From a blank slate

Travel documents map the origins of Duke's two campuses

A page from the scrapbook made by President Few and comptroller Frank C. Brown

We are now approaching the 100th anniversary of the founding of Duke University in 1924. As we celebrate this milestone, it’s worth reflecting on how we came to have our two distinctive and beautiful campuses—and how different they could have looked.

About seven years ago, among a large group of rolled drawings in the University Archives, we discovered a plan made by the Horace Trumbauer architectural firm in 1923 or early 1924. In it, the then-existing East Campus is redesigned as an entire university. Imagine a chapel in the place Baldwin Auditorium stands today, flanked by the schools of law and divinity. This plan was made for “Mr. J.B. Duke” well before the announcement of The Duke Endowment, which suggests that he was thinking carefully about how Trinity College might grow into a larger university well in advance of his transformative gift. The buildings are packed closely, and this drawing does not include a hospital or school of medicine, both of which were of considerable interest to James B. Duke.

It must have become clear fairly quickly that there was not enough room on East Campus to realize all of the young university’s ambitions, and securing additional land around East Campus was challenging, given the residences and businesses already in place. Therefore, the university quietly acquired land to the west and south of East Campus—eventually over 7,000 acres. These many parcels of what was then mostly farmland became today’s West Campus and Duke Forest.

While the question of land was still undetermined, planning for the campus design continued. Presented with the unique opportunity to create a whole new campus from scratch, President William P. Few and professor and comptroller Frank C. Brown decided to take a road trip to various college campuses and keep a scrapbook of photos and notes about architectural design. The delightful document of their travels includes photos of campuses with Georgian architecture, the style that the East Campus would eventually take, and the Gothic architecture soon to be adopted for West Campus. One of the campuses visited was Princeton, and there are certainly some remarkable similarities between some Princeton buildings and some Duke buildings. This similarity may be why a rumor about James B. Duke originally wishing to give his money to Princeton has survived for decades. Despite the rumor being completely false, the similarities between Princeton and Duke’s West Campus seem to breathe life into the story year after year.

With Few’s and Brown’s input about the desired aesthetics of the campus, along with James B. Duke’s vision, Horace Trumbauer and his chief designer, Julian Abele, created possible campus layouts. The Abele Quad is now so quintessentially Duke it’s hard to imagine it being any other way, but the documentary evidence shows us it could have been many other ways, with not only different building layouts but alternate ways to approach the campus by foot or vehicle, and even a large body of water—likely at the suggestion of James B. Duke—behind the chapel.

One of the things we love most about our campus is the buildings and the sense of place they offer. Our carefully planned buildings and landscape create the visual harmony we experience on both campuses today. Thanks to the ambition and vision of leaders and architects almost 100 years ago, what began in the 1920s now carries us proudly into the next century.

Gillispie is the university archivist.

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