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Morehead Hill History

Morehead Hill Historic Neighborhood - Durham, North Carolina

Morehead Hill was one of the first residential areas of Durham to be developed in the 1880s when tobacco and textile industry magnates began to build homes away from the business core near the railroad. The neighborhood is named for Eugene Morehead, Durham's first banker, who came to Durham in 1878 as an agent of the Department of Internal Revenue. Morehead was the son of former governor John Motley Morehead and was encouraged to come here by his UNC classmate, Julian Shakespeare Carr. At about the same time, George W. Watts came to Durham when his father, Gerard Watts of Baltimore, gave him a fifth ownership in W. Duke Sons and Company.

In the summer of 1879, Watts and Morehead decided to establish their permanent residences on a promontory just south of downtown - separated from the ridge of West Chapel Hill Street by a small 'valley' between the current Morehead Avenue and Jackson Street. William Gaston Vickers owned the majority of the land abutting downtown to the southwest, and saw the opportunity to develop some of this land into what some researchers view as Durham's 'first suburb'. There is evidence that he intended from the start for the land between present-day Vickers and Duke to be large lot houses for Durham entrepreneurs. Watts and Morehead were his first two customers. The legend is that Watts and Morehead flipped a coin to decide whose house would be closer to town, and that Morehead won. Both built strikingly similar Queen Anne Victorian houses side-by-side between Morehead Avenue and Proctor Street on Lea Street (now S. Duke Street), completed in 1880. Morehead became ill in 1888 and although he sought medical care up and down the east coast, he died in 1889 but not without leaving a big imprint on the young city of Durham. In addition to his mark in banking, he worked to increase area railroad lines, formed Durham Electric Light Company, partnered to form a fertilizer company, and supported education. The first graded school in Durham, Morehead School, was named for him.

During the 1890s other equally stylish homes were built on Morehead Avenue between Vickers Avenue and Lea Street. Sadly, most of these houses are no longer standing and few pictures can be found. The Stagg house (aka Greystone) is the only remaining house on the north side of Morehead Avenue. To the east of the Stagg house were grand Victorian homes owned by John Wily, Gilbert C. White, Alphonsus Cobb, and Wallace Seeman, respectively. On the west side of Morehead from west to east were the Beall house, the Johnson house (still standing), and the Muirhead house. Both the Morehead and Watts homes (actually Watts' second home, Harwood Hall, and Morehead's second home, both on the original site) were demolished in 1961 to make room for the Hospital Care Building, which became Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. The building is now the site of Duke University's Physician Assistant Program.

The remaining land between Chapel Hill Street and University Drive, owned by Gaston Vickers, was largely undeveloped. The Vickers home was located in the block bounded by Cobb Street, Vickers Avenue, Hill Street., and Lakewood Avenue. He taught school in Durham for more than 30 years and was the first superintendent for the Durham County school system. Unlike other land developers, such as Brodie Duke and Richard H. Wright, Vickers was not content with merely subdividing his land into building lots. Between 1900 and 1910, he built approximately one hundred rental houses in the northern and western area of Morehead Hill. Most of these houses on Yancey, Parker, Proctor, Wells, Shepherd and Arnette Streets were one-story but they were not the identical small and simple dwellings built by the block for factory workers. These moderately sized structures were often characterized by ornate sawnwork embellishing the posts of wrap-around porches and three-sided window bays, as represented by the house at 907 Jackson Street.

Vickers reserved a sizable portion of his highest land, mainly along Vickers Avenue for large building lots. He gave the entire block bounded by Vickers, Morehead, Shepherd, and Parker to a daughter who was married to a developer. Her own two-story Victorian house on the northwest corner of Vickers and Morehead was moved to Parker Street to free up a large lot sold to James S. Cobb for the construction of his large Georgian home, the Cobb-Toms home. Vickers sold both sides of the 900 block of Proctor to members of the Shepherd family who were related to the Vickers.

Most of the building lots, however, were sold to people unrelated to Vickers. Vickers recognized a growing real estate market that was attracted to the area by the grandiosity of the Morehead and Watts homes, just a block away on Morehead Avenue. In 1910, the John Sprunt Hill house was constructed on the former site of the L. A. Carr house. The land for the Hill House was given to his daughter and son-in-law by George W. Watts. The salvage from Carr's home was used to construct three houses on what is now S. Mangum Street. At the same time L. A. Carr's daughter began construction of a Colonial Revival style house across the street at 911 S. Duke Street. Within the next 20 years, two other period revival style houses were built to the north.

By the early 1910s, Morehead Hill was clearly the neighborhood in Durham, its prestige enhanced with the construction of the Howard Foushee and the Victor Bryant houses each occupying an entire city block. In the 1910s, the Colonial Revival style dominated the streetscape of Morehead Hill. In the late 1910s, R. L. Baldwin built a Colonial Revival style house with a tile roof and in 1921 T. Yancey Milburn built another Colonial Revival next door. Frame construction also remained popular, as seen in the 800 block of Vickers. Other period revival homes appeared, such as the handsomely appointed Budd house on S. Duke Street. Bungalows with fine craftsmanship from builders' guides and magazines were dispersed throughout Morehead Hill, creating a neighborhood diverse in architectural styles.

Morehead Hill remained a fashionable neighborhood into the 1940s, in spite of competition from newly developed suburban areas, such as Forest Hills and Hope Valley. The ornate embellishments of Victorian style became dated and the neighborhood became less desirable. As original residents moved, some homes became rental units and with time, the grand old houses of yesteryear deteriorated and were eventually torn down. The construction of the Durham Freeway cut the neighborhood in half and turned Vickers and S. Duke, two-way streets, into thoroughfares, which do not engender neighborly behavior. Many Morehead Hill homes in good condition were demolished to create the Freeway. The decline in the neighborhood peaked in the mid- to late-1990s. Since then an influx of young couples and families seeking affordable housing has given the neighborhood a palpable boost. The revitalization of downtown has improved property values and Morehead Hill's close proximity to entertainment and good food is certainly a drawing card. Many residents believe that Morehead Hill is Durham's best kept secret.

- Liz McGuffey, 2009