The University Cornerstones

CornerstoneOn a typically hot summer afternoon on June 5, 1928, the university community gathered for the curiously named ceremony for "The Laying of the First Corner Stone on the New Campus of Duke University." The principal participants were William P. Few, President of the University, George G. Allen, Chairman of the Duke Endowment, Frederick F. Shannon, Pastor of Central Church, Chicago, Edmund D. Soper, Dean of the School of Religion, and Doris Duke, the teenage daughter of the late James B. Duke, benefactor of the university.

Promptly at six o'clock a lengthy academic procession wound its way across boardwalks amid construction equipment and mounds of stone to the base of the rising tower of the Union Building. Honored guests included Mrs. James B. (Nanaline Holt Inman) Duke, Mrs. Benjamin N. (Sarah P. Angier) Duke, and Governor Angus W. McLean of North Carolina.

President Few spoke of the meeting of the past and future at the auspicious occasion. In a favorite theme of his he noted that the new university was being built around an old college. "In Trinity College which remains as a part of Duke University," he said, "we have a precious heritage--in its long educational record, its traditions, its ideals, its thousands of graduates." But even amid the clutter of construction, Few noted, in looking about one could easily envisage the new Gothic campus as "fit in every circumstance of beauty and appropriateness to be the home of the soul of Duke University." Anticipating the impact of the impressive architecture, he stated "it would be hard to overestimate the influence that the beautiful surroundings would have upon students and even the character of the institution." In conclusion Few declared that the university "will be dedicated to truth and disciplined in the hard services of humanity" while following in the example of James B. Duke who "in founding the university cherished the beautiful hope to do some permanent good upon this earth."

At midpoint of the service an impending severe thunderstorm caused Dr. Shannon, the featured speaker, to curtail his address. However, a reporter recorded that "Miss Duke without haste but with the same directness which characterized every act of her father" placed the mortar about the cornerstone concluding the ceremony as rain scattered the crowd.

Careful observation clearly reveals two cornerstones in the main quadrangle today--one on the Union tower and another larger one directly across the quad on the Library tower. When the workmen assembled the following morning after the interrupted ceremony, they discovered that the cornerstone did not fit properly. It was too large for the space allotted in the Union tower. A smaller stone was cut for that space and the original cornerstone containing the sealed box of documents and artifacts was placed in the foundation of the Library tower later. Hence the cornerstone ceremony was held at one place and the actual cornerstone was laid at another. In the interim the stone was altered as well. Photographic inspection reveals that the inscription on the end of the stone--Horace Trumbauer, Architect and Arthur Carl Lee, Engineer and Builder--was added after the original ceremony.

The cornerstone ceremony marked the first participation of Doris Duke in campus functions. She later appeared at official ceremonies celebrating the 100th anniversary of the institution in 1938-1939, at the dedication of the Rare Book Room during the inauguration of President A. Hollis Edens in 1949, at Founders' Day in 1956 honoring the centennial of James B. Duke's birth, and at the retirement symposium for Dean Wilburt C. Davison of the Medical School in 1963.

© 1991. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002

This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.