Tobacco Heritage Tour: American Tobacco

May. 03, 2014 @ 11:06 AM

This narrative was excerpted from the American Tobacco Company Manufacturing Plant’s National Register listing, which may be found at:


The American Tobacco Company Manufacturing Plant symbolizes the history and evolution of the tobacco industry that spurred Durham’s early economic growth. 

Its buildings served as a tobacco products manufacturing facility from 1874-1987, and witnessed the emergence several prominent Durham tobacco companies.  Nine of the 11 primary buildings front the street, with the four along Blackwell Street creating a high wall more than 900 feet long.   The oldest buildings in the complex are at the north end and west side of the complex along Carr Street, while the more recent buildings are at the south end and along Blackwell Street.

The Beginning – Old Bull Building (circa 1870-1880)

Formed in 1873, W. T. Blackwell & Co was a partnership between three businessmen: William T. Blackwell (a Person County merchant, manufacturer, peddler of smoking tobacco, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop in Kinston); James R. Day; and Julian Shakespeare Carr (member of a well-established Chapel Hill mercantile family).  The three partners expanded the firm into the first great tobacco empire in Durham, growing from a dozen employees in 1869 to about 900 in 1884. 

A significant factor in the success of "Bull Durham" smoking tobacco was Carr's genius for advertising. In 1877, he began a national campaign to promote the Bull. The familiar symbol was displayed in various publications in several moods and poses. Additionally, four teams of painters working under the supervision of North Carolina artist J. Gilmer Koerner were kept busy supplying the world with signs and trademarks, even as far away as the pyramids of Egypt.

W. T. Blackwell & Co built its first buildings at the northeast corner of the complex. The W. T. Blackwell & Company Factory (aka Old Bull Building) was built from 1874-1880.  It was built when the Italianate style was at the height of its popularity for residential and commercial architecture. The east wing and half of the north wing were lowered to two stories about 1920 and remodeled in the Classical Revival style. 

When the American Tobacco Company acquired the Blackwell firm, it added the south wing ca. 1904. About 1920, the east half of the north wing, and the entire east wing, were reduced to two stories and remodeled to Classical Revival-style appearance.  The red brick walls were painted white sometime in the 20th century.

American Tobacco Company’s Formation (circa 1890-1910)

In 1890, James B. Duke created the American Tobacco Company, a conglomerate that controlled 89 percent of the United States cigarette market.  Duke's preoccupation with the plug trade led to the company’s purchase of his old rival, W. T. Blackwell & Company.  By 1900, The American Tobacco Company had become a giant trust with approximately three-fifths of the nation's smoking and chewing tobacco business, and diversified to dominate virtually all other tobacco markets by 1910.

In 1900, American Tobacco Company started a 10-year building campaign that yielded 12 similar storage warehouses and tobacco processing buildings in Durham.  Four of the primary warehouses were:

-- Hill Warehouse (1900) on Pettigrew Street;

-- Washington Warehouse (1902-07) along Carr Street;

-- Lucky Strike Building (1901-02), north of the Campus fronting Blackwell Street; and

-- Reed Warehouse (1901-1902), also fronting Blackwell Street.

The massive brick warehouses and factories, with their slow-burn mill construction and decoration evocative of medieval architecture, reflect the power and success of the trust.  These buildings, and eight others that were added to the W. Duke Sons & Company complex a few blocks to the northwest, have the same slow-burn construction as the W. T. Blackwell & Company Factory, with its thick, brick exterior walls and heavy timber interior structure. However, the newer buildings feature the Romanesque Revival style expressed entirely by decorative brickwork.

The Modern Era (1911+)

The United States government brought suit against the American Tobacco Company for combination in restraint of trade in July, 1907, but the case did not come to a climax until November 16, 1911, when the Supreme Court ruled that the trust had to be dissolved. One of the "Big Four" companies created from Duke's dissolution plan, the substantially reorganized American Tobacco Company, with Percival S. Hill as its president, was pared to $98 million in assets that included the Durham plant and the trust's cigarette factories in Richmond and New York City. George W. Hill (Percival’s son) took over the marketing and sales of American Tobacco's cigarettes and led the development of a new standard brand for American, introducing the "Lucky Strike" brand in 1916.

Soaring sales during World War II, reflected the need for larger facilities. The Durham plant underwent considerable expansion between 1930 and the early 1950s with the construction of a new power plant and the Strickland, Fowler, and Crowe buildings. This final phase of construction at the Durham plant marks the peak of American Tobacco's tobacco operations. 

American Tobacco Company began a steady decline in 1958, when R. J. Reynolds Company replaced it as the largest seller of cigarettes. Further, concern about the health effects of smoking swept the country during the 1950s and 1960s. The Durham plant, which had produced Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes (and small cigars) stopped production in August 1987.

Redevelopment (1999-today)

The complex remained vacant until Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC) stepped in to take on the challenging task.  CBC worked with local financers such as Self-Help, packaged over $40 million in public incentives, and combined various federal and state tax credit programs to bring Durham’s vision for the complex to fruition. The project represents one of the largest historic rehab projects in the state of North Carolina. 

Phase I opened in 2004 with 500,000 square feet of primarily Class A office space along with a few restaurants and a large public space.

CBC successfully transformed these dilapidated tobacco warehouses into a vibrant district that brings together key area employers, arts lovers, and sports fans.