Durham’s Tobacco District: A Smoky Contribution


Close your eyes and think about what the word downtown means to you. Some of the images that people most commonly associate with it are cement, skyscrapers, polluted and grimy streets. If you were to open your eyes in Durham’s old tobacco district however, you would find a lively and very much modernized entertainment district with great architectural historical context. Durham may be ill-famed in many ways, but the Durham Tobacco Campus is truly helping break those prejudices. By exploring what became of several of the tobacco factories, with their characteristic red brick and imposing silhouettes in the Durham skyline, I hope to prove that they played a very important role in the development of the Durham downtown area.


Brightleaf Manufacturing District (1920)

Although the first tobacco factory had been established in 1854 by R.F. Morris, a significant boost in the Tobacco industry in Durham was only seen after the Civil War(“Preservation Durham “, A Short History of the Bull City p2). An increase in demand from all over the country attracted workers to the tobacco fields and increased population from one hundred in 1865 to two-thousand by 1880 (“Preservation Durham “, A Short History of the Bull City p2). One clear example of how the growth of the tobacco industry helped the growth and development of the city itself is the case of the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory. This was initially a partnership between W.T. Blackwell and Ruffin Green that took place in order to be able to fulfill the incessant orders for Durham tobacco. Needless to say, Bull Durham Tobacco Factory was not the only company at the time, and that is part of the reason why the tobacco industry basically ran Durham.

After the factory’s great success, there was little room for true competition with the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory, so one smart man decided to invest in cigarettes. James Buchanan Duke saw a potential market that wasn’t being explored and therefore took the risk of not going into simple tobacco manufacturing (considered a gold-mine). So it was that W. Duke & Sons was created to rule the cigarette industry (“American Tobacco” p3). Shortly after the factory was created, a cigarette machine that created 200 cigarettes per minute with acute precision was invented and Duke did not hesitate to dive into that investment, as he had done before, even though there was a stigma to the “perfection” of the cigarettes. This stigma, an obstacle for the rolling machine, allowed Duke to bargain for a lower price to rent the machines which in turn allowed him to sell his product at a much lower price.

Even if Duke had this great “head start”, there was eventually an inevitable decline in the consumption of cigarettes (“NC Historic Sites” p 15). In order to fix this Duke manipulated the industry by forcing his competitors to lower their prices and then bringing them under the umbrella of The American Tobacco Industry (“NC Historic Sites” p17). Lucky Strike and over 200 other companies were soon under the large umbrella as well. This however caused a monopoly in the Tobacco industry and that is why it was called to court and indicted for vertical consolidation of a market. (“NC Historic Sites”p18)After a long and difficult struggle The American Tobacco Industry was dissolved and divided into four different firms. The dissolution was meant to secure that not one company or producer could have a monopoly on the industry.


Preserved Bull Durham Mural on factory

When someone mentions preservation the first words that come to my mind are the environment or some old curator in a museum somewhere. Truth be told, with the rate at which buildings get built and torn down they don’t automatically fit into the list of things that should be preserved and in Durham’s case especially since the landscape and skyline has been known to change greatly over the years (“American Tobacco “, American Tobacco is Downtown Durham’s Entertainment District p6). In Durham’s old Tobacco District however, the buildings are the most important aspect of the whole “atmosphere”. Due to this, the Historic Preservation Society of Durham was founded in 1974. (Brown, Roberts, Lea, Leary)

The Historic Preservation Society makes rules and regulations to make sure that the buildings and sites that are considered cultural patrimony remain untouched and standing. It is amazing to think that any resident of an area in Durham under the protection of the Historic Preservation Society has to ask permission for any and every change and remodeling of their home and business. (Brown, Roberts, Lea, Leary) Could you imagine not being able to add a porch or a garage in your own house because a society says you would be harming the cultural integrity of your town? That would be hard for many of us, but the people of Durham seem to understand and appreciate the efforts of this society.


Lucky Strike water tower, Durham

In order to honor the historical heritage while simultaneously keeping up with the fast-paced times, Durham’s Old Tobacco District has been subject to renovations. The fact of the matter is that even if a beautiful historical site adds to the cultural patrimony of a city, the loss of that commercial space is something a blooming city like Durham cannot accept. Renovation was seen as the perfect solution: the buildings wouldn’t be harmed and the commercial space would be put to great use. In some cases the old factories even become residential space that can accommodate the newcomers of Durham.

Brightleaf Square is one of the greatest examples of renovation. Where once stood only the Watts and Yuille Tobacco Factories, built in the early 1900s to accommodate the growing demand for tobacco, now stands a lively and modern shopping center (Barrett). It boasts dinning ranging from Mexican to Greek and shops and boutiques offering books and antiques as well as clothes. Not convinced? Well just imagine that they also offer modern and attractive office space and weekly cultural for the whole family!

As for residential spaces, the West Village and North Duke Street Condos once used to be the Liggett & Myers Factory and Burlington warehouse respectively. They are currently modern and renovated apartments and office space (“Preservation Durham ” p3-4). According to current real-estate opinion, these apartments are desirable for their spacious quarters and can usually be sold for a healthy profit! Not to mention that they offer a great view of downtown and make part of Durham’s historic atmosphere!


The End…?

Statue of a Bull in Durham

To this day the Durham community has embraced the old and the new and the synergy that has come of combining both. So is this it? Not quite, there are many more plans for renovation on the table for many of the other historical sites. Also, the fact that this renovation is giving Durham a “face-lift” will surely attract the kind of tourism that can boost Durham’s image and infrastructure. It was an incredibly clever move to incorporate the renovation process after the preservation efforts that were started by the Historic Preservation Society.

When my mom dropped me off here at UNC for orientation we were going to go have dinner in Durham’s Old Tobacco District. Not being from around here, I asked my roommate if she had any suggestions for restaurants there. She immediately got quiet and shook her head. She told us that Durham is ill-famed and for good reason and she highly recommended we stay on Franklin St. To this day I have yet to go to Durham and I believe that many people are discouraged by the “bad rep” and miss out on a great experience.


Anderson, Jean Bradley., James E. Wise, and Margaret Pepper. Fluke. Brighter Leaves : Celebrating the Arts in Durham, North Carolina. Durham, N.C.: Historic Preservation Society of Durham, 2008. Print.

Barrett, Matt. “Matt Barrett’s Travel Guides.” Durham, NC History . Web. 21 Mar 2011.

Brown, Claudia Roberts., Diane E. Lea, and Robert M. Leary. The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory. Durham, N.C.: City of Durham, 1982. Print.

“Cultivation of a Tobacco Empire.” NC Historic Sites. North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Office of Archives & History, 03 dec 2010. Web. 21 Mar 2011.

“Durham’s Tobacco Architecture.” Preservation Durham . Preservation Durham. Web. 21 Mar 2011.

“History”. American Tobacco . Downtown Durham’s Entertainment District, Jun 2010. Web. 15 Mar 2011.

About the Author

Karina Hernandez is currently a first-year student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Photojournalism and Anthropology double major.

One Response to Durham’s Tobacco District: A Smoky Contribution

  1. mickie says:

    I have a painting of a barn with Genuine “Bull” Durham the old reliable Smoking Tabacco on the side
    it is signed by cwikla would you have any info one this. Thank You

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