In the guidebook for Preservation Durham’s 2001 tour Living it up Downtown, Tom Miller wrote, “It is not premature to declare that downtown Durham has been saved.” That year, the Baldwin Building was an empty shell. Today, it’s filled with a dozen loft apartments. The previous year, the Preservation Durham tour had explored Durham’s Tobacco Heritage. Tourgoers were led through the deserted courtyard at American Tobacco, surrounded by dilapidated buildings with broken windows and sagging roofs. Today, the American Tobacco Historic District is home to a growing list of tenants whose modern, high-tech offices overlook a lush green lawn where cracked pavement used to be. It seems Tom was right!
Durham began in 1854, when the North Carolina Railroad Company built a station on land they had purchased from Dr. Bartlett Durham. The site of Durham’s Station, the corner of Corcoran and Peabody Streets, became the center of the new town which began to grow rapidly after the Civil War created a nationwide demand for Durham tobacco. At the turn of the century, over 6500 people lived in Durham, and by 1910 the population had soared to over 18,000. The earliest buildings on today’s tour date to this early boom. The O’Brien was built across Main Street from W. Duke and Sons Old Cigarette Factory in 1898. American Tobacco’s Reed Building opened in 1902. Sanislaus Jourdan moved into his home on South Duke Street, and John Sprunt Hill built the Temple Building on Main Street.
Durham continued to grow and prosper after World War I, and office buildings and stores soon lined the streets north of the railroad tracks between the two major tobacco factories. The eight-story classical style 1st National Bank Building went up in 1915, Baldwin’s Department Store built an elegant building just down Main Street in 1927, and other stores and factories, hotels and theaters, office buildings and banks filled the Downtown area along with churches and government buildings.
After World War II, things began to change in Durham and the rest of America. New suburbs attracted people further and further away from downtown. Some old buildings were demolished, and other businesses tried to keep their customers by modernizing their look with false fronts, hiding the old bricks. The pull of the suburbs was too strong, however, and by 1985, when American Tobacco closed down, downtown Durham was a lonely place.
Some people in Durham, however, saw the value in the beautiful old buildings downtown. They didn’t want to lose any more of them to the wrecking ball. Preservation Durham was founded in 1974, and the Downtown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Slowly, interest in downtown began to reawaken.
Today, downtown Durham is experiencing a new boom as developers see new possibilities in the beautiful old bricks. The Walker Warehouse has been converted into Durham’s Amtrak station and shops and offices. Factory and warehouse buildings at American Tobacco and the Imperial Tobacco Company are now filled with state-of-the-art, high-tech offices. West Village Phase II combines offices, shops and apartments in an amazing multi-block complex. Even more exciting, people are moving back downtown to live. Early 20th century storefronts on Main Street, Rigsbee Street, and Church Street are now full of exciting loft apartments, attracting life to downtown after the business day. Tom Miller wrote in the Tobacco Heritage tour guidebook in 2000, “To preserve the buildings is to preserve the character of Durham itself.” In downtown, not only are the buildings being preserved, they are being recreated, taking on new life in new uses, and creating a new and exciting character for the Bull City.
Downtown Durham links