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Lost Houses of Morehead Hill

Morehead Hill Historic Neighborhood - Durham, North Carolina

Most neighborhoods experience periods of prosperity as well as hard times, but throughout its history Morehead Hill has experienced more than its share of loss. It is an important piece of Durham's storied past when the town grew from a railroad stop to a boomtown, thanks to growth of the tobacco and textile industries, in less than 40 years. At a time when the rest of the South was suffering through Reconstruction after the Civil War, Durham was thriving. Its good fortune was manifested by grand mansions built by its most successful entrepreneurs and Morehead Hill became a showcase of wealth and success.

Morehead Hill also tells a story of loss. As residents fled to the suburbs after the Great Depression and World War II, the popularity of inner city neighborhoods declined nationwide and Morehead Hill was no exception. Many Morehead Hill homes were lost in the name of "progress." With construction of the Durham Freeway in 1967, hundreds of Durham homes representing all socio-economic classes were demolished. The Freeway divided Morehead Hill in half, turning major two-way streets into thoroughfares and changing the feel of the neighborhood. This article focuses on architectural gems of Durham's early years that have been lost.

In 1879 Eugene Morehead, namesake of Morehead Hill, and George Washington Watts, both successful businessmen built almost identical, elaborately embellished Queen Anne style houses side by side on Lea (later S. Duke) Street between Morehead and Proctor. Although Morehead died in 1889, his widow and son lived in the house shown below for many years.


Eugene Morehead House in 1895

Some time in the early 20th Century, the original Morehead house was torn down and replaced with the Colonial Revival house shown below, with the circular drive retained.


Lathrop (son of Eugene) Morehead House, early 20th Century

George Washington Watts came to Durham from Baltimore after the Civil War, looking for opportunity. He found it in the golden leaves of tobacco and as 20% owner of the newly formed W. Duke Sons and Company, he prospered with the Duke family. Watts lived with his family, the former Laura Valinda Bealle, also of Baltimore, and their only child Annie Louise, in the Queen Anne style house shown below until the mid 1890s.


Original Home of George Watts, 1890

Watts continued to build his fortune, investing in the Durham Electric Lighting Co., Durham Fertilizer Co., Erwin Mills, and the Interstate Telephone and Telegraph Co. He paid Durham back with his philanthropy. He founded Watts Hospital on Main Street and was a supporter of the Durham Literary Society and the Durham Lyceum. As his prosperity grew, he decided to upgrade his residence to reflect his growing status.

In the early 1890s, George Watts moved his original house across the street, to the northeast corner of Proctor and S. Duke, in order to make way for his larger mansion, Harwood Hall. The house was renovated and occupied by his daughter Annie and her husband John Sprunt Hill when they returned to Durham from New York in 1903.

The use of the old George Watts house from 1911 to 1937 is unknown, but it evidently stayed in the family. In 1937 the house became the site of the Calvert School, which was previously housed in the Forest Hills clubhouse. The school also used the house at 803 S. Duke Street, on the southeast corner of Morehead and S. Duke, originally owned by Washington Duke's grandson George Lyon and later owned by Lyon's brother J.B. In 1967, when the school moved to Academy Road, expanded to a high school, and changed its name to Durham Academy, these houses were abandoned. They deteriorated beyond use and were demolished in the mid-1970s to construct a public housing project, JJ Henderson towers.

In the late 1890s construction of Harwood Hall, perhaps Durham's finest home, was completed. Its European chateau style was unique, with a large cubic mass capped with a steeply pitched roof that made it seem even taller than its three and a half stories. The ground floor was faced with roughly dressed pink Mt Airy granite. The upper stories were made of finely finished stone decorated with elaborate carving, porches, balconies, and dormers. The east façade which faced Lea Street featured a round turret on the north side and a massive gable over the front entrance.


Harwood Hall, early 1900s

The interior of the house was no less elaborate. Watts brought in craftsmen from Italy to create fine woodwork and carved wooden mantles over marble fireplaces. There was a pipe organ and a grand piano in the music room and colorful Persian tiles in the fanciful octagon-shaped Turkish smoking room. The grand staircase rose three stories under a stained glass skylight. The house had state-of-the-art electrical wiring and drew its power from the W. Duke & Sons factory. (The only problem with this convenient arrangement was that when the factory went on standby every night at 6:00, the electric lights in the house dimmed.) Photographs of the lavish interior can be seen at Gary Kueber's endangereddurham.com.

The social highlight of Harwood Hall's history was the 1899 wedding of daughter Annie Watts and John Sprunt Hill. The wedding was big news in Durham and The Durham Sun reported every detail of the plans. Wedding gifts were displayed in the billiard room. The caterer came down by train from Washington DC with food and staff to serve dinner at Harwood Hall for 250 people following the 8:00pm wedding ceremony at the First Presbyterian Church. The Hills built their own home in 1910 just one block south of Harwood Hall. The Spanish Colonial style Hill House remains a landmark in Morehead Hill a century later.

