect Hill C. Linthicum. In 1909, the Temple Building was constructed with material left over from the new Watts Hospital complex. In addi- tion to the source of materials, its Mission style and other facts concerning patronage suggest that the architect was Bertrand E. Taylor, the Watts Hospital architect.

Another new style was introduced to downtown Durham with the construction in 1907 of the new St. Philip's Episcopal Church on E. Main St. It was designed by Cram, Goodhue and Fer- guson of Boston, Mass., to replace the simple frame church built by the congregation in 1880 on the same site. The irregular ashlar exterior and massive short tower recall the character of a rural medieval English parish church, a major theme of nationally known ecclesiastical archi- tect Ralph Adam Cram's work.

Corrimencing around 1905, W. Parrish St. began to witness a conversion from light indus- trial to commercial use when the black-owned and operated North Carolina Mutual and Provi- dent Association (later renamed the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company) purchased several lots here. After the insurance company's construction in 1905 of its first office building, the street soon became known as "Black Wall Street." This handsome two-story brick build- ing, which also housed the Mechanics and Farm- ers Bank on its first floor, was joined by several other buildings over the next few years. By around 1910, the entire north side of the block was a black business complex of two- and three- story brick buildings. Their restrained detail- ing was characteristic of much of the commer- cial construction in the CBD through the 1930s. With time, the neoclassical dentil and modillion cornices and pressed brick facades would give way to simple parapets and tapestry brick trimmed with stone and a few decorative tiles.

One of the most outstanding of Durham's early 20th-century buildings was the 1904 Union Station designed by Milburn and Heister Co. Frank P. Milburn selected the Italian Renais- sance Revival style for the 348,212-cubic-foot station. Highlighted by a 65-foot campanile-like tower, it was one of the finest examples of rail- way architecture in the South, and an appro- priate monument to Durham's dependence on the railroad. Milburn and Heister went on to become downtown Durham's most prolific archi- tects. Although the Union Station was destroyed in 1967 for construction of the Downtown Traffic Loop, all of their later buildings erected in the CBD survive.

Durham's most distinctive commercial building of the 1910s was the First National Bank Building, a Milburn and Heister design, which replaced the bank's Queen Anne style building at the southeast corner of W. Main and Corcoran streets. Highlighted with rich classical decoration at the roofline, stone balconies, and an elaborate metal canopy above the main en- trance, this building supplanted the Trust Build- ing as Durham's tallest structure. Other notable commercial buildings of the 1910s were the Malbourne Hotel and the B. L. Duke Building. Erected in 1913 at the northwest corner of E. Main and N. Roxboro streets, the five-story Malbourne Hotel (no longer standing) finally satisfied the need for a premier hotel that had not been met since the Hotel Carrolina's de- struction. In 1910, Brodie L. Duke commissioned Durham architect Hill C. Linthicum to design his Neoclassical Revival style office building which faced W. Main St. and extended all the way through the block to W. Parrish St.2S A few years later, the building was destroyed in a spec- tacular fire that leveled the block. The redevel- opment of the block included the Italian Renais- sance Revival style Geer Building which replaced Blacknall's Drugstore at the northeast corner of W. Main St. and Corcoran St. 

Milburn and Heister Co. received the commissions for both of the CBD's new institu- tional buildings of the 1910s. In 1916, the firm designed Durham County's new courthouse to be built on the site of the county's 1888 building. Although it is abandoned today, the stately Neoclassical Revival style courthouse continues to dignify its block with its monumental four- story pilasters supporting a heavy entablature and arched entrance bays with scrolled key- stones and bronze doors. The same year that they designed the courthouse, Milburn and Heister received the commission to design a new build- ing for the First Presbyterian Church. This Gothic Revival style church is the only instance in Durham of the firm's deviation from the clas- sically derived styles for which they were best known. In contrast to Ralph Adam Cram's St. Philip's Episcopal Church, the First Presbyterian Church is characterized by a large frontispiece and the dramatic combination of brick and white stone trim highlighting strongly projecting elements.

Beginning around 1920, there was another surge in Durham's physical growth that con- tinued through the 1930s and surpassed all previous rates of expansion. In this "City of the New South," the mild effect of the Depression and the continued success of tobacco encour- aged pursuit of building projects that contrib- uted many landmarks to Durham's CBD. By 1938, commercial and institutional buildings filled most of the CBD; except for a few residen- ces on Liberty, Holloway, and Cleveland streets, all of the houses at the core of the district had been replaced.

Two of these new buildings were churches - the visually pivotal First Baptist Church, with a temple facade by Reuben Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga, Tenn., erected in 1926to 1927, and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church. Ralph Adam Cram's design for Trinity is similar to St. Philip's Episcopal Church in its general concept, but a unique effect is produced here by the architect's use of a different proportional system, enlarged scale, lighter colored ashlar, and a more elaborate decorative scheme.27

Several public buildings were erected by the city during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1920, Edward L. Tilton, a New York City architect who specialized in public and educational buildings, submitted drawings for the Georgian Revival style Durham Public Library that was erected on E. Main St. to replace the obsolete 1898 frame library building at Five Points. After shaping Durham's appearance for fifteen years, Milburn and Heister Co. continued to contribute to its evolution with their designs for the 1925 Dur- ham Auditorium at the corner of Roney and Morgan streets. The new Auditorium, with its elegant Beaux Arts facade, replaced the Academy of Music, which had been razed to provide a site for the new Washington Duke Hotel. The Durham Auditorium was attached to the rear of the old City High School, which had been replaced by the Durham High School on N. Duke St. in the 1920s. Durham's municipal government, formerly housed in the Academy of Music, adopted the old school building as the new City Hall, remodelled to its present appearance by Milburn and Heister at about the same time the Durham Auditorium was built.

