If you’re a regular at the Duke Coffeehouse or simply pop in for a milkshake or a coffee every now and then, you’ve probably glanced over the Polaroids of current and former employees hanging on the back wall, just beyond the bar. The collage of faces represents a small piece of the Coffeehouse’s complicated and lengthy history—it is a saga that could easily fill a thick volume. This year, the Coffeehouse recognizes that history with a celebration of 50 years, though to regulars and even some staff members, the particulars of the Coffeehouse’s origin story remain unknown.
“So much of [the history] is shrouded, and you have to really sift through the archival materials,” said senior Wesley Caretto, general manager of the Coffeehouse.
That archival material ultimately led back to a charter for the Celestial Omnibus, a coffeehouse located in the Flowers basement during the late 1960s.
So this begs the question: How did a 1960s café born in a West Campus basement evolve into the graffiti-drenched space in the Crowell building we now call the Duke Coffeehouse?
During the 1965-1966 school year, a committee was established under Bill Patton, then a Duke chaplain, to seek out a space on campus for a coffeehouse. At one point, President Douglas Knight supported converting the chapel basement, but it was determined that such an undertaking would be too costly. It wasn’t until 1967 that Vice President Charles Huestis approved a proposal to convert the game room in Flowers basement into a coffeehouse. Renovations were complete by September 1967, and the space opened shortly after.
“We don’t want the coffeehouse to cater to only one group of people,” Jeff Van Pelt, Trinity ‘69 and manager of the Celestial Omnibus, said in 1967. “We want it to be a place where everyone—fraternity men, sorority women, independents, and independent independents—can come and enjoy himself.”
Barely a year into its existence, the Celestial Omnibus soon found itself the subject of intense administrative scrutiny. After a widespread drug crackdown in Durham resulted in multiple high school students identifying the Celestial Omnibus as their direct or indirect source of marijuana, the Durham School Board asked that the coffeehouse be shut down, and it closed March 28, 1968. No indictments were ever brought against the coffeehouse staff.
The Celestial Omnibus reopened April 16, 1968, after having agreed only to allow “members of Duke University and guests accompanied by their host” into the coffeehouse. The group struggled to thrive and by the fall of 1970, the space once occupied by the coffeehouse was now home to Hoof 'n' Horn.
In the immediate wake of Celestial Omnibus, the Associated Students of Duke University, the student government group from 1967 to 1993, decided to fund and sponsor a new coffeehouse in the Red Room of the East Campus Dope Shop—a soda fountain and eatery that shut down in 1982. And so it was through the failure of the Celestial Omnibus and the hope of ASDU that the Duke Coffeehouse, or at least its ancestor, found its way to the Crowell Building.
Despite initial optimism, the Red Room quickly ran into logistical issues. Maintenance of the space and lack of funds for programming posed serious challenges.
By October 1973, the Red Room was being used as a storage space for Duke University Stores, and a month later, Dean Griffith confirmed that the space would be closed permanently, citing the unreasonable financial burden of maintaining the facility. James Adams, business manager of the University, cited the poor condition of the building as a reason for the Red Room’s closure.
During the early 1980s, on-campus activism flourished. Students were meeting, organizing and educating around a range of issues. The only problem was a lack of space for such meetings and gatherings to take place.
“We all started meeting in Flowers lounge, and we formed a group called United Duke Students,” Wendy Jacobs, Trinity ’83, said. “One of the things we realized was that we didn’t have anywhere to meet … we started realizing there was no place on campus that students could just get together and meet, there was no space around that.”
In the fall of 1980, a group of students from UDS began meeting with Dean Griffith about the need for such a space, which they envisioned as a coffeehouse.
Jacobs, now chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, signed up to have breakfast with President Terry Sanford as a part of his Breakfast with Terry program, intending to speak about the possibility of establishing a coffeehouse.
“I will never forget the conversation,” Jacobs said. “‘Well Wendy,’ he said. ‘I know all about you and all the students and what you’ve been up to, and if we’re going to have students plotting the revolution, we don’t want them doing that out in the woods, we want them doing that in our backyard … so you’re going to get your coffeehouse.’”
