University Apartments

35.997294, -78.922343

Cross Street
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A little jaunt back to the West End today to cover the University Apartments, which I skipped previously simply in hopes of stumbling upon more information before writing about it.

However, Lisa Sorg at the Independent published the news that the apartment complex had been purchased by Capstone Development, a Birmingham, AL-based student housing developer, and followed up the blog post with great article providing more in-depth coverage.

The University Apartments were built in 1938 on two 'bundles' of land between Duke University Rd. and Burch Avenue. The first was a parcel of land that had belonged to prolific Durham contractor Norman Underwood and his wife Elise. They had purchased the 3.87 acres of land in 1904 and built their home fronting on what was then called West Chapel Hill Street. Underwood built the Durham Public Library on East Main St., the Trust Building as well as numerous houses - including Greystone and several on Vickers Ave.

In 1936 the Underwoods sold their house and parcel to H. G. Hendrick who in turn sold it to C. W. Hall in 1936, then to L. H. Fountain in 1937, then to University Housing Corporation in July of 1937.

The second set of parcels, facing Burch Ave., belonged to Benjamin C. Ross. He sold 7 lots to the University Housing Corporation in August 1937. He eventually would sell two remaining lots to the company in 1958. The only remaining lot in the block, on the southwest corner of Burch and Maplewood, belonged to J. R. Cannady. This house still sits on the corner behind University Apartments.

A 1937 deed between University Housing Corporation and New York Life Insurance Co., the construction lender, includes a cost break-down for the apartments (named University Apartments on the deed) pegging the total building construction cost at $497,750.

1937 Sanborn Map showing the site of University Apartments just before they were built.

Neither the builder nor the architect are known. Interestingly, there is a nearly identical set of apartments in Raleigh on Hillsborough Road, called Cameron Court. These were also built in 1938, on the former site of the in-town homeplace of Duncan Cameron.

1950 Sanborn Map showing the apartments.

The only old picture I have showing a portion of the University Apartments, mid-1950s, looking south on Maplewood from near Burch.
(Courtesy Barry Norman)

Ownership of the apartments remained remarkably stable. University Housing Corporation sold the apartments to University Associates in 1981, which held the apartments until their recent sale to Capstone.

University Apartments presents such a different look and feel, from the exterior, than any apartment complex built after the 1950s. Handsome architectural detailing, large multi-paned windows, and large mature trees without a parking place in sight from the main roadway. It seems to have attracted a loyal following of people who have lived there for years, and thus created a greater sense of community than what one would typically find in an apartment complex. Out on West Chapel Hill St., I started a conversation with a woman who lived in the apartments - she had lived there for seven years, which was not atypical. Current apartment developers should take note; perhaps you can reduce turnover if you didn't start your architectural plans with the layout of the parking lot, and then ring that parking lot with vanilla boxes.

I also received several concerned emails from residents regarding the recent sale and what it might mean for the apartments. The developer specializes in student housing - which really hasn't been typical of University Apartments. They plan 'upgrades' to include removal of the historic windows and carpeting the bedrooms. It seems an odd approach to shift a stable working-class apartment community to student rentals, unless you figure that the added costs of itinerant undergraduates are outweighed by what their parents can pay - a point Lisa makes in her Indy article.

I question the business logic of avoiding historic tax credits in order to put in new windows. Having replaced glazing on very similar windows at Golden Belt, you can achieve excellent energy efficiency and noise dampening from placing insulated glass in the original steel frames, without compromising the architectural character of the building. Of course this costs more than putting in a single sheet of glass +/- those damnable fake muntins, but that's where the historic tax credits offset things.

It's hard to think that University Apartments will be changed for the better by the acquisition and renovation by a national company for whom the buildings are just another student housing facility in their portfolio. Anecdotally, residents evidently aren't having their leases renewed, and the interior changes have already begun.

University Apts from Duke University Road, 06.06.09

(Many thanks to Heather Wagner for her deed research, which I incorporated into the post.)

Find this spot on a Google Map.




This makes me wanna cry. Why why why? I don't understand. At this point, why not bulldoze them, and build the next "raise hell" vanilla apartment complex. These units are so unique. My brother used to live there years ago, and I once lived in Cameron Court, across from St. Mary's in Raleigh...its sister complex if there ever was one. Those have retained their original windows, and upgraded to central heat & air. Yes this removed the radiators, but everything else was original. Apartments are not built with the quality component like these anymore.

