The Men Who Built the University
July 16, 1990 marked the end of an era in the history of the construction of Duke University. On that date Louis Fara, a native of Frugarola, Italy, and the last of the original stone setters who skillfully laid the Indiana limestone trim on West Campus, died. Fara was representative of a group of laborers whose unique background and contribution will be acknowledged as long as eyes gaze upon Duke's majestic Gothic arches.
Documentation of these laborers' contributions is almost nonexistent. Photographs are extremely scarce, since construction took place during the Great Depression and laboring families did not frivolously spend hard-earned money on family snapshots. A few photographs have turned up, usually passport photos of younger men or pictures of much older men working on later commissions. Official university construction photos concentrate on architectural detail instead of the human element. The laborers' background and their sense of accomplishment have to be pieced together from scattered published interviews. Fortunately, their names are familiar, for many remained in Durham to raise their families. Six decades after the completion of West Campus the city telephone directory still lists the Italian names of Fara, Ribet, Ferettino, Citrini, and Berini. In addition, Giobbi and Greppi worked the stone as well as the highly respected stone workers Macadie and Brown. They worked along side native blacks and mountain whites who had also migrated to Durham in search of steady employment during severe economic times.
Each laborer became an accomplished artisan at his assigned level of work. Stonemasons worked the "rubble" bluestone, or "Duke Stone" from the nearby Hillsborough quarry. Often thought akin to brick layers, stonemasons did not believe the skills were interchangeable. Expert stonemasons had to have a feeling for color and design as well as the skill to size and shape each stone. These intangible and tangible qualities were vital to the West Campus project where the beauty of the stone was in its fourteen plus shades of color and where each piece was cut at a ratio of length two times height.
Only the very best men were selected for the more delicate work with "cutstone" or Indiana limestone, such as that shown below, destined to be used on the Chapel. They were almost all Italians working for the subcontractor James W. Brown under the supervision of Donald Macadie (left). Brown and Macadie were natives of Scotland who immigrated to the United States early in the century and located in the south as a result of assigned commissions. The Italians, too, were most often immigrants who came to Duke as word circulated among friends and relatives that there was stone work in Durham, North Carolina. Many had been apprenticed in the Alps of Italy, Switzerland, or France, as had been Tony Berini, for a season's pay of "food, lodging, and a suit of clothes, pair of shoes and a bright red cap." In the United States, they were working in New York City or the coal mines of West Virginia before answering the call to Duke. The stone setters set the arches and doorways throughout the campus, capping their employment with the soaring nave of the Chapel.
When the campus opened in September, 1930, a select crew remained to finish the Chapel. They were doubly proud because of the special recognition of their expertise and because they were completing such a magnificent structure. It was as if every stone setter, particularly those with European backgrounds, wanted to work on a Gothic cathedral in their lifetime. As the Duke commission finished many worked on nearby government building projects financed by the New Deal, and some traveled west to build tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The very least information is available on the stone carvers who fashioned the decorative sculpture and statuary on the campus, such as the figure known as "The Alchemist" on the Old Chemistry Building. Employed by John Donnelly, Inc., of New York, many are believed to have been Irish craftsmen who came to Duke and then returned home upon completion of their work. One Chronicle article from November 1930, cites eight carvers as being at work but no names are listed in deference to their desire for anonymity. Preferring not to work from models, they drew upon their own experience and imagination for the often humorous campus decorative sculpture.
One remaining mystery is who selected the subjects for the portals of the Chapel. An anecdotal account has representatives from John Donnelly, Inc., asking Horace Trumbauer, the architect of the university, "Who are the saints of the Methodist Church?" Donnelly and Trumbauer had worked in concert for decades but they had never had a commission quite like the Chapel of the new university. Trumbauer supposedly replied with great amusement to the effect that, "You are on your own. Sculpture does have its problems." It has been assumed that since Sidney Lanier, a popular poet of the New South, is represented that Duke President William P. Few, a South Carolina native and Harvard Ph.D. in English, participated in the selection. There is no hard evidence for this, however. The remaining Chapel sculptures are of Thomas Jefferson, statesman; Robert E. Lee, soldier and educator; Girolamo Savonarola, preacher; Martin Luther, reformer; John Wycliffe, translator of the Bible; and Methodist leaders Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury, and George Whitefield, along with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The selection of these particular representatives has not been without controversy and amusement.
A distinctive feature of Duke University is having two outstanding examples of collegiate architecture, one American on East Campus and one European on West. As a community we can be thankful for the architects and skilled laborers who constructed our campus. And we, too, should take special pride in the campus as they took in building it.
For Further Research
- "Duke Stone" (read this article)
- Building Reference Collection, 1972-ongoing (view this collection guide)
- "The Construction of Duke University" (visit this digital collection)