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Looks can be deceiving: Duke’s faux-aged finish

Don’t be fooled by the antiquated look of our Gothic Wonderland. Though the buildings on West Campus appear to have been built hundreds of years ago, in reality most are a mere 81-years-old.

West campus was built in the Collegiate Gothic style of architecture. William Blackburn, in his "The Architecture of Duke University," defines the style as "domestic Gothic architecture found in the colleges of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.”  At the time of the construction of West Campus in 1930, Collegiate Gothic was considered the most acceptable and popular architecture style of American universities and colleges.  Princeton and UChicago feature Collegiate Gothic.

James B. Duke, who established the Duke Endowment in 1924 to expand what was then known as Trinity College, originally wanted to construct Duke’s campus with stones purchased from Princeton’s quarry to achieve the same antiquated façade.  However, other Duke University leaders soon found a nearby Hillsborough quarry, which provided comparable stones for a sixth of the cost.  Stones from the Hillsborough quarry have been used in recent projects including the construction of Bostock Library and the Goodson Chapel.

However, Duke’s founders were not entirely successful in creating an antique Gothic campus. Blackburn notes that West Campus has a couple instances of architectural inconsistency. For example, the School of Medicine and the science buildings on the north end of the Main Quad had to be built with uniform ceiling heights and ample window space for functional reasons making it difficult to adapt the Gothic style, which is defined by its irregularity.

“The wide steps which lead to the Chapel court [and] the prim plots of grass and boxhedge on each side of the Chapel make it look as if a Gothic village had been put down in a Renaissance garden,” Blackburn writes.

In addition to using Gothic architecture to create an older look, it has also been suggested that Duke’s founders intentionally placed dips in the center of buildings’ steps to make it appear as though they had been walked upon for centuries. Caroline Bruzelius, Professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, wrote in an e-mail that this phenomenon is called “rustication".

“In the context of Duke, [rustication] is clearly meant to suggest older institutions like Oxford, for example. But the stone used at Duke could also not have been able to have been cut in a smooth way—so the aesthetic choice and the type of masonry are associated.”

Timothy Pyatt, Duke University Archivist, noted that although it is clear the steps could not have naturally become as worn as they are in the short time since their construction in 1930, there is nothing in the University documentation that confirms the steps were intentionally built to look weather-beaten.

Duke's swift rise to a major research institution may be credited to its choice of architecture, Pyatt said.

“The fact that Duke looked like an old and established university from the start really helped give it its launch.  It didn’t seem like a newly minted university…. A lot of people think using a more historic design helped propel Duke to greatness even quicker.”

The buildings on Science Drive, constructed during the University’s period of rapid rise in the post World War II era, were not created in the same Gothic style as the rest of West Campus. As Duke gained its reputation as an international research institution, it had to quickly put up a lot of buildings on a tight budget, Pyatt said.

Following the construction of the engineering buildings on Science Drive, The Board of Trustees passed a resolution that required future projects to include more elements of Gothic style, including the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

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