By 1903, G. W. Watts was one of five millionaires living in Durham. The others were his business partners Washington, Buck, and Ben Duke, and Julian Carr. Mrs. Watts, who had long been in poor health, died in 1915 and Watts married Sarah Ecker, who had been the family nurse. When Watts died in 1921, his estate was valued at $15M (over $200M today). He left Harwood Hall to his daughter Annie Watts Hill with the stipulation that his widow could remain in the house. Mrs. Watts stayed only until 1925, when she married Cameron Morrison and moved to Charlotte.

Annie Hill's son George Watts Hill moved into Harwood Hall with his bride Ann McCulloch soon after. Ann was the daughter of a minister and had grown up in more middle class surroundings than her husband. She called Harwood Hall "a fifty room monstrosity- the satisfied desire of dead ancestors." Watts Hill followed his father into the banking business and was one of the first entrepreneurs in the new business of health insurance.

The Hills had three children while they lived at Harwood Hall: George Watts, Jr., Ann Dudley, and John Sprunt II. Cautious after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, Watts Hill had bars installed on the children's bedroom windows. The life style demanded by Harwood Hall was never a pleasure to Mrs. Hill, and in 1938 the family moved permanently to Quail Roost, their country estate in northern Durham County.

Harwood Hall was for a short period a nurses' residence for Watts Hospital, but its location was inconveniently far from the hospital on Club Boulevard. The nurses moved out and the house remained empty.

After World War II, Watts Hill tried several plans to save the family estate. Inspired by a 1949 visit to St. Simon's Island, Georgia, he considered turning Harwood Hall into a small exclusive hotel. He proposed adding a wing for more guest rooms at the back of the house, but was unable to interest hotel developers in what must have seemed an incredibly old-fashioned property.

In 1954, Hill turned the property over to Allied Arts of Durham (now the Durham Arts Council.) But the component organizations, including the Art Guild, the Civic Choral Society, the Theatre Guild, the Duke University Arts Council, the Chamber Arts Society, and the Durham Chapter of the NC Symphony Society were able to use the elegant building for only a few years.

In 1961, the Hospital Care Association bought Harwood Hall from Watts Hill as well as the Morehead House next door. The old mansions were demolished and a modern office building in the Colonial Revival style was built on the site. Hill's early hopes for the health insurance industry had come to full fruition as the modern business enterprise known today as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina replaced the elegant home built by his grandfather in an earlier generation of Durham entrepreneurs. The building is now the home of Duke University's Physicians Assistant Program.

Between 1900 and 1915, houses lined both the north and south sides of Morehead Avenue. On the north side between Vickers and S. Duke, four grand houses were built east of Greystone by successful business men. All of these houses have been lost. (The block numbering scheme was changed by the city sometime between 1915 and 1923. House numbers generally remained the same. The block number used in this article is the 800 series, but some sources may refer to the 500 series. Interestingly, census and city directory data show Greystone in another block, but no street break is apparent today. Fairview alley may have run between Greystone and the Wily house, accounting for the numbering discrepancy.)

Directly east of Greystone, at 818 Morehead, was the Wily house, built by John Fleming Wily, a Virginian who came to Durham to work as a cashier at Fidelity Bank. According to the Hill's Directory, he arrived in Durham around 1905-06 and by 1907-08 was residing at his Morehead Avenue home. By 1915-16, he was vice-president of Fidelity and by 1924 he was also vice president of Pearl Cotton Mills and secretary of Sneed-Markham-Taylor Co, "clothiers, gents' furnishers & hat" according to their ad. By 1925 Wily was president of Fidelity. J. F. Wily remained in the house until 1939 when he moved to Dover Road in Hope Valley. Eugene Wily resided at 818 Morehead from 1939 to the 1960s. The house shown below is thought to be the Wily residence.


Thought to be the Wily house, c. 1920

Gilbert C. White came to Durham in the early 1900s as a consultant to solve Durham's sewerage problem and ended up designing a new water system. By 1907-08 he was residing at 812 Morehead in the house of his mother-in-law, Mrs. S. F. Tomlinson. He worked as a city engineer and continued to consult as a civil engineer forming the G. C. White Company around 1923. He was also vice-president of the Southern Fire Insurance Company and was a partner in CE Boesch, GC White, CC Fulton. The Whites continued to live here until their son Finley and his family moved to Hope Valley in 1950. G.C. White's grandson, G. C. White II remembers the tennis court, the back yard that sloped down to the barn, and going to Calvert School on S. Duke Street. The house shown below is believed to be the White residence.


Tomlinson House, c. 1895

The Alphonsus Cobb House was located at 806 Morehead Avenue. He came to Durham from Hickory, NC and resided at the Carrolina Hotel where his brother Howell was proprietor. Alphonsus Cobb became manager at the hotel in 1902 and by 1905 he was proprietor. In 1911-12 he worked at the Corcoran Hotel. By 1915 he resided at 714 (now 814) Vickers Avenue and was secretary-treasurer of Durham Realty & Insurance Company and Durham Loan & Trust. As vice-president of Durham Realty & Insurance and West End Land Company in 1919 he moved to his new home at 806 Morehead. In 1925 he served as secretary-treasurer of the Durham Real Estate Board. He died tragically in 1935, but his widow Nellie remained in the Morehead Avenue home until at least 1955. There is no known photograph of this house.

