In the design and construction of West Campus perhaps one of James B. Duke's greatest satisfactions was the discovery of nearby Hillsborough stone for the Gothic buildings. A participant in that discovery described it as "the kind of a find that delights a construction man's heart," and he perceptively commented that "at heart Mr. Duke was a construction man."
James B. Duke was without question a shrewd businessman as well. After inspecting test panels of stone imported from as far as Massachusetts, Duke quietly wondered if suitable stone might not be available nearer at hand. Associates knew such requests were in reality directives for action but they were fearful of greatly inflated prices if it were known Duke was seeking a vast quantity of building stone. As plans for the development of the university had become known the price of land surrounding the Trinity College campus had soared. Hence the search for a possible new building stone had to be conducted with utmost secrecy.
Brent Drane, Director of the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey, reported being quizzed by an official of the Duke Construction Company while on a business trip by train. In a "whispered conversation with extravagant cautions against being seen," Drane was asked where a certain stone native to western North Carolina could be found in quantity. Drane referred the official to Jasper L. Stuckey, the State Geologist. The next day the construction official and Frank C. Brown, a professor of English who also served as university supervisor of planning and construction, visited Stuckey in his Raleigh office with samples of a particular stone in hand. However, before Stuckey could locate that kind of stone a different sample arrived in the mail from Brown with an inquiry as to its identity and availability. Stuckey knew little about the new sample but he remembered seeing some stone similar to it on a residential sidewalk in Chapel Hill. Further inquiry led to Cheshire Webb, a respected businessman in Hillsborough, who matched the sample with pieces from what he called a local "useless old rock pile." Brown visited Webb immediately and had him obtain an option to purchase the seventy-two-acre farm containing the rock for the university.
When James B. Duke visited Durham in March, 1925, to confer with architects, landscape designers, and construction and university officials, he also made a quick trip to Hillsborough to view walls and foundations utilizing the local stone. While quality tests were being conducted by the State Highway Commission and the United States Bureau of Standards, Duke requested that additional viewing panels be erected emphasizing certain desired shades of color. He particularly was elated over the proximity of the farm-quarry to the main railroad line and the fact that it was less than ten miles from the campus construction site. Robert Lee Flowers, Duke Vice President in the Business Division reported that if tests proved the rock suitable, it would mean a savings of two million dollars. The Hillsborough stone cost $3.55 a ton including delivery compared to $15.05 a ton for one of the test panels of Princeton stone.
The Hillsborough stone passed all tests. Called "bluestone" by later quarrymen, the stone had seven primary colors and seventeen different shades of color. Brown wrote the architect, Horace Trumbauer, that the stone had "an older, more attractive antique effect" and a "warmer and softer coloring than the Princeton stone." He particularly liked the fact that the stone could be "laid to give a shadowline underneath the pointing which added tremendously to an artistic look."
Practically speaking the stone required little effort in quarrying and cutting. Blasting caused cracks so quarrying was done by water pressure and by hand with crowbars. Natural fissures tended to produce stone with four to six faces so even little actual cutting was required. The construction supervisor reported that the stone was "even better than we hoped." The stone is difficult to describe in layman's terms but it is debris somewhat akin to slate from a string of volcanic hills and mountains ranging from Virginia to Georgia. At least 400 million years old, it is volcanic debris changed considerably by heat and pressure and stained by weathering.
In the spring of 1925 what we now call Hillsborough stone was inconspicuous, little known and not even then actively quarried although it had been identified in a state geological survey one hundred years earlier. Quiet research and simple coincidence played a part in its discovery, and its soft, varied color, easy accessibility, low transportation cost and subsequently proven high quality commended it to James B. Duke.
In 1937 the English novelist and critic Aldous Huxley wrote of his surprising discovery of an academic "city of grey stone" set in a southern forest in Durham, North Carolina. According to Huxley the Duke West Campus was "the most successful essay in neo- Gothic that I know." For six decades Duke University has been the beneficiary of the attractive uniting of a unique local stone and an ancient architectural style.
© 1990. 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.
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