Police Headquarters Decision

The fate of the Carpenter Chevy Site at 500 E. Main Street and the siting of the new Police Headquarters Complex will be decided this afternoon at 2pm at the City Council work session.

Preservation Durham and Durham Area Designers have continued to promote our alternative site scheme, which saves the Carpenter Chevy Building, and discuss the importance of pedestrian activation and private development along this portion of Main Street.

During the discussion about the Carpenter Chevy site at a recent Council meetings, questions were raised about the cultural and historical significance of the Carpenter Chevy Site. The history below was compiled by our Board Vice President, Rob Emerson, and was forwarded to Council members earlier this week.
A Brief History of the Carpenter Chevy Site.

In 1900, the block bounded by East Main, South Dillard, Ramseur, and Reams (Elizabeth) Streets was the site of Somerset Villa, the estate of General Julian Shakespeare Carr.

somerset villa

Somerset Villa, 500 Block of East Main Street

Mrs. Carr died in 1915, as John Carpenter and his two brothers were starting to sell a few mail-order automobiles from their grocery and dry goods store a few blocks west on Church Street. Carpenter lived nearby in this house at the SW corner of Queen and Holloway.

 

js carpenter residence

J.S. Carpenter Residence, SW Corner of Queen and Holloway Streets

 

In 1923 Durham was the second largest industrial city in North Carolina. With a population of only 23,000, Durham had nine banks, 2 hospitals, 46 churches, the largest hosiery mill in the world, Duke Brothers and Bull Durham tobacco factories, Trinity College, and a professional baseball team in the Piedmont League.

At the geographical center of North Carolina, Durham was also one of the best paved cities in the state. 1923 was a record breaking year in the automotive industry, with car ownership increasing nationwide by 50% over the previous year, also a record breaker. Durham had twelve automobile dealerships, mostly on East and West Main Street and East Chapel Hill Street, but none had a 3-story state-of-the art facility like the Carpenter Brothers new building on East Main at Reams (Elizabeth). It had a drive in filling station on the corner and an elevator for transporting vehicles for service on the upper floors. The surrounding area was still mostly residential, with some of grandest homes in town on Dillard and East Main Streets and more modest homes along Hood and Newman. The Carpenter Motor Company (below) faced the east side of Somerset Villa (first photo, above).

Carpenter Motor co

Carpenter Motor Company

 

In 1924 General Carr died and was buried in Maplewood Cemetery. Somerset Villa was sold and destroyed to make room for new commercial development along East Main Street towards recently annexed East Durham. Carpenter Chevrolet continued to grow along with Durham and the automobile industry, expanding in 1928, and again during the boom following World War II with their 1948 GMC Truck facility. The formerly residential area along East Main, Hood, Elizabeth, and South Dillard was almost exclusively commercial by the late 1950's.

The only remaining residential structure today is this 1924 apartment building on Hood Street across from the police HQ site and north of Ponysaurus Brewery.

 

215 hood st

215 Hood Street

 

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Mr. Carpenter's former Queen Street home and the rest of his neighborhood were cleared by the City using Federal Urban Renewal funds.

Fayetteville and Elizabeth Streets were reconfigured with the construction of the Durham Freeway. Like much of Historic Hayti, this area sat largely vacant and languished for decades. Hope VI brought several blocks of dense affordable housing to east Main Street, but Durham county bulldozed the entire block of buildings (including the 1920's buildings that had replaced Somerset Villa) for a surface parking lot.

former site of carpenter home

Former Site of Carpenter Home, Across Queen Street from Urban Ministries

 

Fayetteville and Elizabeth Streets were reconfigured with the construction of the Durham Freeway. Like much of Historic Hayti, this area sat largely vacant and languished for decades. Hope VI brought several blocks of dense affordable housing to east Main Street, but Durham county bulldozed the entire block of buildings (including the 1920's buildings that had replaced Somerset Villa) for a surface parking lot.

 

former site of somerset

Former Site of Somerset Villa, viewed from East Main and Queen Streets

 

While we can't say that any significant cultural events happened here, as they did at other places we've lost like the Woolworth Building or Royal Ice Cream, Carpenter Chevy does help tell the story of Durham, of East Durham, and especially of the area in between.

Embodied in the bricks and timbers of these buildings are the voices of the people who built them, the men and women who worked here, and those who came to town to sell their tobacco at auction and bought a new truck here with the proceeds. This building is a landmark - not in the tax exempt sense - but in that it has occupied a very prominent part of the East Main Street landscape for nearly one hundred years. Carpenter and the 1924 apartment building at 215 Hood are the only pre-war structures left between the Housing Authority (also a former car dealership) and the railroad tracks - a distance of more than one-third of a mile.

To bulldoze this one remaining piece of history and character in favor of another block of bland sameness that's dark and quiet after 5:00 shows that we haven't learned a thing from the urban planning blunders of the 1960's that wiped out entire neighborhoods and gave us the current City Hall and the awful Police HQ building behind it.

 

durham police hq

Durham Police HQ (1966), now known as City Hall Annex View looking Southeast from North Mangum and East Chapel Hill Streets

 

The new police HQ will undoubtedly be an attractive building - an architectural bookend to the County's Social Services Building, but unless it reserves space on Main Street for mixed use infill that includes retail, commercial, and more housing, it will widen the already huge chasm separating East Durham from the prosperity inside the loop. Many of us believe that adaptive re-use of Carpenter Chevy would be a big step in the right direction.

Sources: Photos are from Open Durham. Historical information is from Jean Anderson's History of Durham County and old City Directories archived in Digital Durham.