Morehead Hill

Morehead Hill

Summary

Morehead Hill was Durham's first 'suburb', per se, developed by William Gaston Vickers on land he acquired from Atlas Rigsbee. The development of the property was triggered by the sale of two lots at the later-corner of South Duke St. and Morehead Avenue - to Eugene Morehead and George Watts. The two purportedly flipped a coin in the summer of 1879 to decide who would get which lot; they then built two very similar Queen Anne Victorian houses, which they moved into in 1880. From the Durham... Read More

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Morehead Hill was Durham's first 'suburb', per se, developed by William Gaston Vickers on land he acquired from Atlas Rigsbee. The development of the property was triggered by the sale of two lots at the later-corner of South Duke St. and Morehead Avenue - to Eugene Morehead and George Watts. The two purportedly flipped a coin in the summer of 1879 to decide who would get which lot; they then built two very similar Queen Anne Victorian houses, which they moved into in 1880.

From the Durham Architectual and Historic Inventory, 1980:

AT the time of its earliest development in the early 1880s, Morehead Hill was an unnamed prementory southwest of the young town of Durham. Many of the industrialists and financi- ers who established themselves in Durham at the beginning of this boom decade built homes west of the Southern Railway line in the area appropriately named West End. The finest houses lined the main artery of E. Chapel Hill St., and soon they appeared on the intersecting S. Duke St., then named Lea St. It was at the southern end of S. Duke St. that some of the most astute and newly arrived well-to-do busi- nessmen in Durham settled. They included L. A. Carr and George W. Watts, both from Baltimore and related by marriage, and Eugene Morehead.

The location of Morehead's house on the highest plot of land, at the southwest corner of S. Duke St. and Morehead Ave., soon lent this small development south of West End proper the name of Morehead Hill. Photographs in the 1895 Handbook of Durham reveal that these houses, none of which remain standing, were fashiona- ble frame Queen Anne and Stick Style buildings. They were distinguished by irregular forms topped with multiple rooflines in varying heights and sheathed in a combination of weatherboards, shingles and applied decorative woodwork. Dur- ing the 1890s a few more equally stylish dwell- ings were built in the 600 to 800 blocks of S. Duke St. and on Morehead Ave. between S. Duke St. and Vickers Ave. George W. Watts, tobacco, textile and railroad executive, moved his frame house from the block on the west side of S. Duke St., which he shared with the More- head House, to the east side of the street (where it was used by the Calvert School between 1937 and 1968), and built a second house on his land. This Chateauesque masonry house, built by C.H. Norton and named Harwood Hall, stood for many decades as a landmark in Durham.2 Sim- ilar to Julian S. Carr's estate across town, Watts' backyard contained large greenhouses that pro- vided year-round fresh flowers for his house. Around 1900, another large stone and frame house was built at the southeast corner of Morehead Ave. and S. Duke St. It was built for George Lyon, who married L. A. Carr's daugh- ter, Snowden; later it was owned by his brother" J.B. Lyon.3 Regrettably, all of these later large late 19th-century houses also have been des- troyed. 

· Until the turn of the 20th century, the rest of the area that is now the Morehead Hill neigh- borhood remained undeveloped. All of this acreage was the William Gaston Vickers farm, much of which was known as Vickers Woods, including the property he sold to Watts, More- head and Carr. Vickers, whose house formerly stood in the block bounded by Cobb St., Vickers Ave., Hill St., and Lakewood Ave., taught school in Durham for more than thirty years. He was the first superintendent for the Durham County school system. Like the other owners of large tracts of land just outside of Durham's city lim- its, Vickers recognized the potential of land development as Durham's population continued to swell with the advent of the new century. Unlike other major developers, such as Brodie L. Duke and Richard H. Wright, however, Vickers was not content with merely subdividing his land into building lots. Throughout the first decaae of this century, Vickers built approxi- mately one hundred rental houses along the streets he created in the northern and western area of Morehead Hill.  Although most of these houses along Yancey, Parker, Proctor, Wells, Shepherd and Arnette streets (as well as Jackson and Gordon streets in West End) consisted of only one story, they were not the identical small and simple dwellings built by the block for fac- tory laborers. These sturdy structures were moderately-sized with corbelled chimney stacks and prefabricated sawnwork ornament, and of- ten embellished with three-sided window bays and wraparound porches, as represented by the house at 907 Jackson St.

Instead of developing all of his property with rental housing, Vickers reserved a sizable portion of his highest land, mainly along Vickers Ave., for large building lots. He gave the entire block bounded by Vickers, Morehead, Shepherd and Parker streets to one of his daughters, Melissa Vickers Berry, whose traditional frame two-story Victorian house was at the northwest corner of Vickers and Morehead avenues. The lots on both sides of the 900 block of Proctor St. were sold to members of the Shepherd family, who were related to Vickers through the mar- riage of two of his sons to Shepherd girls.

Most of the building lots were sold to people unrelated to Vickers. He recognized a growing real estate market and the attraction of the fashionable houses built by Watts and his fellow businessmen just a block away from the eastern boundary of his property. As the desire grew to move away from the factories and their housing for laborers that bordered central Durham's ear- liest premier neighborhood centered on Dillard and Queen streets, many of Durham's leaders sought building lots a bit removed from down- town.

