Open Durham: Erwin Auditorium

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 12:14 PM

1701 West Pettigrew Street

Cross street: Oregon Street

Built: 1922/ demolished in 1984

Architect/Designers: Linthicum and Rose / Linthicum and Linthicum, Linthicum, H.


Architectural style: Georgian Revival

Construction type: Masonry, Brick

Neighborhood: Old West Durham

Type: Institutional

Use: Movie theater, event venue, auditorium, swimming pool, sports venue

Built in 1922 by Erwin Cotton Mills, the Renaissance Revival, 2 1/2 story Erwin Auditorium was designed by Hill C. Linthicum to provide all-purpose recreational space for the community. The construction was not entirely benevolent, as William Erwin used money that would have otherwise been distributed to workers as bonuses to construct the building.

Nonetheless, it quickly became a beloved hub of social activity for West Durham, open from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily, except for Sundays. A 1,000-person capacity, two-story auditorium (in the rear of the building) hosted concerts, meetings, lectures, shows, plays and twice-weekly movies. When the chairs were removed, it also served as a gymnasium where basketball games and other athletic activities were held. A swimming pool was in the basement. The front of the building contained a library, a cafeteria, a baby clinic, a game room, a bowling alley and a soda fountain. Classes were offered in the building as well, including crafts/arts/sewing/cooking classes as well as night school trade/professional classes that had been offered by Erwin Mills for a number of years. Community groups, such as scouts, would utilize the auditorium for meetings as well. Outdoors in the adjacent park, (extending to the east) there were tennis courts, playgrounds and a zoo (which had, at least, a bear, an eagle, monkeys, goldfish and squirrels.) Showers and changing rooms were on the south side of Erwin Road (where Sam's Blue Light would later be located.)

CB West was the director of Erwin Auditorium and Rosa Warren supervised 'women's programs'.

Movies were a significant attraction at the Auditorium. Many residents saw their first 'talkies' at the Auditorium - children were admitted for 5 cents, and adults for 10. Zeb Stone noted in a 1975 oral history that movies would be originally be shown on Tuesday and Saturday, and that Thursday nights were later added to the schedule as well (other sources note that the third day added was Friday.) The fourth of July was evidently a major event for the community, celebrated in the Park and auditorium.

Residents of West Durham recalled in the same oral history the sense that what they had at the auditorium was a significant cut above what was available / provided by the city in other parts of Durham.

It appears that any program sponsored by the mill was likely to utilize the auditorium.

After 1956, the Auditorium was jointly owned by Erwin Mills and the City of Durham, and from 1966-1976, it was a city recreation center.

Jean Anderson tells the story of Erwin Auditorium's connection to the eventual arrival of the American Dance Festival in Durham; when a group of local dance enthusiasts sponsored "A Day for Dancing" at Erwin Auditorium in the early 1970s, they expected 50-75 participants - they got 600. The level of support gave them a substantive base to build upon, establishing summer programs that eventually led to ADF's migration from Connecticut. Similarly, the Durham Symphony was formed after a group met at the Auditorium after recruitment by  Vincent Simonetti, the eventual first conductor for the Symphony.

In 1976, the Edison Johnson Rec Center opened, and Erwin Auditorium was closed.

The city continued to use the building for storage for another 3 years before it was abandoned.

Some of the site of the auditorium still exists as woods, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the Freeway, but the building footprint hovers above you as you travel westbound on 147.