Building Duke: Campus Construction Costs

1931 Aerial View of West CampusThe final report of the Duke University Building Committee of the Duke Endowment, dated June 28, 1932, is fascinating for its account of the cost of the construction and equipping of both East and West Campus.

The committee had $21,254,833.69 total funds at its disposal. It expended $4,782,710.57 for the new Georgian style portion of the Women's College or East Campus and $16,373,421.84 for the new Gothic West Campus. Included in the figures are the purchase of 5,080 acres of land. Not included is the expenditure of $1,124,195.75 of university financing for a gymnasium, stadium, athletic practice fields, and twelve residences. The Duke Construction Company under the general supervision of A. C. Lee, Chief Engineer, constructed a Medical School and Hospital of 4,429,000 cubic feet, an East Campus of 6,350,000 cubic feet and a West Campus of 12,508,000 cubic feet. There is little wonder that a headline in the local newspaper once trumpeted "Largest Building Permit in the History of the South Issued Here Today."

As interesting as is the aggregate report of the building committee, an addendum appearing in November, 1932, offers a detailed look at the construction of the focal point of the campus, the chapel. Begun last just as West Campus was being occupied for the academic year 1930-31, the chapel was being readied for its first use at Commencement, 1932 when the final accounting was being made. Essentially complete except for the installation of the stained glass windows, the cost of the most expensive building on campus was listed at $2,285,742.54.

On an impressive new campus superlatives abounded in describing the chapel. With foundation walls 20 feet thick and an imposing tower of 210 feet uniquely placed forward over the narthex, the chapel dominated the campus by design. It contained more of the native Hillsborough bluestone than the hospital and half as much Indiana limestone as in all other of the Gothic buildings. Fifty-one per cent of the chapel's total cost was for the stone: 18 per cent for the rubble bluestone and 33% for the cut limestone. With no structural steel as in the rest of the campus, the architectural design supports the soaring building just as in European cathedrals. The only steel, less than one half of one per cent of the total cost, supports the roof above the vaulted ceiling, a concession to fire protection in case lightning strikes Mr. Duke's "towering church." Nine per cent of the building cost was for the stained glass windows and 8.5 per cent was for the hand carved woodwork and paneling. The Aeolian organ ($65,300) and carillon ($54,500) accounted for 5 per cent of the total cost.

Committee reports tally cubic feet and dollars and cents but a distinguished visitor, the English novelist Aldous Huxley, captured the spirit of the new campus. Writing in 1937 he described traveling through "a pleasant but unexciting land" when "all of a sudden, astonishingly a whole city of grey Gothic stone emerged from the warm pine forest." He was thrilled by the "leaping tower" of the huge cathedral and the "spreading succession of quadrangles." He called the campus "genuinely beautiful, the most successful essay in neo-Gothic that I know."

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