Frank C. Brown and

the Building of Duke University

Today, anyone recognizing Frank C. Brown's name might remember him as a collector of North Carolina folklore but not know that he was also instrumental in the planning, design, and construction of Duke University. Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1870, Brown received an A.B. from the University of Nashville in 1893, an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1902, and a Ph.D., also from the University of Chicago, in 1908. By 1909 he was a professor of English at Trinity College in Durham; he became chairman of the department in 1921. Called "Bull" Brown throughout his Duke career, Brown supposedly earned his nickname from the roar of disapproval he directed at unprepared students.

Throughout Brown's career at Duke as an exceptional teacher, he also pursued a lifelong interest in North Carolina folklore. In 1913 he founded the North Carolina Folklore Society and was elected its first president. However, when the secretary-treasurer-elect complained about his own position, Brown offered to exchange offices with him. Brown remained the secretary-treasurer of the society until his death in 1943.

Brown became the society's primary collector, traveling frequently over the next thirty years to gather stories and music from throughout the North Carolina mountains. He was principally interested in collecting and preserving ballads and folk songs, which he recorded on location using a recorder powered by a gasoline generator that he kept in the trunk of his car. He made his first recordings on an Ediphone, a device that reproduced sound on wax cylinders and later equipped his car with a Presto machine that recorded straight to aluminum discs.

Brown always planned to publish a collection of North Carolina folklore, but it seems he was never able to stop collecting long enough to actually assemble his material. After his death, some of Brown's colleagues intervened, and a collection was eventually published under their editorship. The seven-volume Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore was released between 1952 and 1964 by the Duke University Press. It is universally regarded as one of the premiere published collections of folklore in the U.S. Brown's original manuscripts, which were used to compile the collection, along with many of his recordings, can be found in Duke's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

This folklorist and teacher, who was also the university marshal, might seem an unlikely candidate for the job of overseeing the construction of Duke University. However, Brown, in addition to his other duties, also assisted Trinity's President William P. Few in matters regarding university buildings and grounds. Liked and trusted by Few, and, more importantly, liked and trusted by the Duke brothers, Benjamin Newton and James Buchanan, Brown apparently assumed his supervisory role naturally and easily. Brown became the intermediary between J. B. Duke, the Building Committee of the Trustees of The Duke Endowment, the Horace Trumbauer architectural firm, and the various vendors and contractors. He proved to be an extremely important and influential person in the design and construction of the Duke University campus.

In December 1924, when J. B. Duke signed the indenture that created The Duke Endowment, the construction of Duke University's campus was set in motion. The planning for the campus, however, had begun long before the signing of the indenture. As early as 1921, President Few proposed to the Duke family that Trinity be expanded and that the new institution be named Duke University. J. B. and B. N. Duke had been giving significant sums of money to Trinity College for years, and there is evidence that J. B. had, in fact, been planning The Duke Endowment for quite some time. By 1923, J. B. Duke had picked Trumbauer to be the architect for the project, and Trumbauer and Few began to exchange correspondence regarding designs for the new campus.

During the spring of 1924, with the public announcement of The Duke Endowment still months away, Few and Brown visited approximately twenty East Coast universities to collect pictures, plans, and other information about buildings and operations. During and after their tour, Few and Brown compiled a scrapbook filled with photographs, postcards, floor plans, blueprints, campus maps, and notes on architecture. Handwritten on the first page of the scrapbook is this inscription: "This book of memoranda and clippings represents the record of a trip made by W. P. Few and Frank C. Brown in March and April, 1924 to get material concerning plans and other data of various educational institutions."

Even before the start of Few and Brown's fact-finding journey to other colleges, Few, Trumbauer, and the Dukes were in agreement that the new university should be built in the Collegiate Gothic style of architecture, similar to that found at a number of other universities. J. B. Duke had an estate not far from Princeton, and he had seen the new Collegiate Gothic buildings there. During their trip, Few and Brown paid particular attention to the stone buildings at Bryn Mawr, Princeton, Yale, Cornell, the City College of New York, and the University of Chicago (where, it should be remembered, Brown received his graduate degrees.) Numerous pictures of each university's buildings are preserved in their scrapbook.

Other universities they visited, some of which served as models for East Campus, were Boston University, Columbia, Harvard, Haverford, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Mount Holyoke, NYU, Pennsylvania, Randolph-Macon, Sweet Briar, Syracuse, Vassar, and the University of Virginia. By far, the greatest number of notes was made at Princeton. Few and Brown recorded information about the materials used for flooring, walls, stairwells, windows, and various other features of the buildings. In addition to notes on the buildings themselves, there are comments concerning maintenance, janitors ("All janitors men,") insurance, mail delivery, dining room and kitchen staffing, the laundry, aboratory equipment, and portraits ("Paintings of all benefactors, presidents, distinguished professors, trustees, etc.").