Just another example of Durham losing its architectural heritage. Wish Durham's civic minded, outspoken citizenry would adopt a more preservationist political will. Political will is the only way a community is going to be able to really make a difference.

Historic tax credits would be worth a fortune in a place like that. And speaking of windows, why do people think that windows are not architecturally significant to a property? I'm not just talking about University Apts. Many of the windows being removed in houses throughout Durham (thanks to "friends" like Jeff Monsein) are 80-100 years old, while the cheap looking replacement vinyl windows have a 10-15 year life expectancy.

Wake up Durham. The wholesale clearing and vinylization of Durham's older properties is our key to a community devoid of character and soul. If a characterless community is what you seek, Cary is only a few minutes away.

Myers Sugg

there was an article in the Herald-Sun today on the apartments. I'm not sure if this will actually link to it, but the headline is: Sale, renovation plans unsettle apartment residents

From Capstone Development's website....Interesting that "new windows" is not mentioned in the upgrades. Let's pray that pool is not the focus of the front yard of the "new" University Apartments. Perhaps the fire pit can be used to burn wooden benches after certain Duke basketball games? The proposed changes with the exception of the window replacement would be exactly what the tax credits would allow, in my opinion. Again, I have to ask, why?

University Apartments is a charming historically significant property, originally built in 1936, with red brick exterior, hardwood floors and nine foot ceilings. Complementing the exterior charm is the equal convenience of newly proposed renovated interiors including granite countertops, crown molding, high speed internet as well as individual washer/dryers and HVAC systems.
Situated on a site with mature trees and intimate courtyards, it sits just a minute’s drive to Duke’s campus nestled equally a couple blocks between the East and Central Campus, and only one mile from the Duke University Medical Center and the VA Medical Center.
With only 112 units and 188 beds in 13 contiguous buildings, the property is set apart by its low density and quiet atmosphere – perfect for the serious student. Although the property is made up of just two unit types - one and two bedrooms - there are a variety of unique options within the six different floor plans from which residents can choose.
Under new management and plus attractive new amenities, including a lifestyle center with a workout facility, pool, outdoor fire pit, and patio area.
With its unique combination of historic charm, one and two bedroom floor plans, quiet setting, pet-friendly policy and convenience to campus, University Apartments will be ideal for graduate and professional students and faculty and staff of Duke University.

As a close neighbor to Univ Apts, I am very concerned about any improvements that might upend wonderful folks living at these apts as well as changing the quiet atmosphere of our little neighborhood. I have sent the link to your blog out on our neighborhood listserv (after a good friend forwarded it along) and hope we can get some good info shortly on the company's intentions. thanks for all you do for Durham.

Gary -

Your comment about "placing insulated glass in the original steel frames" to improve insulation without sacrificing architectural/historical integrity caught my eye.

We live in a 1939 house in Duke Forest with original metal-frame windows which we are loathe to replace -- while still being painfully aware of their energy inefficiency.

I'm wondering if there are any resources you can point us to regarding the upgrade technique you mentioned.

Also, just to fish for suggestions: many of the window-winders are stripped inside and can't be operated; if anyone knows how to get these repaired... (Seems unlikely... they look pretty monolithic. Maybe someone can save the old ones they toss out of University Apartments?)


And on a different thread also related to your post: there should be tax credits or other incentives for (a) aesthetics (coming up with an objective and fair way to determine aesthetic value is a hurdle, but not an insurmountable one) and (b) housing which promotes neighborhood stability -- either by demonstrating low turn-over over a period of time or by implementing management policies known to reduce tenant churn.

I blame those of you who lobbied for the university to "crack down" on student partiers in Trinity Park, Trinity Heights, and OWD (along with the university, esp. former Pres. Keohane). What did you expect? The apartments along LaSalle were already becoming dens of frivolity, and it was only a matter of time before it caught up to the West End.

Expanded historic tax credits are the solution (as I called for in my recent state senate campaign), not more "controls" on what historic buildings should be allowed to be demolished by their lawful owners.

As to Myers Sugg's comments about bulldozing them, I can only hope that was a joke. I used to live in Univ. Apts. circa 1989, and would now consider moving back since they're fixing it up.

what a shame- those old windows are beautiful - I've always loved them.

