The independent news organization of Duke University

Downtown Durham: The New South or Newer South?

There was once a time when Durham along with the other 99 counties in North Carolina revered the rule of law to such a degree that the courthouse was its tallest building. Looking at the skyline today, the relatively new county courthouse (opened in 2013)—the fourth iteration—continues to attempt to assert its supremacy. However, it is not without competition. The Hill Building—home of the former Durham Bank & Trust (completed in 1937)—is more centrally located within the city, more vertical in its architectural style (as chosen by the famed New York City firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon), and now a more interesting place to step inside as it houses the art museum boutique hotel, 21C. More than a symbol of the pervasive power of finance, the Durham Bank & Trust’s Hill Building headquarters was a manifestation of the preeminence of the tobacco industry, which could not express its largesse solely in the architecture of its sprawling warehouses. 

The Duke Chapel (completed in 1932) may be superficially a stalwart symbol of eruditio et religio but it is too secluded from the city center and public view to challenge either the bank or the courthouse. In fact, it is just as much a paean to the power and prestige of the tobacco industry as the Hill Building at 111 Corcoran Street. Whether in American Art Deco or American Collegiate Gothic, the American Tobacco Company solidified its dominance in Durham until it ceased production in 1987. The following year another tall building was erected in downtown known as the People’s Security Insurance Building. Now known as Durham Centre, the postmodern bulky blue glass and stone building barely managed to persuade anyone of its importance as Durham lost its national and regional significance, the basketball team notwithstanding.

Twenty years later the Duke Clinical Research Institute began its takeover of the 14-story tower and in so doing began to assert Duke’s new ascendancy in the city from which it had been secluded. Biomedical research supplanted tobacco as the income stream of the future for this non-profit and made it confident enough to put its name on a building downtown.

Finally, feeling the pressure from the university and the bank (then SunTrust), the county broke ground for its newest and tallest courthouse yet in 2010. Its overhanging roof presents a powerful example of horizontality as equality and acts as though it is an actual roof for the entire city—a silver (as opposed to red) line which is not to be crossed. At its rear is an even more elegantly designed jail (ahem, “detention facility”) which has won an award from the American Institute of Architects and despite appearing newer and being designed by the same firm was actually completed eighteen years prior. 

The pursuit of justice and equality before the law have been elusive in Durham as in other American communities struggling with criminal justice reform. Not even five years after the people of Durham reasserted their supremacy in the belief that no one—neither a person nor a corporation (nor a corporation which identifies as a person)—is above the law, the construction of One City Center will be completed. The future residents of this mixed-use skyscraper will tower over the roof of the courthouse and look down on their neighbors from million dollar condominiums through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. No other buildings will be able to compete with the luxury or “cosmopolitan flair and amenities” (read: rooftop pool) promised by the developer.

It is unlikely that the people of Durham will find it expedient to build a taller and newer courthouse, but at least they are known to be successful in tearing down those structures which offend their sensibilities of citizenship.

Nathan Bullock is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate studying architectural history in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies.


Share and discuss “Downtown Durham: The New South or Newer South?” on social media.