A History of
Old North Durham
Old North Durham is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the city. It extends north to the former Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, east to Avondale Drive, south to a variable line along East Geer Street / Little Five Points / Broadway, and west to Washington Street.
In the 1870s, the area consisted either of farmland or was undeveloped. The Geer Farm House at 326 East Trinity Avenue, likely built in the mid-19th century, is probably the oldest surviving structure in the district.
In the 1880s and 1890s development in the district was minimal. Those who chose to live here built “country” houses. At least four of those survive today: the house of attorney James S. Manning (911 North Mangum) printer Henry E. Seeman (112 W. Seeman Street), William L. Umstead (106 W. Seeman Street) and banked James B. Mason (113 E. Seeman Street).
In 1901, the Durham Traction Company secured a fifty-year franchise from the city and built a north-south trolley line on North Magnum Street that replaced earlier mule cars. Development blossomed. The trolley lines provided easy access not only to downtown, but to east and west Durham as well, and thus made suburbanization popular for not only wealthier merchants but for new city residents as well.
The earliest development in the neighborhood occurred east of North Mangum Street, but soon the sparsely settled area between N. Mangum and the Pearl Mill Village began to be developed as well. In the 1910s through the 1930s, colonial revival houses and bungalows became the most popular form of construction. Some of the most imaginative and fanciful bungalows in Durham were built on the south side of West Seaman Street in five houses which exhibit very exaggerated bungalow characteristics. With time, bungalows became more eclectic, incorporating elements of period revival styles. The Tudor revival style cottage also became popular during the 1920s and 1930s, and may such houses were built throughout Old North Durham.
The 1920s saw significant expansion of Old North Durham, along with the city as a whole. Between 1920 and 1930, the population of Durham grew from 21,719 to 52,037. Along with single-family houses, some of this growth was accommodated by new apartments such as the Perry Apartments at 902 North Mangum Street, the Markham Apartments at 201-203 West Broadway Street, and the Bellamy Apartments at 110 E Geer Street. By 1930, most of the residential properties along Mangum, Lynch, Seeman, and Glendale streets had been purchased for home sites. Sanborn maps show that most of the southern portion of the district was developed by 1930 with space set aside along Glendale Avenue and Lynch Streets for a playground.
Jim Crow reared its ugly head in Old North Durham as it did everywhere in Durham. Most of the neighborhood was while only, but there were a few blocks where African-Americans were allowed to live, notably on Glendale Avenue, norther of Corporation Street to just south of West Trinity Avenue.
Legal segregation ended in the 1960s, and for a variety of reasons, the neighborhood began to change. Many large houses were divided into apartments for low-income or student houses. Private organizations bought some of the architectural landmarks in the community and adapted them for new purposes. The Troy House at 1101 North Mangum Street occupied the former Umstead-Rollins House and served as a half-way house for first-time offenders. The Kempner Rice Diet Program operated out of the Maynard Mangum House at 1111 North Mangum Street. A Moose Lodge was headquartered at the former Cheek Estate at the southwest corner of East Trinity Avenue and North Alston Avenue. Several houses were allowed to decay by absentee landlords. Demolition became a problem as well, although primarily limited to the eastern and southern edges of the district. The Cheek Estate was demolished in 1985; much of the 800 block of North Mangum was demolished in the 1990s, forming a more significant divide between the Little Five Points area and the residential area of Old North Durham. A smattering of renovations occurring during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but while neighborhoods to the west, such as Trinity Park, began to see revitalization during this period, significant parts of Old North Durham remained depressed. Overall, the earliest revitalization occurred in the western part of the neighborhood on streets like Lynch, Seeman, Monmouth, and Dacian.
Gradually, revitalization spread east and south. An influx of renovators attracted by the relatively inexpensive housing bought and restored houses in the early and mid-2000s. And then things began to dramatically change. As downtown Durham revived with restaurants, brewpubs, coffee houses, a farmers’ market, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, Old North Durham became even popular because it was close to downtown and “walkable”. Now, professional house flippers were buying houses and restoring them for a profit. Small houses were torn down to build bigger houses. Empty lots were bough to build more houses. Asking prices for houses started going above $300,000, then $400,000, then $600,000. Today in 2018, some not-yet-built houses have been listed at over $700,000. Like the rest of the City, many are concerned with gentrification, particularly when it means that low and moderate-income people will be unable to live here.
Old North Durham has changed dramatically not once, but several times in its history. No one knows how it will change, but it is safe to say that it will be very different in ten years from what it is today.
(Thanks to Gary Kueber, the creator of OpenDurham.org. This history of the neighborhood is adapted from his account. See the website for more, and for information about specific building and historical sites).