I am pleased to announce that in a very short time, I have been able to put together a public-private partnership to deal with these deteriorated buildings. Neighborhood Improvement Services (NIS) has determined that it is not really cost effective to repair these buildings. Therefore NIS, UDI, Dominion Ministries, the Vinyl Company of North Carolina, and Kanu Construction have joined forces to tear these down and build new apartments with energy-efficient (green!) vinyl windows and siding outside and hypo-allergenic carpeting and low-VOC paint inside. But along with being green, these units will have plenty of quaint touches: vinyl shutters and flower boxes just like the recent Golden Leaf winners.

A number of apartments will be reserved as affordable housing for low-income families. Dominion Ministries will also have a facility on site to provide services for these families and others in the community.

I also want to express my special thanks to the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association for providing technical assistance with the logistics of tear downs, and to Preservation Durham for keeping its mouth shut.

This is a great step forward for Durham and as an elected official, I am pleased to have played a part.

I appreciate the support so many of you are offering. I am a resident of University Apartments. On May 28th of this year the property was sold to the Capstone Companies, a developer of student housing based in Birmingham, Alabama. The residents were notified of the change in ownership and new management on June 2, seven days after Capstone had closed on the property. In the meantime, CollegeTown Construction Inc., a subsidiary of Capstone Companies, had renovated, without required permits, two units we now understand will be used as model units for leasing purposes.
Quoted from the Capstone website: "The Capstone Companies (“Capstone”), is a firm focused exclusively on student housing development, management and construction."

The majority of people living at University Apartments are not students. University Apartments was designed to house mill workers and their families in the 1930s. Today it remains a place in which working folks can and do live. There are a handful of students here, but, for the most part, we are young professionals, writers, artists, nurses, social workers, Whole Foods employees, even some Duke faculty and staff. This is a multi-generational community. We have a very active residents association. We have single parents with teenagers, couples with young children, residents from Nigeria, Thailand, China, and older folks who should not be moving at their age. We are people with multiple advanced degrees and those with GEDs.

We are a community with compost facilities, a community garden, clothes lines. Many of us chose University Apartments for its proximity to jobs and downtown that allows for car- free living. There are strategically placed mature deciduous trees that, along with thick masonry walls, allow for passive heating and cooling for much of the year. Large operable french windows work in conjunction with a variety of different floor plans to provide cross ventilation to ALL apartments. The floor plans have remained unchanged over the years. Radiators are used to heat all apartments. All moldings, doors, windows and flooring, not damaged over the years, are still in place. Together these features and the lack of unnecessary appliances make the building an efficient and thus inexpensive place to live. We chose and value the building for the low impact living it allows. This is a truly sustainable community. Yes, as with any older structure, repairs and upgrades to the infrastructure of the building are always needed, but to displace the current community in favor of unaffordable student housing, of which there is a significant amount already available in Durham, would be very unfortunate.

The Burch Avenue Neighborhood will soon have historic recognition. A smart investor could benefit from the tax credits that designation provides. If Capstone proceeds as planned the building will no longer qualify for those tax credits. With all the value that Durham places on historic structures as they reflect the history of the city, it is a wonder to me that Capstone would be allowed to proceed unchecked.

No, Capstone is not making drastic changes. Mostly what they propose are cosmetic in nature. They will not, of course, be installing new HVAC because that would require more extensive renovation than they want to spend money on. They will be adding wiring but not replacing original wiring. They are not planning to replace existing aging plumbing lines but will be replacing drain pipes and adding clothes washers and dishwashers to each unit.

Now consider, if you were to buy a house, built in 1938, that had been minimally maintained over the years, what would be the first things you'd address? Perhaps you do live in such a house and you know that a cosmetic facelift only masks and often creates problems. Now consider that you invite your student daughter or son and friends to stay in that house while going to school. Put a pool and fire pit in the back yard. Then go on vacation. Need I say more?

I am from Mt. Airy, a community in Philadelphia that has managed for 60 years to resist efforts of developers to whitewash or destroy it. It is a community much like the one I have found at University Apartments. I believe it is the responsibility of us all, in particular our elected officials, to support communities such as ours that teach tolerance and practice sustainable living. It is these communities that reach out to other communities and invite them to share the responsibility of caring for our environment. It is these communities that when strung together make for a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable village, town, city, country, world.

My hope in writing is simply to add to the awareness of this unique community that is a living expression of what Durham aspires to be and to make you aware that without your action now, it will soon be extinct, and all of us and all of Durham will be poorer for its loss. I urge you to investigate. Come visit us. Talk with residents. Help us save one of Durham’s great communities before it’s too late.

