Exploring Durham: History races on at Duke

Apr. 26, 2014 @ 02:16 PM

As this month’s focus on Durham history continues, it’s time to look at one of its great landmarks. The namesake of one of America’s great industrial families, Duke University’s history is interesting, inviting, and worthy of exploration. Today its campus is a paragon of innovative design, energy efficiency, and environmental consciousness, but there are great stories to tell about its origins, just a few of which follow.

The campus was established in Durham in 1892 when Washington Duke and Julian Carr helped to lure the Methodist minister training school Trinity College to Durham from Randolph County. The school was renamed Duke University in 1924 with the establishment of the $40 million Duke Endowment.

What is known today as East campus, between Ninth Street and Brightleaf Square, was the original site of the Trinity College campus in Durham. For many, its historic waist-high stone wall border is the first thing to grab their attention. Many people use the interior essentially as an exercise track. Prior to its current incarnation, the property was, in fact, Blackwell’s Fairgrounds and horse race track.

Just minutes away to the southwest are the Sarah P. Duke Gardens that straddle Central and West campuses. As construction surged at Duke through the 1920s and ‘30s, the 55-acre area now occupied by the gardens was intended to be a lake. Funds ran short for that project and in 1934, Sarah P. Duke gave $20,000 to plant flowers in what had become a debris landfill. Now welcoming more than 300,000 visitors annually, these are among the top 10 public gardens in the US according to tripadvisor.com. The gardens have five miles of walkways and paths showcasing 4500 plant varieties, and are open every day of the year.

Duke’s West campus owes the unique look of some of its iconic buildings to Julian Abele, an African-American architect. One of the few designs he ever claimed as his own is the Duke University Chapel. Completed in 1932 and standing 210 feet tall, the chapel houses a 50 bell carillon and three pipe organs, including the Flentrop Organ with its 5,200 pipes. Located at the center of the university, the chapel is on the highest ridge on campus to enhance its impact. Abele is also credited with Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Allen building, as well as contributions to many other campus structures.

Duke’s campus is regularly celebrated for its beauty, and all of historic places are rewarding to explore year round.

Did You Know?: The three organs in the Duke Chapel are used depending on the piece of music being played. Each excels in recreating certain sounds and feelings from the music dating from the 15th through the 20th centuries commonly played there.

The Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) is Durham’s official marketing agency. For more information about things to see and do in Durham, visit www.Durham-NC.com and www.DurhamEventCalendar.com, or stop by the Visitors Information Center at 101. E. Morgan St. in Downtown Durham and pick up the Official Durham Visitor & Relocation Guide.