What To Do With 118 S. Driver Street? Part 2

Published by info@preservationdurham.org on

Thanks to all of you for the great responses to yesterday’s piece on 118 S. Driver Street. As promised, here’s the follow up on the house’s history, excerpted largely from OpenDurham.org. Big thanks to Gary Kueber for creating such an amazing community resource.

Early History
The house at 118 South Driver was built by John W. Evans, who was the first superintendent of the Durham County Home around 1900. The house originally sat on land comprising about half of the current block bounded by Hart Street, Driver St., East Main Street, and Robertson Street. Evans only lived in the house a short time, however, dying in 1902. His land was split up among his heirs.

118 s driver street plot

1950 Sanborn Map. 118 S. Driver is highlighted in orange.

The house passed to Evans’ daughter, Amy, and her husband, Arthur E. Burcham. Burcham was a superintendent at the Durham Hosiery Mills and served on the city council in the early 1940s.

The house is unusual in style, a 1 1/2 story “triple-A”, with full roofline dormers, as well as a wraparound porch and a large centrally positioned rear wing.

118 s driver 1980

118 S. Driver Street circa 1980. Photo courtesy of Open Durham.

Located just 3 blocks north of East Durham’s commercial Center at Driver and Angier, the East Durham Graded School (later YE Smith) was built across the street from it in 1910.  This property had its own spectacular rehab in 2013 when Self Help Credit Union renovated it for The Maureen Joy Charter School.

commercial s driver

Commercial block of S. Driver Street, looking north from Angier Avenue, 1945. Courtesy Durham County Library / North Carolina Collection, via opendurham.org

This house became pivotal in the future of this East Durham neighborhood by the 1990s.


Preservation Durham and the East Durham Drug Trade
Kueber recalls on Open Durham, “Normally, I’m a huge proponent of boosting owner-occupancy in a neighborhood – my experience with 118 South Driver is the only significant caveat to this. I’ll start with the take-home message. If you have a drug dealer in your neighborhood, you’d much prefer them to be a renter rather than an owner.


118 Driver is emblematic of East Durham’s trajectory. Well-maintained through the 1980s, the property was sold by a widow in 1991 to a family who would collectively wreak havoc in the vicinity of the house over the next ~15 years. The story is somewhat classic; older couple moves in, patriarch dies, children and grandchildren move in / stay with grandma, and form a little family drug cartel. Members of the family would be arrested / charged (including grandma) with cocaine possession, and the business might slow for a little bit, but it would never stop.


When I first encountered the house around 2004, I had been working hard as chair of Preservation Durham’s endangered properties committee to acquire options on threatened houses in order to try to get historic covenants placed on houses at time of sale [in an effort to stabilize and revitalize the neighborhood and protect its historic character] … This house – or, more specifically, the trade being plyed from the house, – clearly stood in the way of that revitalization. There are a few wonderfully hardy folk who are brave enough to renovate a house within a block of a drug dealer, but hardly a deep demographic.


A combination of the three of us began courting grandma. NIS [The City of Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services] was putting pressure on the family because of code violations. Ken Gasch and Bill Anderson got the police involved enough to raid the house and make some arrests.


All of which set up the surreal experience of Rick Hester of NIS, Carrie Mowry, and I sitting around the living room of this house with the option papers and grandma, grown children standing over us looking none-too-happy. She signed the papers [giving Preservation Durham a one year option], and within a few months had moved out to north Durham.”


A Tough Decision
Preservation Durham marketed the house for that year, but couldn’t sell it. Without a purchaser, we had to make a hard decision when the one year option was about to expire: purchase it ourselves, using our own funds and continue to look for a buyer, or let the option expire and walk away from the property entirely, leaving it in the hands of the problematic owners.


Thankfully, the decision was made to purchase the property outright.  This was a big financial commitment, that ultimately ended in a net loss for the organization, but reflects our commitment to neighborhood revitalization and the future of East Durham.  BIG THANKS to the hard work of Carrie Mowry and Preservation Durham’s Endangered Properties Fund for their tireless efforts to obtain this property.


Tomorrow I’ll follow up with the details of a difficult rehab, hidden architectural features, and photos of the stunning final product.

Until Then,
Wendy Hillis, AIA
Executive Director