Few and Brown also paid a great deal of attention to the stone with which the buildings were constructed at each institution. At Princeton they observed that "All new dormitories are constructed of Princeton stone trimmed with Indiana limestone. The University owns the quarry and sells the stone." The fact that Princeton owned its own quarry made an impression on Few and Brown and later figured into the choice of stone for the Duke campus.

Indeed, Frank Brown's role in the selection of the stone for the campus buildings was his most visible and enduring contribution to the construction project. The Few and Brown scrapbook contains notes on the quarries from which individual universities procured their stone, including Brown's cost projections for using Princeton stone at Duke. Because J. B Duke initially thought that the stone for the Durham campus would come from an established quarry that had provided stone to other institutions of higher learning, samples of stone from a number of quarries were sent to Durham, and test walls were built so that appearance of the stone could be judged.

In the meantime, Brown met with the North Carolina state geologist and asked if suitable stone were available closer to the site of the university. In reply the geologist referred him to an abandoned quarry in Hillsborough. After viewing several buildings built with the stone, Brown reported that he preferred the local stone's softer coloration. He added that the supply of stone at the quarry appeared nearly unlimited. J. B. Duke ordered the purchase of the quarry and tests of the stone's durability. The state geologist confirmed that the stone was satisfactory, and sample walls were erected next to the other test walls. When J. B. Duke took the building committee of The Duke Endowment to view the anonymous stone samples, the majority of them preferred the Hillsborough stone. Using stone from a quarry located ten miles from Duke resulted in a considerable savings in construction costs for the university.

Few and Brown's scrapbook is part of the Frank C. Brown Papers, housed in the University Archives. The collection of approximately twenty thousand items is rich in additional interesting records related to the construction of Duke and shows that Brown was involved in decisions both mundane and momentous. In fact, the campus building project became nearly his sole responsibility, although he never gave up teaching. In 1926 Brown became University Comptroller, a position that President Few created in order to give a title and some definition to Brown's myriad duties.

Once classes began on the new campus in 1930, Brown gradually withdrew from his duties as comptroller and returned to teaching full time. His wife, Ola Hollis, had died in 1928, during the height of construction. In 1932, Brown married Mary Wadsworth. Mary owned a summer home in Blowing Rock, providing Brown with a base of operations for his ongoing collecting of North Carolina folklore, an activity he would continue until his death in 1943.

Dean Jeffrey is an intern in the University Archives at Duke University


Durden, Robert F. The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore; the folklore of North Carolina, collected by Dr. Frank C. Brown during the years 1912 to 1943, in collaboration with the North Carolina Folklore Society. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1952-1964.

Frank C. Brown Papers, 1899-1943. University Archives. Duke University.

Frank Clyde Brown Papers, 1912-1974. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Duke University.


The Frank C. Brown Papers in the Duke University Libraries

Two separate collections of papers reflect Frank Brown's independent roles at Duke as a teacher/folklorist and university comptroller. The Frank C. Brown Papers, 1912-1974, in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, comprise, according to the catalog, records collected by Brown as secretary of the North Carolina Folklore Society, 1913-1943, largely relating to folklore in the state. Other materials include twenty-four boxes of transcripts ranging from penciled notes on scrap paper to typescripts, as well as a few drawings, photographs, and samples of quilting and lace; and thirty-five boxes of articles, student papers, and printed items. Also in the collection are the original wax cylinders and aluminum discs and the 78 rpm records made from these by the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong. The collection numbers 54,000 items and is essentially the raw material out of which was formed the seven volumes of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore.

The finding aid in the Duke University Archives describes the Frank C. Brown Papers, 1899-1943 as containing "correspondence, logs, diaries, reports, lantern slides, notebooks, clippings, a scrapbook, and other materials. While some papers relate to teaching and English department activities, the bulk of the collection concerns the construction of Duke University, including correspondence with the Horace Trumbauer architectural firm, builder and manufacturer information, construction progress reports, travel diaries of visits to other campuses, and records of James B. Duke's views on architecture and involvement in campus planning."

A notable feature of the University Archives collection is the product literature from the various vendors with whom Brown did business. Apart from their relationship to Duke's history, the catalogs, literature, stationery, and business cards saved by Brown provide a fascinating glimpse into the period. There are elaborate catalogs depicting floor tile, bathroom fixtures, draperies, paint, lab equipment, stage lighting, heating systems, pillows and mattresses, washing machines, all manner of hardware, and just about anything else that might be needed to complete a large-scale building project in the 1920s.