At first glance, it looks like any other construction site.
Construction sign out front. Trucks rolling on and off the lot. Two stories of yellow-painted walls waiting for someone to finally call it home.
But the lot at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd., sitting directly across from Duke's East Campus between Dacian Ave. and Urban Ave., is not your typical construction site. It is the first house to be built on the land since three Duke men's lacrosse players were falsely accused of raping stripper Crystal Mangum there nearly nine years ago.
Two houses down from the construction site, Durham resident Gwen Palmer opens her door on a rainy Monday afternoon. It takes her no time to make the connection herself after I inquire about the construction site.
"Do you want to come talk about the Duke lacrosse house?" she calls up the stairs to her husband, Ed.
Even as construction wears on and the house grows closer to completion each day, the lot continues to attract attention from passersby.
Cars driving along Buchanan Blvd. tend to slow down ever so slightly around the 600 block to catch a passing glimpse, Ed Palmer said. Joggers circumnavigating Duke's East Campus wall conveniently stop to take a rest.
"Everybody’s interested in it. They always tell their friends," said Ed Palmer, who has only lived in his house since 2008 but had family living there for decades prior. "They’re always pointing at the vacant lot, and you know what they’re talking about.”
Before the infamous Duke lacrosse case, there was no reason for people to stop and stare at the modest white house that stood at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. It was just another rental property in Trinity Park home to Duke undergraduates, which was abundantly common nearly a decade ago.
Taking advantage of their ability to live off campus during their final year at Duke, undergraduates often rent houses in the Trinity Park and Trinity Heights neighborhoods, which—along with Downtown Durham and Ninth Street— encircle East Campus. Designed to curb student behavior in these neighborhoods, a decades-old Durham zoning ordinance mandates that only three unrelated persons can inhabit a single-family home.
Landlords renting to Duke students would often turn a blind eye when it came to this statute.
"There were multiple landlords, two or three—always worked very carefully with the students to have only three names on the leases even though it was apparent if anyone ever drove by the house and you saw the cars parked that a whole lot more kids were living in those houses," said John Burness, who served as senior vice president for public affairs and government relations until 2008 and is now a visiting professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
Students and their Trinity Park neighbors were constantly at odds. Loud parties would rage on until as late as 4 a.m. Drunk students would urinate on people's lawns and damage their properties. Phones in Duke's administrative offices would ring off the hook with complaints.
"Neighbors were just outraged with the University for not doing something to clamp down on the behavior of the students," Burness said. "They came to us—and we spent a lot of time on this—literally it got to the point where they sent a letter home to the parents of anyone they could identify who was living in any of those houses at the beginning of the year letting them know that the students were expected to be decent neighbors."
In January 2004, city-mandated housing inspections took place in the neighborhoods of Trinity Park and Trinity Heights. Among the violations inspectors were looking for was the illegal conversion of single-family homes into multiple-family homes—occupancy greater than three.
It was also around this time that residents of Trinity Park approached the University about potentially buying out rental properties with the hopes of moving students out of the area.
"The neighbors came to us and said they were thinking of putting together a non-profit and [asked] would it be possible to raise enough money to purchase from one landlord there between 12 and 14 of these properties," Burness said. "They wanted to know if we could help them purchase these houses out from under [Guy Solie, who rented the properties] and deal with that. We thought about that, and it was really complicated for the University to do.”
Solie, Trinity '67 and Graduate School '76, had built up a portfolio of desirable real estate near Duke's East Campus for his company, Trinity Properties. The house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. was one such property.
Despite the quickly growing tensions between the neighbors and University regarding student housing in residential neighborhoods, Burness said the lacrosse house at 610 N. Buchanan didn't receive close to the majority of neighbors' complaints.
"No. Absolutely not," Burness said when asked if he recalled the house being more of an issue than others in the neighborhood. "To me, it was just one of the other houses."
Joanna Darby, who has lived directly behind the property at 705 Watts Street since 1999, added that though she recalled more than three students living in the house at 610 N. Buchanan, that house was nowhere near the neighborhood's biggest concern.
"There were occasional parties at that house," she said. "Not a lot, but occasional."
With the neighbors clamoring for the University to step in and buy Solie's properties in 2004, Burness threw his support behind the complicated move. Ultimately, Burness' efforts were unsuccessful.
"We were spending so much time and getting so much beef with the neighbors. The police were unhappy and the city was unhappy. My argument didn’t carry,” Burness said. “Perhaps, if we had been successful in purchasing it... when I originally recommended it, what later became the big issue never would have occurred.”
By early 2006, pressure from Trinity Park residents had finally mounted on the University. It was time for Duke to make a move.
On Jan. 18, 2006, Solie filed to create a new corporation called Soleil, LLC. A month later, between Feb. 22 and Feb. 27, Solie transferred 15 of his properties from Trinity Properties to Soleil, LLC. On Feb. 28, Durham Realty, a company owned by Duke University, bought all 15 properties—including the house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd.—for a total of $3.7 million.
