Once upon a time, Central Campus living was a dream

A look back now that the bulldozers have arrived

In May, students moved out of their Central Campus apartments for the last time. The buildings are now being razed, and the future of Central Campus is uncertain. Over its nearly forty-five-year lifespan as part of our university, the Central Campus apartments remained the same, but the vision for what they could be changed as the years passed.

Following the sale of married student housing on Morreene Road, there was a need for more residential units for graduate and married students, as well as undergraduates. Duke bought land that had previously housed workers for Burlington Industries, displacing a number of longtime residents. Small homes were removed, and the new apartments erected. When the cornerstone of Central Campus was laid in 1972, the program distributed at the event boasted that “The apartment units are of two-story, wood-frame construction with exteriors of brick veneer and wood siding. Every effort has been made to include high quality, low maintenance materials, with particular attention being paid to the problem of sound transmission between apartments.” It also detailed the hopes that administrators had for the campus “at a later time.” These included a day care center, community building, playground, swimming pool, and tennis courts. Both graduate and undergraduate students shared the campus, although over time, undergraduates came to occupy the majority of the units.

When it opened, Central was a less-expensive housing option than East or West Campus, and it offered apartment-like living, rather than a dormitory environment. It was fairly convenient to Ninth Street and the amenities there. While there were financial advantages to living on Central, it was also removed from the social life of East and West campuses. In 1983, the Central Campus Study Committee (made up of students, faculty, administrators, and Central Campus residents) submitted a report urging the university to invest in building a community feel on Central Campus. The report noted: “Extensive programming within the residence halls, opportunities for social interaction, and the development of a sense of community have all become integral facets of Duke’s evolving commitment to fostering a meaningful residential experience. While significant attention has been given to the dormitories on East and West Campus, another vital part of the community has not moved ahead with [the] changing philosophy of residential life.”

In response, new features were provided on Central Campus, including paved basketball courts, a pool, a multipurpose building, a convenience store (Uncle Harry’s), and “an old-style English Pub with a limited menu reflecting genuine English dishes. Associated with the Pub will be a lounge area for darts, cards, billiards, and a place to come relax and talk.” These enhancements were completed in 1985, and Central Campus was again promoted to students as an appealing option. Advertisements from 1975 declare “avoid dormitory overcrowding, long lines for the shower…learn to love the kitchen, bathroom, and air-conditioning of a spacious, fully furnished, convenient apartment without moving off-campus!!!” and “Why live anywhere else?”

As the more affordable housing option, Central appealed to many students on tight budgets. It also provided a different kind of social atmosphere, and it had a particular appeal to students of color. An October 2000 Chronicle article noted: “In the past, minorities have been disproportionately housed on Central Campus—last year, 35.2 percent of black students and 19.9 percent of Asian students lived on Central, while only 12.1 percent of white students did.” One student provided an insight as to why this was the case: “He said that while living next to mostly white fraternities on West may be appealing to some, there are fewer social benefits to living on West for minority students.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, major changes to Central Campus were considered as the apartments aged. These included new student housing, faculty housing, a commercial district, and even a monorail to better connect Central to East and West Campuses. There was concern for how the proposed commercial and residential options would affect nearby non-Duke communities, and whether it would negatively affect the Ninth Street corridor. Other building priorities on campus delayed any action, however, and the recession in 2008 scuttled a major overhaul of the campus.

Toward the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Central became home to a number of selective living groups and Greek organizations, rather than being clustered on West as they had been since the early 1990s. A 2010 Chronicle article explained that “The transition hinges on selective living groups’ willingness to give Central a chance. Administrators insist they don’t want Central to be framed as a punishment.”

While the university invested in modest upgrades to Central Campus in the 2010s, the article said that “If all had gone according to plan, they would have traded the paint brushes and hoes for a bulldozer.”

The bulldozer has arrived, and while the apartments have disappeared, they are still remembered—fondly by some, not so fondly by others—as a home and community for thousands of Duke students over these last five decades.

Gillispie is the university archivist.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor