Why They’re Important:
Gas stations represent some of Durham’s most endangered but least recognized historic structures. Pre-war gas stations (built prior to 1945) were typically made of brick. Key examples include stations in East Durham on the corner Guthrie and Angier and another further east on 2620 Angier, near Hoover. Both of these stations are owned by M. M. Fowler (who sold the station that was recently remodeled as Geer Street Garden).
Post-war gas stations (built after 1945) were often built of steel and glass, reflecting a style that can best be described as mid-century commercial vernacular. The most distinctive features of these gas stations are their long, metal triangular canopies that evoke the tailfins of space-age automobile design of the 1950s and 1960s. These are possibly the most endangered stations today. As recently as March 2013, a fine example of this style was demolished on West Chapel Hill Street near Gregson.
A third type of gas station considered to be historically valuable are old country stores. A priem example the Catsburg General Store, an unusual prewar station at the crossroads of Old Oxford Highway and Hamlin Road, a striking building with red wooden clapboard siding. Often these structures contained important community amenities, such as markets and post offices, all under one roof.
Why It’s Imperiled:
Several of the most architecturally valuable gas stations in Durham stand abandoned and enjoy little to no
attention from preservationists, much less from the general public. They are among the most important architectural expressions of American automobile and consumer culture in Durham, and, next to the ubiquitous modern station, these historic ones are easy to pass by unnoticed.
Preservation Durham should raise awareness of the architectural and historical merits of these distinctive gas stations through Places in Peril and other public statements. The most powerful argument for preserving gas stations is to renovate them for new retail and offices. Successful renovations of gas stations in Durham include Madhatter Bake Shop, Geer Street Garden, and Cocoa Cinnamon. Preservation Durham should attempt to publicize the rich possibilities for reusing these old structures, perhaps pairing commercial buyers with the owners of empty stations.
Why it’s important:
Historically, duplexes and multi-family structures were constructed in all of Durham’s urban neighborhoods, from Cleveland-Holloway to Morehead Hill. Only Forest Hills and Hope Valley are without these types of multi-family homes. Their construction illustrates the gradual development of these areas over time and the need to keep residents of all income levels close to the city center. The continued presence of multi-family dwellings contributes to the diversity and stability of urban neighborhoods.
Small to mid-sized units within Durham’s established neighborhoods allow for singles, young couples, and older residents to live alongside families and established professionals, contributing not only to the diversity of our neighborhoods, but also to the ability to remain within a particular neighborhood even as an individual’s housing needs change. A range of housing sizes within a single neighborhood, including duplexes and apartment buildings, allows for a continuity of residents, resulting in more stable neighborhoods.
Just as continuity is important, so is vitality, and the ability to accommodate newcomers brought by Duke, Research Triangle Park, and start-ups. Many of these workers, recruited to the area specifically for their creative professions, bring energy and new ideas to our community. Without rental options available in our historic districts, we deny the opportunity for new or transitioning residents to reside in our oldest and most established neighborhoods. These areas foster connections between neighbors, allowing residents to put down roots and eventually buy homes in Durham.
Why it’s in peril:
As property values continue to rise in Durham’s historic districts, small duplexes are being routinely converted to modest single-family homes. The architectural changes that result from these conversions often eliminate historic material and visual evidence of their construction as duplexes. However, the loss of architectural fabric is secondary to the loss of small-scale rental options in these neighborhoods, resulting in new and short-term residents clustering in downtown or suburban apartment complexes rather than integrating into Durham’s more established neighborhoods.
In established neighborhoods, a balance of large and small, owner-occupied and rental housing is necessary to retain diversity and stability. Preservation Durham advocates for this balanced approach to rental and owner-occupied structures in Durham’s historic districts. Use of the income-producing historic preservation tax credits make this an attractive and viable strategy.
Why It’s Important:
The George Wall House tells the story of a remarkable man, his family, and his community. The president of Trinity College hired a teenaged George Wall, born a slave to the grandfather of a Trinity College physics professor, as a farm laborer. Wall moved with Trinity College from Randolph County to Durham County in 1892, serving the college as a porter and custodian. George Wall served Trinity College and later Duke University for sixty years and was heralded for his upstanding character and work ethic.
By 1900, Wall had built a home for himself and his growing family in a new neighborhood just north of Trinity College (now Duke’s East Campus). Wall situated his home on 3rd Street (now Onslow) on a gentle rise and his children and friends soon built houses nearby. By 1910, the neighborhood was commonly called “Walltown” and was inhabited primarily by black university employees and factory workers.
This tiny frame house, covered in vinyl siding, exhibits its original shotgun form with an el addition, tin roof, and chimneys. Shotgun houses, a building form associated with African Americans across the southeast from the 1880s to the 1920s and attributed by some historians to Haitian and West African forms, are rare in Durham, especially one associated with a specific individual – the namesake of the neighborhood.
