It was conceived at a pivotal time in my community’s history when a population of only 8% of what it has become today was already seeking to preserve Durham, North Carolina’s history.
Whenever visitors to Durham first see Duke University Chapel, the first thing they often say once they catch their breath is, “that’s not a chapel, it’s a cathedral.”
I’m sure I even said something like that when I was given a tour of the community during my interview twenty-five years ago to become the startup executive for Durham’s marketing agency.
Today I know that tour was really an audition to see if I had an understanding enough of sense of place to truly grasp the essence of Durham’s.
But the term chapel has never been a reference to size, nor does the term cathedral always mean large.
The other refers to central as in diocese vs. parish.
What distinguishes Duke’s collegiate gothic cruciform chapel from those at other universities that seek to evoke a cathedral of the English Middle Ages is its 210 foot high tower made to seem even higher by its placement. It’s just five feet short of the cathedral at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Duke Chapel was envisioned in the mid-1920s when a prototype that still serves as a church here was built to test the use of various sources of stone during a pivotal decade in the evolution of the part of Durham’s sense of place centered around its “built” character.
This was also when Duke Forest was envisioned as a means to rehabilitate depleted tobacco fields, now a vast symbol of Durham’s broader urban forest canopy and a vaunted part of it “natural” character.
It took from between 1950 and 1960 until 2000 to establish and mature a pine forest in Duke Forest and foster an understory of hardwood trees.
The transition of parts from pines to hardwood forest began at the turn of the century and will continue until 2030. The first hardwoods there will begin to climax from 2030 on.
All of that is to put 100 years of Durham history and its urban canopy today in context.
But by 1920, the founding generation of Durham was also already busy preserving its five decades of history.
Durham was stunned in the fall of 1921 when the original Bennett Place farmhouse where the Civil War had effectively ended here 56 years earlier burned to its foundation.
Many across North Carolina at the time preferred to remember the war only through a revisionist movement known as “the lost cause.” But many in Durham, including Washington Duke, had been “unionists” and fought only because it was mandatory.
Samuel Tate Morgan, who had purchased Bennett Place anticipating a memorial park there, had died a few months earlier. Trust titan James Buchanan Duke, also a Durham native, served as one of his pall bearers.
Morgan’s father had died when he was eight, around the age of my grandsons now. He was fully aware as pursuing Union cavalry caught up with Confederate units trailing through Durham resulting in a truce and culminating in the pivotal surrender at Bennett Place.
Soon, Morgan moved from his Flat River roots a few miles south, to the crossroads known as Durham where the Dukes, Carrs and Blackwells were busy earning Durham a national reputation for manufacturing.
He founded the Durham Fertilizer Company recycling wasted stems from tobacco processing which soon became the nucleus of his huge Virginia-Carolina Chemical Co, the largest in the world.
At the time of his death, Morgan was also president of the Southern Cotton Oil Co, the Charleston Mining and Manufacturing Co and a director of the Texas and Pacific Railway, but he never lost touch with his Durham roots.
Knowing his reverence and plans for Bennett Place, his widow and heirs donated the property to the state, while Durham’s state lawmakers pushed the General Assembly to designate and maintain it as a state historic site.
To make that happen Durham Representatives Reuben Everett, an early Durham civil rights attorney and advocate, and Frank Fuller Jr., an attorney and part of a group known as the Durham Dynamos, worked with Durham state Senator Bennehan Cameron, a farmer and railroad executive.
Both are just up Main Street from where another historic bank building is being converted to restaurant, adding to Durham’s reputation for locally-owned, chef-driven facilities and a national foodie reputation.
Everett, Cameron and Fuller’s father were all contemporaries of Morgan and J.B. Duke and all shared life-long devotion to Durham and preservation of its history and other elements of sense of place.
They were working to preserve Durham history long before some of the old tobacco factories and warehouses we consider so historic today were even built, including major portions of the American Tobacco, West Village and Measurement Inc.
Much of the brick work in these buildings is distinct from that of buildings in other communities of the day. Durham’s first generation, in thought and deed, revered its sense of place.
Frank Fuller Jr., whose historic Morehead Hills home was inhabited until recently by an acclaimed Durham architect and his jazz singer wife, was the scion of one of the founders of the Durham Buggy Company, Frank L. Fuller Sr.
Ironically, more than a decade ago a Durham developer offered to restore one of the historic buildings developed by Frank Fuller Sr. in the 1930s as Duke Chapel was being built.
It had been sitting vacant since 1992 when it last served as a clearing house for social services and then deed it back for $1 to the proposed Museum of Durham History.
The then county manager nixed the proposal, instead leaving the building vacant and decaying for another decade when it was adaptively and lovingly reused as event space only to soon close.
