Help Date This Photo!

In trying to update Open Durham, add attributions, and link to resources that have been digitized either through its creators' effort or in the years since it started, fragments of aerial photos like the one below keep popping up.

This, it turns out, is an image from the Duke University Archives - a full-resolution copy can be viewed on their Flickr page - but they have not been able to date it.  In addition to featuring the school's recently completed East Campus, the photograph is rich with information that we can use to solve this question.  Dozens of other buildings, from the edges of the historically-black Brookstown community in the foreground to Trinity Park and Club Boulevard moving up to the middle and background, offer potentially helpful hints.

Though hardly a tour in the traditional sense, this page is designed to consolidate crowd-sourced efforts to identify structures visible in the image - to map what we can see and know about the development of this part of Durham from this single snapshot.  A link to this page was posted to Open Durham's Facebook account in early April 2020, and comments posted here, there, or sent to our email ( will be incorporated in updates as we find out more.

To start, let's establish what we're looking at with a few contemporary street names:

Now for a few examples of how identifying the structures shown helps narrow the timeframe and flesh out the story a single image can convey, starting with the low-hanging fruit.

Watts Street Baptist Church is a distinctive building visible in the middle-distance.  It was built in 1923, so the photograph must have been taken after that.

Directly below the church, at what we've established is the northeast corner of Buchanan and Dacian, the bungalow at 602 N Buchanan can be picked out by its side and roofline.  Unfortunately, our information on that house from its blurb in the National Register listing just says it was built in the 1920s - not specific enough to help us narrow down the chronological window.

Moving to the foreground, we have an unobstructed view of the East Campus Steam Plant at the bottom right.  We know from other photos in the Duke University Archives included on its page that the power plant was built in 1926.  Since the work shown from that fall is well cleaned up and trees have leaves, we can safely assume this means our picture was taken no earlier than mid-1927.

Moving on to the college campus, there are plenty of recognizable buildings.  The Southgate Dormitory, at the left edge with cars in its driveway, went up in 1920 - good to know, but already out of our range.

While that building still stands, the two houses a little up and to the right have been relegated to campus history.  Though the further of the two, the Robert Flowers House, survived into the twenty-first century, the nearer President's House holds a more productive clue.  Built in the early 1900s, it appears to have been demolished to make way for the Gilbert-Addoms Dormitory - not shown here because the picture predates its 1957 construction.

Another building we can use to narrow the search somewhat is the Erwin Apartments - midway up the right edge of the photograph, at the southeast corner of Buchanan and Trinity.  These were completed in 1930, so we're out of the 1920s altogether now.





Ok so I downloaded the full res version from the link and studied all of the cars visible (it's what I can relate to). The newest car I can find is heading East on main just passing over the tunnel. It's a 1936 Chevy. Not a 35, and not a 37. The two side windows with the trunk bump give it away. 35 was a totally different design and the 37 had three side windows. You can also make out the shine of the running board trim and front headlamp. I'd also say that most of the cars in front of the Southgate Building are also mid 30's. I believe it's 1935-38

It’s extremely difficult to see but the license plate on the front of the car at the curb but what I can make out is very telling to me. I looked at NC license plates for the time period in question - 1930’s. At this time the State issued a new plate every year and the year was stamped into the metal with a contrasting and reflective paint color. They changed the color scheme every year, too. I assume because it would make it very easy for policemen to determine if the plate is current or not. Anyway, looking at the available plates, the apparent color scheme, and where the words are on the plate (this varied from year-to-year, as well) the best option is that this is from 1937. It’s clearly a dark plate (1933 to 1937 are the options in this time period) and with “North Carolina 3?” across the bottom of the plate (only 1935 and 1937 are candidates) in either silver (1935) or yellow (1937) . It seems really unlikely someone would put an old 1935 plate on a new 1936 car...but not out of the question. So, that really only leaves 1937 as the likely answer. There’s always the possibility that they had an old plate on the car and the picture was taken in 1938 or later.

I think there’s a very good possibility that this was taken in the late spring or summer. Most windows are open and there’s even a window A/C visible in one window. These A/C units were developed in the early 1930’s for sale to the public. They were expensive but not anywhere close to as much as the permanently installed versions. Seeing only one there on the building and the rest of the windows being open seems very consistent with pre-WW2 manufacturing/costs for durable goods like these. The price fell dramatically post WW2 as we became more affluent and the entire manufacturing processes improved across the board. If this were after the war I’d expect to see more window A/C’s there.

I completely agree with the post above that the car is a 1937 model. Car manufacturing came to a screeching halt in 1942 and didn’t pick back up until 1946 and really a little later than that in earnest. So, seeing a lot of 1930’s cars in the picture doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the 1930’s as they were just as prevalent throughout WW2 and just after. However, the license plate sure gives a lot of credibility to that notion.

Just to the left of the car is a pile of debris. It doesn’t look to be very sunny at all in the photo. It could be dawn or dusk. I’m absolutely speculating here but maybe there was an awning over the doorway that blew off in a storm and that’s what’s lying there on the sidewalk. It might even be the reason for the photo being taken. I haven’t ever seem an awning on that building in any photo...maybe this is where it made it’s exit, though. Maybe someone could look at newspaper articles and find a story about a big storm during the spring of summer of 1937...or meteorological data, too. If so, you just might could get an exact date. Otherwise, I’m going with spring or summer of 1937.

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