During the 1920s, Milburn and Heister also executed two more commercial buildings for Durham. In 1921, they designed the Neoclassi- cal Revival style North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Building - now named the Mechanics and Farmers Bank Building - similar to their First National Bank Building erected eigh t years earlier. In 1923, their Alexander Motor Co, building was constructed on E. Main St. This elegant one-story building is unique in downtown Durham for its exterior of enamelled terra cotta tile, ornately molded at the cornices.

Another noted architectural firm that left its stamp on the CBD was based in Durham. Engineer P. C. Atwood and architect Arthur C. Nash formed a partnership around 1922. John Sprunt Hill gave them one of their first down- town Durham commissions, the elegant Geor- gian Revival style Old Hill Building on W. Main St. featuring three arched bays extending through the upper three stories. A few years earlier they had designed Baldwin's Depart- ment Store, also on W. Main St., in a similar but more austere mode characterized by monumen- tal Doric pilasters. This device of incorporating a basic architectural element in a monumental fashion, extending through more than one story, also was the identifying motif of the firm's U. S. Post Office, erected in 1934 on the site of William Mangum's 19th-century house. A colonnade of monumental Tuscan columns in antis characterizes the main facade, and a modillion cornice and balustrade mark the upper perimeter of the building. By this time, Nash had left the firm and H. Raymond Weeks was working with Atwood.

Durham architect George Watts Carr, Sr., deserves credit for some of the downtown's most notable buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. One of his first commissions in the CBD was the 1927 Johnson Motor Co. Building. Its flat facade is decorated with stone medallions and swags across the cornice; tooled copper appears in the fanlight and window frames. The 1933 Snow Building, a striking example of the Art Deco style, also is credited to Carr and the Winston- Salem firm of Northup and O'Brien, with which he was associated. The five-story building, sheathed in gray stone, is highlighted with an entrance articulated with carving reminiscent of High Gothic architecture. Undoubtedly Carr's most significant downtown commission was the Hill Building (1935-1937) for which he was the supervising architect. Towering above all other structures in the CBD, this landmark seven- teen-story Art Deco monument is perhaps best termed Moderne in style due to the conservative and understated nature of its art de co ornament. The design concept of the attenuated verticality and stepped silhouette originated with the New York firm of Shreve and Lamb, famous for the prototypical Empire State Building.

Mention of the Kress Building is an appropriate conclusion to this discussion of the development of Durham's CBD. The district's most colorful building and one of the last to be erected prior to 1940, it also is a recent target of the historic preservation efforts that today distinguish revitalization in downtown Durham. One of the finest and largest Art Deco buildings in North Carolina, the Kress Building is faced with enamelled polychromed terra cotta tile in stylized classical motifs, mythical foliate ornament, and panels suggestive of machine parts.29 As part of the renovation of the building to offices in 1980 to 1981, the exterior tilework was re- stored to its original lustre.

Like many other cities in North Carolina and across the U.S., the last forty years have taken their toll on Durham's downtown. With the increase in car ownership and a decline in the reliance upon public transportation that linked most neighborhoods to the CBD, shopping centers enticed activity away from central Durham. In an effort to be "modern," most of the down- town buildings had "facelifts," their entrances and display windows reworked in steel and plate glass and their upper facades covered with porcelain enamelled or corrugated metal. The commercial district had already displaced much of the adjacent housing, and by the 1960s most of the remaining residences at the edge of the CBD had deteriorated. Some of these houses became targets of growing downtown churches which needed land for expansion of their physi- cal plants. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the city government turned to federally funded urban renewal, construction of parking lots, and implementation of efficient traffic patterns for downtown revitalization.

This resulted in the loss of copious fine architecture in downtown, mostly around Roxboro, Morgan, Great Jones, and Ramseur. This area became a one-way traffic loop, which had been envisioned in the 1950s as part of the "Tarrant Plan" - a circulator road and copious surface parking on the 'outside' of downtown, where car-shelled visitors would park their cars and walk through a pedestrian-only downtown. This was partially, and most damagingly implemented. The remaining structures in downtown were starkly segregated from the surrounding neighborhoods, and this did little to reverse (and in fact likely accelerated) the flow of population and commercial ventures from downtown.

Small preservation efforts occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, but nothing occurred that created a sustained momentum in recapturing population and commercial efforts in downtown - the loss of institutions and the few remaining commercial ventures continued. 

Not until the large scale revitalization of the former Liggett Factories in 'Downtown West' and the American Tobacco Company in 'Downtown South' was the necessary critical mass in place to create sustained growth in downtown. The demographic trend of moving 'back' to downtown that occurred nationally through the 1990s and 2000s began to touch Durham, although the lack of buildings and large quantity of fallow/paved land stymied the full realization of this potential. 

Into the late 2000s and early 2010s, despite economic recession, storefront conversion in the downtown core continued, as some long underused buildings were finally brought back to life. This still has a long way to go, however, and downtown is vibrant only in comparison to how moribund it once was. However, the sustained change during recession bodes well for downtown, and for the hope that, whenever economic recovery occurs, it will be economically viable to replace some of Durham's Intentional Holes with new buildings that acheive the at least the density that Durham had realized by the early-to-mid 20th century.