After a trial run in the East Campus Dope Shop during the spring of 1981, the Coffeehouse opened in its current location Nov. 2, 1981. The University appropriated approximately $12,000 to renovate the Red Room, and the students—all of them volunteers—handled the rest, scrounging up furnishings and figuring out programming.
During this period, the Coffeehouse’s name changed under tragic circumstances.
“The summer of 1981, one of the students who was very involved in starting the Coffeehouse, her name was Judy McDade … ended up dying at Yosemite National Park in a really tragic accident,” Jacobs said. “And we renamed the Coffeehouse; we had a sign that said the Judy McDade Coffeehouse, so we actually renamed it.”
Jacobs said she was sad to find that, upon returning to the Coffeehouse four or five years ago, the sign was gone.
The Duke University Union got involved in the operations of Duke Coffeehouse in fall 2004. The partnership was initiated by the Office of Student Activities and Facilities and initially produced an anxiousness among employees and regulars, who feared that the Coffeehouse’s culture, its coolness, might be co-opted by DUU in the transition process.
“At first we were very apprehensive about the move, we were afraid that closer administrative involvement would change the character of the coffeehouse, close us down through on weekdays, paint over the murals and turn it into another Starbucks,” Sarah Ogburn, Trinity ‘05—who was slated to be manager of the Coffeehouse in 2004 before DUU got involved—said in an email.
Ogburn noted that the transition ended up being for the best, given the new support the Coffeehouse began to receive.
For their part, members of DUU—some of them with their own connections to the Coffeehouse—worked to assure skeptics that the space’s character would remain untouched.
“As I recall, it was definitely a priority for the Union that it wasn’t meant to be stealing a space and wasn’t meant to be co-opting a space,” Quynh Tran, Trinity ’06, remembered. “They wanted and welcomed involvement…anyone could join the Coffeehouse committee. It wasn’t closed off.”
The centralization of the Coffeehouse and other organizations within DUU also helped to fortify bonds with groups like the campus radio station WXDU. For example, Tran was serving as general manager of WXDU at the time of the transition, and helped Andy Kay, Trinity ’05, the first general manager of the Coffeehouse under DUU, book musical acts.
“The relationship’s always been close, but I think one of the reasons the DUU is successful is you allow quite a bit of autonomy to the programming heads assuming that everything is going well and there aren’t issues and people are happy, and so Coffeehouse, I think, always had a lot of autonomy,” former DUU President Katelyn Donnelly, Trinity ’08, said.
“I just love the fact that [the Coffeehouse] still exists, and I think it still really fulfills an important role on the Duke campus,” Jacobs said.
Of course, the Coffeehouse has changed a great deal over the years, but always in unison with the students who work and study and hang out in the space. Pieces of the past still hang around, either in the form of the Polaroids on the wall or some bit of graffiti in the bathroom or even a band that keeps coming back.
“We’ve come upon an old calendar from, like, 1999 in which we’ll see a band that we booked just last week,” senior and booking manager Jason Calixto said. “We’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, they’re still playing. It makes sense that they kind of all look like dads.’”
And even if it’s not the past, that variety of the present has remained throughout the years. The Coffeehouse isn’t just a Duke venue; it’s a Durham venue, too. It’s not just a place for bands to play; it’s a spot for poets to read their work and actors to practice their art.
“It’s one of the few places on Duke’s campus that you do see people that might not even have anything to do with Duke that come through,” junior and co-booking manager Evan Morgan said. “For instance, on Thursday nights there’s a Marxist reading group that comes through, and they’re mostly grad students, but some of them are not grad students, they’re just, you know, Marxists.”
The point is, there are no set rules; the space can be whatever the people that make it their own want it to be. In this sense, the Coffeehouse continues to echo with the refrain that defined the group from the early 1980s: “[The Coffeehouse] belongs to all of us, so come make it into the kind of place you want it to be.”