Now their new landlord, Duke allowed students living in the houses at the time to remain there for the duration of their existing leases, even those that extended beyond the end of the academic year. Although Burness noted that the final price tag may have been inflated due to future potential earnings of the rental properties, the property acquisition was heralded by the Durham community as the right move for Duke.
"Neighbors were ecstatic with us when it got out that we were doing this," Burness said. "There were editorials in the local paper talking about how Duke was doing the right thing and what a good neighbor we were and blah blah blah. It was one of those things that was pretty universally seen as Duke acting responsibly."
Little did the University know that one of the houses it had purchased as part of a good public relations move was about to become the epicenter of a media firestorm.
The Duke lacrosse case
Exactly two weeks after 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. was purchased by Duke, on March 13, 2006, members of the Duke men's lacrosse team held a party at their house. It was at that party where Mangum—one of the two strippers the team had hired for the evening—accused senior David Evans and sophomores Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann of raping her.
Ed and Gwen Palmer were not in Durham when the allegations finally surfaced later that month—their house was undergoing renovations at the time. But from a distance, it didn't take long for them to realize that the 600 block of N. Buchanan Blvd. had become ground zero for what would become some of the darkest days in Duke's history.
"My brother called me and said, ‘You won’t believe this, but your house is on CNN right now.’ They were doing all their TV stuff down the block, showing the whole block," Ed Palmer said. "I turned on the TV and whoever it was from Fox News was standing on the front porch.”
Television crews would make frequent pilgrimage to the house, making it the backdrop for many of their reports during the ensuing weeks and months. Supporters tacked posters to the walls of the house while dissenters defaced it with angry messages and accusations. Protestors walked up and down the block banging pots and pans and shouting for change.
The lacrosse case drew dividing lines across Duke's campus, the city of Durham and the entire United States. Even before there was a trial, even before any arrests were made, most condemned the three players as guilty.
Academics pitted themselves against athletes when a cohort of professors, later known as the Group of 88, published an advertisement in which they vilified the accused lacrosse players.
The idea that three privileged, white athletes at an elite private institution had raped an African American woman sparked racial tensions in a city that juxtaposes the University community with the city's large black population.
The University was tied for fifth in the nation in the 2005 U.S. News and World Report, and pundits debated whether that prestigious ranking would drop alongside the number of applications and donations received.
"It was like a meteor had hit the campus," said Michael Schoenfeld, who currently serves as Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations.
The Blue Devils played their last game of the season on March 21, falling to No. 3 Cornell 11-7. By April 5, President Richard Brodhead cancelled the remainder of Duke's lacrosse season and head coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign.
Finnerty and Seligmann were arrested and indicted on charges of first degree rape, first degree sexual offense and kidnapping on April 18, 2006. By May 15, Evans had joined them as the third defendant in the Duke lacrosse case.
On June 8, court documents indicated that Kim Roberts, the other stripper at the party that night, was with Mangum for all but five minutes of the evening. Roberts expressed skepticism that the sexual assault ever took place.
As inconsistencies continued to surface regarding the case, the focus began to shift from the defendants to Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, who had taken it upon himself to help lead the Durham Police Department's investigation. Nifong later came under fire for falsely reporting the results of DNA tests and intimidating witnesses in the case, ultimately resulting in his removal from the case and disbarment.
A key piece of the inconsistencies in Mangum's testimony and DUPD's investigation had to do with the physical layout of the house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. Throughout the investigation and ensuing civil cases, the house stood vacant as a piece of evidence.
After Nifong removed himself from the case and turned it over to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in January 2007, the attorney general and special prosecutors visited the house to examine the space themselves. It turned out to be one of the turning points of case.
"That was one of the compelling dimensions of the evidence to them in their investigations—that the story the complaining witness had given did not square with the physical realities of that space,” said Bob Ekstrand, who represented various members of the 2006 Duke men's lacrosse team in civil suits against the University and city of Durham.
On April 11, 2007, Cooper dropped all remaining charges against Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann. Although their names were finally cleared after a year-long legal battle, Nifong's fraudulent misrepresentation of the case had done significant damage to the Duke community.
Bringing down the house
As several members of the men's lacrosse program took civil action against Duke and the city of Durham, the house continued to stand vacant as a part of legal investigations for the next four years. During that period of time, the structure's condition continued to deteriorate.
“I think the house was always in a state of disrepair," Darby said. "I’m sure it got worse by being empty and not kept up.”
The house's mailbox began to overflow with junk mail. Year after year of local phone books, delivered but untouched, sat on the front porch. An ominous black question mark was spray-painted on its back wall. Even though the doorbell still rang, nobody was there to answer—the house's front door padlocked shut.
On July 12, 2010, when the University was finally able to once again access the property it had bought more than four years prior, the white house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. was demolished. Local news crews and a small crowd gathered outside the house for its swift and unceremonious funeral—demolition took just 15 minutes.