The renewed building of lavish houses in Morehead Hill was inaugurated in 1910 when attorney, banker and philanthropist John Sprunt Hill began his opulent Spanish Colonial Revival style house on the former site of L. A. Carr's house at 900 S. Duke St. Upon Carr's death in 1909, his brother-in-law George W. Watts pur- chased the property for his daughter and her husband, John Sprunt Hill. Kendall and Taylor of Boston, who had designed Watts Hospital two years before, appointed the exterior of the Hill House with exotic Iberian ornament. The lavish interiors were executed by Irving and Casson, also of Boston.6 The salvage from Carr's house was used to construct three houses on McMannen St. (now S. Mangum St.). At the same time that the Hill House was being built, L.A. Carr's daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John M. Lipscomb built a Colonial Revival style house across the street, at 913 S. Duke St. During the next two decades, the two building lots to the north were developed with handsome period revival style houses.

It appears that construction of the Hill House may have heightened the attraction of Vickers' property. His choice building sites on Morehead and Proctor Streets just off Vickers Ave. soon were purchased by other local busi- ness leaders. In 1911, banker, textile manufac- turer, and railroad executive James Edward Stagg built Greystone on Morehead Ave.; this Chateauesque style house and the Hill House are the only two mansions in Durham proper from this boom period to remain standing. Greystone is very similar to Four Acres, built a few blocks north on E. Chapel Hill St. about the same time for Benjamin N. Duke. Both men commissioned Charlotte architect C. C. Hook and local contractor Norman Underwood (who also was building Duke Memorial Methodist Church nearby on E. Chapel Hill St. at the time) to design and build, respectively, their man- sions.8 With the construction of Greystone, Morehead Hill had truly established this west- ern side of Durham as a Duke enclave, in con- trast to the area around E. Main, Dillard and Queen streets where rival Julian S. Carr and many of his relatives lived. The Staggs, Lyons, Watts and Hills were all related by blood, mar- riage or close business ties. During the next couple of decades, other high ranking executives of the Duke tobacco companies would build houses in Morehead Hill. 

By the early 1910s, Morehead Hill undoubt- edly was the neighborhood in Durham, its pres- tige enhanced with the construction by 1915 of two more large houses occupying full blocks.9 Judge Howard A. Foushee commissioned an architect, said by long-time residents to have been Samuel Linton Leary, to design The Ter- races, a sandstone-colored brick house formerly fronted by terraced gardens and now used as the YWCA. Although the integrity of The Terraces has been compromised by alterations that in- clude the removal of an elegant staircase_ and stained glass window at its landing, the Victor Bryant House, on the other hand, has remained relatively intact in its adaptive reuse as a diet clinic. This frame house, constructed by Nor- man Underwood for a prominent attorney, retains its staircase and stained glass window, a popular motif that was incorporated at Grey- stone and also is cited as one of the hallmarks of Julian S. Carr's 1890s mansion, Somerset Villa.

Construction proceeded at a fairly steady pace here in the 1910s and 1920s. Vickers Ave., Shepherd St. and Arnette Ave. were developed with a combination of traditional frame houses decorated with sawnwork ornament and early period revival style houses. Respective examples of this period of changing tastes are the house at 814 Vickers Ave. adorned with carved ornamen- tal bracing in the front gable and the Whitaker House at 614 Shepherd St. with its Ionic porch columns, irregular form and very tall chimneys.

"Purer" period revival styles, particularly the Colonial Revival style, soon dominated the streetscape of Morehead Hill. In the mid-1910s, Melissa Vickers Berry sold her property at the northwest corner of Vickers and Morehead avenues to tobacco executive James S. Cobb. The Berrys moved tbeir house to 713 Parker St., near the speculative and rental houses Melissa's husband, contractor "Bud" Berry, built in the 800 block of Parker St. and the 900 block of Arnette Ave. At 914 Vickers Ave. Cobb built a stately Colonial Revival style house with the same brick walls and green tile roof used in Greystone across the street.l1 Nearby at 906 Vickers, R. L. Baldwin built his two-story Colo- nial Revival style house, also with a tile roof that lends a Mediterranean flavor. In the 1920s Yan- cey Milburn built an elegant Colonial Revival style house with an elaborate Doric entrance surround at 908 Vickers Ave. Frame construction also remained popular, as evidenced by the two houses that contractor Norman Underwood built for his sons at 802 and 804 Vickers Ave. Occasion- ally other period revival styles provided accents, such as'the handsomely appointed Budd House on S. Duke St. and the Spanish Revival style house on the corner of Arnette Ave. and More- head Ave. Interspersed among the Colonial Re- vival style houses built through the 1930s are many of the popular bungalows culled from builders' guides and magazines.

Morehead Hill remained a desirable place to live after 1940, despite competition from subur- ban areas such as Hope Valley. Specific prob- lems, however, arose within the last twenty years. The East-West Expressway created a de- cisive boundary between Morehead Hill and West End, taking in the process many houses that straddled that formerly unclear line. S. Duke St. and Vickers Ave. have become major traffic corridors that generate noise and dust. The decline of adjacent workiI1g class neighbor- hoods was felt here as housing at the western edge of Morehead Hill, often sub-divided to create additional rental units, deteriorated. At the eastern 'boundary, replacement of tobacco company housing with commercial and service plants, coupled with the swath of the express- way, encouraged the conversion of land that had been Morehead Hill's most exclusive early residential property, to offices and higher den- sity housing.

Despite these developments, Morehead Hill retains its aura of elegance that recalls its hey- dey. In recent years, residents concerned about preserving the residential nature of the neigh- borhood have united to play an active role in determining its future. 

807 VICKERS AVE. (building)
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1304 HILL ST. (building)
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709 YANCEY ST. (building)
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805 YANCEY ST. (building)
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801 YANCEY ST. (building)
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814 YANCEY ST. (building)
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