Even if Burch Ave isn't listed yet on the National Register, and University Apartments was a part of the application, then Capstone could apply for the credits, with the understanding that they will be designated by the time construction is complete. Failing to take advantage of this, is short sighted. Not only could they save money, but they could invest more in the place, and end up spending less less money than originally proposed.

Failure to get permits is not an encouraging sign BTW.


Today University Apartments is getting new windows
check it out. I will be adding photos as the day goes by. They are vinyl clad low-e.

I may have missed the post about this, but I thought these apartments were supposed to be converted to "condos" giving the existing renters first right to their own apartment to buy it?

A little over two years ago, we put a deposit down to three neighboring apartments so we can be close to and take care of a family member. But we were not satisfied with the communication we were receiving, so we eventually backed out. We thought the prices were good.

We loved the original architecture and the windows were just one of many attractive details. We backed out with regret, but now it sounds like that plan just disappeared.

Can someone post a link on Gary's site about this or post some news about the plan I was referring to and how that changed?

Peak Swirles & Cavallito Properties was the agency at the time.

I was forced into moving out of University Apartments almost a year ago now. I try not to drive down that street anymore as those horrid windows just make me so sad. It was the best place I've ever lived. Wonderful memories of beautiful light coming through the black mullioned windows; my books, cat and plants perched sweetly on the wide sill; the parquet checkerboard design in my dining room floors; the plaster walls, oh I loved it - didn't need the amenities like washer and dryers or a pool when I had all that! I miss it dearly. Wouldn't move back now if you paid me!!!

I'm curious to see what opinions are now that the renovations have come further along and are, perhaps, not as drastically destructive as some might have feared, windows aside. I recognize that I've stumbled onto a group that favors total preservation, and I'm more of a "boy, do I love historic charm with modern amenities" consumer, so... anyways, I'm curious what the final opinion is.

We just moved into the apartment complex, for what it's worth and in the interest of full disclosure, and I'm frankly thrilled with the place. The radiators are still in place, and heating/cooling is supplemented with quiet, high efficiency HVAC units discreetly placed high on the walls, as opposed to noisy, obtrusive, energy-sucking window units or inefficient central air. The refinished original hardwood looks amazing. The utility bills have been kept shockingly low (at least for this girl moving from A/C-addicted Florida) even with the added washer/dryer. I'm coming from a $200-300/mo utility bill in the summer to a $40 one - unbelievable.

As new residents move in, I find that they are overwhelmingly couples, grad students, and working professionals - the floor plans are not conducive to, and never have been conducive to, groups of party-crazed undergraduate students. I'm a bit "take it or leave it" about the pool, but at least it's tucked in the back away from the street.

I'm genuinely torn over what the worse crime is - letting a fantastic old building like this rot, with no upkeep, which seemed to be the case before the renovation, and making changes like they've done here to give the complex new life while maintaining much of the original historic appeal.

The radiators are still here. The original hardwood flooring is still here. The high ceilings, huge window spaces, brick exterior with the original accents (sans the windows, of course) - still here. The facades over the exterior doors have been redone in a style that blends well with the complex's historic look. I fail to understand the hysteric "why not bulldoze them and build the next "raise hell" vanilla apartment complex" mentality - yes, changes have been made, but they're certainly not as heartbreaking as yet another pressboard-construction fire hazard student megaplex would be.

I'm glad they retained some / much of the interior historic character, per your description (I haven't been in there,) but I think the outside looks pretty bad with those white plastic windows. "Total preservation" is kind of a loaded term - i.e., if you told me that the new owners were pulling out all of the radiators, I don't think that would get more than a shrug out of me or most people. What has changed dramatically is the public experience of this building - residents of Durham who drive by it every day. It was possible to gain the energy efficiency you refer to with the old windows, and my opinion of the choice to remove remains the same - unnecessary, and damaging to the building as a piece of Durham's historic inventory.

I never got the sense that the building was being left to rot/no upkeep; I don't think there would have been the number of longtime residents in the building that there were if that had been the case. But it isn't a dichotomous choice - you don't have to rip out the windows in order to do maintenance.

But answering another non-dichotmous choice - absolutely - I'd far rather that the buildings still be there in their current state than torn down. But that didn't have to be the choice.


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