Why It’s in Peril:
Walltown flourished in the first half of the twentieth century as a tight-knit black community with a church, a school, and the oldest neighborhood community center in Durham. After some years of decline, the neighborhood has rebounded thanks to revitalization efforts by the community association, city agencies, and Self-Help. Despite many successful projects throughout Walltown, the George Wall House itself has sat vacant and in disrepair, although still owned by the Wall family.
Duke University has honored its relationship with Walltown and the Wall family through the dedication of a neighborhood clinic and the Walltown Neighborhood History Project (a collaborative project between Duke faculty, students, and community middle-schoolers to document the history of Walltown).
As Duke University celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Black Students at Duke, Preservation Durham encourages Duke to continue to document the history of black employees by helping to save the George Wall House. Once rehabilitated, the house would make an excellent museum, community building, or private residence, again significant to the fabric of the Walltown neighborhood.
Why It’s Important:
The striking orange building just past the railroad tracks on Trinity Avenue was once a pivotal business for Brodie Duke’s Pearl Mill Village. Built by local entrepreneur Joseph S. Woods and his wife, Lou Ella (Walker) Woods, in 1924, this grocery store with rooms for rent above served the district for decades until its conversion into an apartment house in the early 1960s.
The grocery is the only documented store to have served the district until development of a small commercial corridor accelerated on nearby Foster St. in the 1930s. After the passing of her husband in 1934, Mrs. Woods, who lived around the corner, kept the grocery running until just before her own death in 1963, at which point the property was passed to her daughter, Nancy, and became the Woods Apartments. In 1990, the property was sold again and became the Watson Inn.
Today, the Pearl Mill Village historic district, which lies directly across the street, is the only intact remnant of one of Durham’s four primary mills and is a testament to Durham’s history as a major textile producing center.
Why It’s in Peril:
The property is currently for sale after its lot size was reduced to allow for development of the Trinity Lofts next door. Poor drainage is an issue along the lot’s western edge and ongoing deterioration of the interior has led to structural concerns. The parcel is currently priced at $189,000, and while the structure itself has sparked general interest in the community, many worry that the price tag is too high to attract a buyer.
The property is ripe for development into a local business that can serve the surrounding area in much the same way as when it was first built. The property falls within the Downtown Design District Supporting Area 2 (DDS-2) and has no restrictive covenants or other restrictions on development apart from following those guidelines. The bottom floor consists of one large open room with high ceilings (suitable for an eatery or café), while the top remains subdivided into eight large rooms with heavy wooden doors and transoms (suitable for offices). Expanding the Pearl Mill Village Historic District to include the building would make renovations financially attractive to future developers by making the property eligible for state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.
Why It’s Important:
Carpenter Motor Company at 600 E. Main Street is the only commercial building left on three blocks of downtown’s main thoroughfare. The county demolished the 500 block of East Main for a surface parking lot in 2008, and eight buildings were lost during this demolition, including the historic commercial properties of 526 East Main, 523 East Peabody Street, and 111 South Dillard Street.
Constructed in 1923 of masonry and steel, the Carpenter Motor Company building is nestled into the southwest corner of South Elizabeth, East Main, and Walker Streets. The ground floor contains floor-to-ceiling windows, and the upper stories have large, original, 24-light, factory-style, single-pane windows. The building stands alone along the long stretch of Main Street from Roxboro to Golden Belt. Because this area consists almost entirely of government services, enjoying very little street vitality, 600 East Main is not only an important historic structure, but also a vital connector between the downtown core and Golden Belt.
Immediately east of downtown, the area has seen a recent flood of development investment, including Golden Belt, Hope VI, Eastway Village, the Holton Center, and Maureen Joy School—to say nothing of private homeowner projects in Cleveland-Holloway and East Durham. These projects and investments will have trouble retaining value without a tangible connection to downtown. The design of the Bull City Connector’s path recognizes the future of the area, as do the recent openings of the DaVita Medical Center and Bar Lusconi.
Why It’s Imperiled:
The Durham Police Department is considering relocating its headquarters from its current Chapel Hill Street location to this block. The new police station would likely demolish the Carpenter Motor Company Building and potentially others. Additionally, it would require another parking deck to be built amongst a sea of surface parking lots.
The Downtown Durham Master Plan calls for converting Main Street into an entertainment corridor and discusses the importance of having no more than 25 linear feet of dead space along sidewalks: “In order to connect districts, downtown should strive to have interesting shops occupying the street-level storefronts and public art on the streets.” The new parking lost to the west is already over 600 linear feet of nothing––and loss of the Carpenter Motor Company building would exacerbate an already pedestrian-unfriendly streetscape.
We recognize that the Durham Police Department needs a site suitable to the requirements of a modern police force, but hopefully not at the expense of connecting downtown with Golden Belt and East Durham.
Carpenter Motor Company Building should be restored and repurposed for commercial use that engages traffic between East Durham and downtown. The parking lots would benefit from infill development constructed using a similar design and scale as the Carpenter Motor Company, re-engaging the street. This investment will benefit East Durham and Golden Belt, while helping to support downtown Durham as a great place to live and to visit.