The last house in this block at 802 Morehead was occupied by Judge Howard Foushee, his family, and a nurse in 1910. Unlike the other houses nearby, this was a single story house, referred to as a "cottage," which sat on a slight elevation about four feet above the sidewalk. In 1923 Wallace E. Seeman, son of Henry T. Seeman, bought the property. The Seeman family ran the Seeman Printery for many years in Durham and Seeman Street in Old North Durham is presumably named for the family. Seeman lived here until 1926 when E. S. Yarbrough, president-treasurer of Halloway, Calvin, Yarbrough, & Darnell Mills Inc. moved here. In 1935, Dr. Arthur J. London and wife Janet B. bought the property. In 1955 Southgate Jones, Jr. lived here. This site is now occupied by the dental office of Dr. James R. Lewis.

George H. Beall appeared in the Turner City Directory of 1889 as a resident of Oxford and an employee of J.W. Swift and Company. He disappeared from Durham City Directories until 1902 when he was listed as a coal dealer residing at 411 Lea Street (later renamed S. Duke Street). He remained at the same residence until 1907-08 when Hill's Directory of Durham listed his residence as 833 Morehead Avenue and his business address as 604 Morgan Street. Due to a house numbering change, it is believed that he actually lived at the site of 619 Morehead, at the southeast corner of Morehead and Vickers, across the street from Greystone. He lived at this address, raising a family and diversifying into the tobacco business as president, secretary, and treasurer of Durham Tobacco Manufacturer Company, Inc in 1919-20. His tobacco venture is thought to be short-lived because it does not appear in a city directory after 1920. Beall continued to live at 619 Morehead until 1934 when Mrs. Thelma P. Stewart, an operator at the Ellis Stone Beauty Shoppe at 120 W. Main and 123 W. Parrish, took up residence here. In 1935 William P. Whitaker, Jr., manager of Hubbard Brothers and Company ("brokers, stocks, bonds, cotton, and grain"), lived here with his wife. In 1936 Granville P. Patterson, a heating engineer with Nicholson Inc., and Mrs. Grace N. Noell were renters at 619 Morehead. The house was rented to Grace Noell and W. P. Whitaker Jr. in 1937. It continued to be rented until at least 1955 when as a duplex, it was rented to Michael G. Jennings, assistant manager at Reynolds (a stock brokerage firm), and wife Mary E; Robert John, an instructor at North Carolina College, and his wife Jewel lived at 619 ½ Morehead. The house was still standing in late 1968. The only known photograph of this house is taken from a newspaper account of an automobile accident, in which the house appears in the background, shown below.


Looking southeast from Morehead and Vickers, 11.11.68
(Courtesy Herald Sun)

William Muirhead first appeared in Hill's Directory of Durham in 1923 living at 822 Cleveland Street as a North Carolina Representative of Concrete Steele Company. He disappeared from Durham city directories until 1926 when his residence was 609 Morehead and his business was William Muirhead Construction Company. His house was located east of the J. Eric Johnson house (still standing) at 619 Morehead. He remained at 609 Morehead until 1940 when this address was listed as "vacant." In 1955, W. Frank Warren, a salesman for Christian-Harward Furniture, lived there. The house was removed sometime later. There are no known photographs of this house.

R. Lynnwood Baldwin came to Durham around 1911 and lived at 606 Chapel Hill Street. By 1915 Baldwin lived at 804 Vickers Avenue in the home he had built and served as treasurer of R. A. Baldwin & Sons, purveyors of dry goods, at 105 W. Main Street. His father, R. A. Baldwin, remained in Farmville, Virginia. By 1919 he was manager of the R. L. Baldwin Company Department Store and was vice president of the Durham Morris Plan Company. Baldwin assumed responsibility as president of Home Building and Loan Association in 1923 and as secretary-treasurer of Durham Citizens Hotel Corporation in 1924. The home passed to a daughter and remained in the family until the early 1980s. A photograph of the house is shown below as it appeared in the late 1970s. It burned in the early 1980s. In the mid 1990s, the lot was purchased at auction by the owners of 908 Vickers.


Baldwin House, looking Southwest, late 1970s

Morehead Hill, still home to Durham's largest concentration of mansions representing its peak of prosperity from the 1890s to the 1930s, has lost an unconscionable number of fine homes. The reasons for loss are varied. Preservation Durham's13th Annual Home Tour laments the loss of these grand dams of Durham's storied past. But it also laments the loss of other more moderate Morehead Hill homes in the name of progress and urban renewal. As a result, appreciation for surviving houses has been enhanced. The Morehead Hill neighborhood is an equal mix of diverse architectural styles and sizes and in some ways is a microcosm of Durham itself.

- Liz McGuffey, 2009

The author is indebted to Gary Kueber, his incredible investigative thoroughness, his willingness to share, and his ability to make a large amount of information available for everyone.