The Hidden Refuge
Jennie Xu / The Chronicle
With the airs of an old-fashioned dining club, the male scholars sat in high-backed armchairs, puffing on cigars and debating the politics of the day.
According to their constitution, their purpose was threefold: “First and principally, to foster good fellowship, mutual understanding and cooperation among the faculty; second, to contribute to the social life and interests of the faculty and their families and of the college in general; and third to promote among the faculty the common consideration and discussion of matters of scholarly and general public interest.”
Lists of early members include names that are still known on campus today, many as namesakes for buildings—Joseph Penn Breedlove, William Hane Wannamaker, Paul Magnus Gross, Julian Shakespeare Carr and plenty more.
Today, the Duke Faculty Club—now 800 members strong—would be unrecognizable to the members of the original fraternity. The organization, once exclusive to only full professors, has grown into a casual recreation facility for Duke staff and their families.
Regulars at the current club, built in 1971, are quick to assert that it’s not a stuffy private club catering to the rich and well-connected.
“We’re not a country club,” said Thomas Metzloff, a law professor and long-time president of the club’s board of directors. “We haven’t been since we’ve been here. This is a family place.”
Nestled in the Duke Forest, just to the east of the Washington Duke Inn, the Duke Faculty Club is an oasis from West Campus. The 10-acre facility is reminiscent of a vintage summer camp—with wooden fences and spreads of picnic tables closed in by a leafy tree canopy.
Duke-blue awnings shade the swimming pools, and tennis and basketball courts line the perimeter. The only remnant of a dining club is a modest snack bar.
This year, the facility is undergoing $6.2 million in renovations. Even as it gets a polished look, complete with the gothic-style Duke stone featured on many buildings on West Campus, members and staff want to maintain the homey atmosphere that has evolved over the club’s century-long history.
In 1924, the club decided to make waves by buying one of Durham’s first radios. A special committee had to decide between a Grebe CR15 and a Radiola 4, both priced at $215—which is approximately $3,000 today.
The club meeting minutes don’t indicate which device they decided on, but they did say that a radio would suit their needs, not as a scholastic organization, but as a social one.
“Friday nights of each week were fixed as the special time on which members might bring their wives and sweethearts to the clubhouse for the purpose of listening to the radio,” the meeting minutes stated.
The organization’s constitution did not plainly say that the club was for men only. But there were no women who had the title of full professor until 1930, when Katherine Everett Gilbert joined the faculty as a professor of philosophy.
Smoking, a habit traditionally practiced by men, was the most common social activity for club members. They would entertain professors from other universities, politicians and representatives of academic societies. An early gathering in 1919 involved listening to presentations from Trinity College professors who had served abroad during World War I.
The professors often tackled University issues, such as student-faculty interaction and curriculum. In 1936, they expressed a desire for a faculty dining room in the West Union. That desire grew into the Faculty Commons, also known as Plate and Pitchfork, which has been closed off due to current renovations.
Starting in the late 1920s, the club began to hold seasonal gatherings, like the Spring Frolic and much-loved annual Christmas Dinner, often held in the Great Hall. The events, which carried on into the 1970s, were well-attended by Durham socialites and were often noted in the local newspapers.
Even though the club only grew over the decades, it hopped from place to place until it secured its current location near the Washington Duke Inn in 1971.
They met in East Duke, Kilgo, West Union, Old Chem and every other building on campus, which many members felt wasn’t suitable for their growing numbers. Because its location was always in flux, the club was unable to offer the faculty a place of refuge from the University.
One disgruntled member scribbled his sentiments on the back of the meeting minutes in 1964:
“I deplore the concept of a University ‘community house.’ For a faculty club, I hope we can have a place where there will never be students—a refuge from them, and from our children, too! Some might like to exclude even wives from all areas, save the dining room….
“Experience shows, if wives aren’t thus held down, they soon take over the place, with such tripe as fashion shows, etc. Female faculty members, of course, are fully welcome. Old misanthrope!”
Regardless of some professors’ desire for a true men’s club, the overwhelming opinion was to create a place where families could also socialize. In 1966, the club moved to the 11-acre Teer Homeplace at 4019 Roxboro St., which is now a Duke University Health System building.
At the historic estate, the club had a pool and other recreation facilities. With the new focus on health, leisure and family, members and officers decided to lease land from the University to build its own space. From there, they morphed from a social organization into the casual recreation club it is today.
Chemistry professor Steven Baldwin came to Duke in the Fall of 1970. In 1972, he made his first trek down Science Drive over to the Duke Faculty Club.
His children grew up on the Faculty Club pool deck, playing in the water when they were little. Some became lifeguards when they were teenagers. Baldwin was president of the club in the early 2000s.
“It’s been part of our whole life,” he said.
Baldwin, now 71, still makes a point two or three times a week to go to the gym or swim laps at the forest retreat, only three blocks from his French Family Science Center office.
By the time Baldwin became a member, the academic society aspect of the Duke Faculty Club had all but disappeared, as had any level of exclusivity. Now, club membership is open to all full-time employees—which includes professors, administrators, support staff and doctors, as well as 100 alumni who live in the area.
For faculty and staff, it’s a break from students, and a break from high-pressure University life.
“My interactions with faculty and staff are when they’re in their bathing suits,” Club Director Eamonn Lanigan said. “I see them on campus… as Dr. So-and-So, when I know him as Tom.”
But Baldwin said it’s not like a professor becomes a different person as soon as they park their car in the private lot next to the Al Buehler trail.
“I feel like I’m at Duke when I’m here,” he said. “You’ll see people up here talking about their papers, what’s going on, University life, their opinions on [Duke Kunshan University].”
He added that he hasn’t seen much change since he first joined, except that the buildings are becoming a little threadbare.
For years, club staff and officers have noticed the effects that everyday wear and tear have had on the club, particularly because it was designed for 300 members and their families, and membership has grown almost three-fold.
Metzloff noted that the renovations began with a decision to renovate the locker rooms, which set off a domino effect of various rooms and buildings also needing to be updated.
Renovations have already begun on the 41-year-old facilities, and they will be completed by the end of the Spring. Project managers have planned a new clubhouse, snack bar, fitness center, lap pool, clay tennis courts, playground, locker rooms, game rooms and an expanded patio. In order to accommodate the changes, the campus will push out into the forest, increasing its space from 10 to 13 acres total.
The architects seek to maintain a sense of Duke when building the new facilities by using gothic stone and taking advantage of the location's tucked-in-the-forest feel, Metzloff said.
The club is a nonprofit organization separate from Duke, so the $6.2 million for the capital project is a mix of out-of-pocket cash, savings and a loan from the University.
Even though it is technically not part of the University, the club still has strong Blue Devil pride, Metlzoff said, amid the club’s crowded picnic area for a family tailgate before the first football game of the year.
In one of the earlier attempts to spruce up the locker rooms about 10 years ago, the rooms were accidentally painted Carolina blue.
“It was gone in a week,” he said.