“It happened like that," Gwen Palmer said. "All of a sudden here they are, and the house is gone."
Schoenfeld did not attend the demolition, but had someone save him a brick from the old lacrosse house. He pulls it out from the back of his bookshelf and lays it on the table in his office.
When asked why he saved the brick, Schoenfeld responds that he collects Duke souvenirs.
Not all believed the house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. should have been demolished. Opponents of the demolition likened the property to a memorial of the injustices of the lacrosse case.
"There was never any consideration to doing anything with the house other than returning it to being a healthy, important part of the neighborhood. The structure itself was far less important than some of the ideas and other things that came out of the events of 2006," Schoenfeld said. "It had become both an eyesore and a safety hazard."
Ekstrand believed that despite the condition the house had fallen into after four years of vacancy that it could have been repaired. Furthermore, he alluded to a higher purpose the property could have served.
“It had a pretty visible role in all the public turmoil surrounding the false allegations. In light of that, it always made sense to me that there was significance to be drawn from that. I always, whenever I wondered what would happen to that house, thought its best use would be to turn it into an innocence project office," Ekstrand said. "It would stand as a pretty powerful reminder for all of us that the truth is not always what you think and when accusations of the most serious kind are made, they should be responded to with the care and caution that would have served the defendants so well back then.”
After the lot was cleared, it sat vacant under the University's control for more than four years. Despite the high level of publicity surrounding the lot, Schoenfeld said selling the land was no easy task for Duke.
“It’s a very odd-shaped lot, so the size of it and the shape of it make it kind of challenging to build something on," Schoenfeld said. “There had not been many offers to buy the property, as far as I know.”
Conversations with residents of Trinity Park told a slightly different story. Many surrounding neighbors had expressed interest in buying the land in hopes of adding it to their current property. Duke had prioritized selling the land for the construction of another single-family home.
“There were several people around here who wanted to buy that lot and just keep it as their backyard. People wanted to buy the lot and just keep it as a garden," Ed Palmer said. "Duke owned the property and didn’t want to do that. They wanted a house there.”
While Duke continued to wait for the right offer, the vacant lot continued to attract the same attention from passersby as it did when the white house once stood. Even in the house's absence, the lot remained a landmark in the Trinity Park community.
“Several people besides us would say, ‘I live two houses down from the Duke lacrosse lot,’ because everybody knows where that is," Gwen Palmer said. "The people on the other side two houses down do it too, because I’ve gotten their guests.”
At one point, the weeds in the vacant lot grew to be three feet tall. Shortly after the Palmers called Duke, landscapers began cutting the grass every other week.
Darby would often use the vacant lot for what she called "guerrilla gardening." Multiple years she attempted to grow pumpkins and tomatoes on the site where the lacrosse house once stood, with admittedly limited success.
“I liked having that open space," Darby said. “It was empty and no one was using it, and it was the only area that got sun.”
She also began to notice before long that the garage behind the house had become somewhat of a haven for Durham's homeless population who couldn't make it to a shelter on time.
Days drifted into months and years as the vacant lot at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. remained uninhabited. It watched as students who lived across the wall on East Campus as freshmen moved into other nearby rental properties as seniors and graduated. Shortly after the house's demolition, the last students who were at Duke during the lacrosse case were gone—an entire generation turned over.
It wasn't until June 20, 2014 that Duke finally sold the lot for $100,000 to University City, LLC, a company established by Aaron Lubeck just two months prior.
A founding member of Trinity Design/Build, Lubeck—who is no longer affiliated with the firm—contracted the group, which specializes in green building and eco-friendly interiors to build a single-family home at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. One of the first pieces of the project was the installation of a geothermal well, which provides for more environmentally-friendly heating and cooling of the home.
Lubeck, a former adjunct lecturer at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, and Trinity Design/Build both declined to comment for this story.
Although Lubeck still currently owns the land, the house will be sold on completion to Alan Townsend, who took over as Dean of the Nicholas School in May 2014. Townsend could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Schoenfeld was unaware of the details concerning the house's future, but expressed excitement for what the construction of a new house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. could mean for the neighborhood of Trinity Park.
“The Trinity Park neighborhood has become, over the last 15 or 20 years, one of the most desirable and interesting neighborhoods in Durham and even in the state of North Carolina," Schoenfeld said. "Having another residence there and another family there is a positive thing for the neighborhood.”
Whether the construction and completion of a new house at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. will affect the overall memories and consciousness of the Duke lacrosse scandal is unclear. Though the run-down white house and vacant lot both served as physical reminders of the case, the events of 2006 are forever stitched into the fabric of this University, for better or for worse.
With a new family moving in, the physical void in the neighborhood will be filled. But all likelihood is that cars will still slow down ever so slightly and joggers will still take a quick break when they reach the 600 block of Buchanan—pointing at the new yellow house where the lacrosse house once stood.
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