As foretold, the building revealed a treasure trove of Durham history and it wasn’t the first time in the past 60 years that Durham officials let pass a perfect opportunity to house the Durham history museum.
In fulfillment of Samuel Tate Morgan’s wishes, in 1923 Durham leaders also erected the Unity Monument near the ruins of the Bennett Place farmhouse.
In part, the monument was designed by T.Y. Milburn who lived near Fuller in Morehead Hills and was also busy at that time designing many of the buildings that are signatures of Durham’s sense of place including the Carolina Theater, Durham School for the Arts and the King’s Daughter’s Inn.
Milburn’s civic engagement also spanned the era three decades later when he and other Durham leaders transformed the state’s economy once again laying its foundation as a center for research, hi-tech and healthcare.
But let me take a brief break from this story to put into context that early 1920s and 1930s era of Durham’s historical reverence and memorial at a time when the community was only a third as old as it is today.
This is the period that spurred second-generation Durham textile executive and newly minted radio entrepreneur, Mayor W.F. Carr (William Frederick) in 1934 to ask famed city engineer John Michie to lay the foundation of a Durham history museum in the months prior to Duke Chapel’s dedication.
Carr was mayor until 1948 but the movement for a museum of Durham history was tabled due to the Great Depression and then WWII.
In 1949, according to Durham historian Jim Wise, Southgate Jones Sr. offered his father’s historic mansion along with memorabilia as a site for the museum.
Instead, a few years later it became the site of a hotel and is now the site of a new transportation center that somehow eluded historic design guidelines.
The proposal as a museum was deep sixed back then by city and county managers and elected officials during a four-decade era of obsession with “holding taxes at all costs,” which compromised not only reverence for Durham’s past but nearly choked off its future.
Famously pro-Durham, Southgate Jones Jr. was one of my strongest backers when in 1989 I started the agency for Durham charged with marketing the community and championing its sense of place.
He was also a passionate advocate for a local history museum, a public priority still being hamstrung by a few officials even though the need is still held in high esteem among residents of a community that has grown many times in size.
Ostensibly it is still throttled because this long-held cultural priority would cost the equivalent of what was just spent to overall the 18-year-old Durham Bulls Athletic Park. But that is less than half of what was spent a few years ago on a new theater.
As an organic measure of how much time has been lost in the 90 years since first proposed, the depleted soils where Duke Forest now stands have gone from crabgrass to shrubs to pine forest to emerging hardwood forest.
In the late 1950s Durham residents stirred again, hoping to replicate the old Bennett Place farmhouse in time for the Centennial of the Civil War.
Civil War buff Charles Pattishall who owned a garage on Markham Avenue just off Ninth Street was assisted by Dr. Lenox Baker, who took me on one of those orientation tours when I first moved here.
Using the pattern and materials from an identical farmhouse being torn down on Chapel Hill Road, they reconstructed the Bennett farm house where Confederate General Joe Johnston disobeyed Jefferson Davis and surrendered to Union General William T. Sherman putting an effective end to the tragic war.
A call went out for artifacts which were relocated or returned. It was completed in time for the first reenactment of the surrender in 1965 and attended by U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey and newly-elected Governor Dan Moore.
In the 1970s, the state added a visitor center on the site after officially making it a state historic site.
The period bookending the preservation of Bennett Place also marks the preservation of two other state historic sites in Durham.
In 1930 Washington Duke’s granddaughter, Mary Duke Biddle, whose daughter I came to know, bought the old Duke Homestead after returning to Durham from New York City and presented it to Duke University in 1931 which began to restore it.
In 1966 it was named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service and became a state historic site in 1974 with a working history farm and the addition of a mini-museum and visitor center in 1977.
In 1973, Margaret Haywood, who passed away three months ago, began a crusade forming Preservation Durham, saving the Carolina Theater and igniting the reinvigoration of downtown that spanned my tenure in Durham.
She also set about to earn a designation for the 1787 Bennehan House in northern Durham near where Morgan was born to the National Register of Historic Places.
In turn, she then persuaded the owner of Liggett and Meyers Tobacco Company to put their house, outbuildings, historic barn, a yeoman farmers house of the same period and slave quarters, all of which lie along the Great Indian Trading Path in Northern Durham, to the state as a historic site and archeological resource. It’s called Stagville State Historic Site now.
Dating to when it was younger than I am now, (65) Durham residents were already busy passionately preserving the community’s history and its green infrastructure, a lesson yet to be learned by political regressives in high office a hundred years later.
They seem to yearn for a time of desecration while Durham’s founders yearned for sense of place.
Now that more than 160 years have passed, is it time for elected officials and administrative caretakers to do the same:
Fulfill the community’s 90 year old yearning for a Museum of Durham History and develop comprehensive strategic plans for preservation of its urban forest and historic buildings.