By the early 1900s, the city of Durham, expanded during its short post-Civil War existence to a bustling industrial tobacco and textile town, sprawled on both sides of the North Carolina Railroad that ran southeast to northwest through town. Gridded blocks of new houses were appearing along Duke and Gregson streets and cross-streets north of the new Trinity College Campus, established in 1891-92. The new hospital, Watts Hospital, endowed by industrialist George W. Watts in downtown Durham in 1895, was outgrown by 1908. Watts donated twenty-seven acres of wooded rural land at the north end of Broad Street, the west boundary of Trinity College. A new and quite architecturally distinguished Watts Hospital campus of six buildings designed in the “modified Spanish Mission style,” by Boston architects Kendall and Taylor, rose on the picturesque site between 1908 and 1910.
Two other institutions — a country club and the waterworks park — and a new trolley line gave the Watts-Hillandale area the urban amenities necessary to draw residents. West Club Boulevard, a 45-foot wide street, was laid out between the hospital and Hillandale Road six blocks west. The Main Street trolley line ran all the way down Broad Street to Club Boulevard (formerly E Street), to the terminus at Watts Hospital, by 1907. The ten-acre waterworks lake, a popular recreation spot, became a destination when a trolley line was extended down Club Boulevard to the waterworks by 1912. In 1912 George Watts” son-in-law, wealthy businessman John Sprunt Hill, and his friends organized and built Durham’s first country clubhouse on the north side of the 2500 block of Club Boulevard. It was a large, cozy shingled bungalow with a big welcoming veranda. The Hillandale Golf Course, adjacent to the waterworks, was built by Hill as well, who retained it as a separate entity.
With such amenities in place, developers wasted no time in creating a new suburban neighborhood. In 1913, two separate development companies, the West End Land Company, and Durham Loan and Trust Company, purchased tracts of the Hester Property and created the lots along Club Boulevard, Englewood Avenue, and the intersecting streets. The West End Land Company subdivided “Club Acres” along Club Boulevard between the hospital and Hillandale Road. Their original subdivision plat shows 105 lots, generally 75 feet wide and 396 feet deep. In the center, the low-lying creek bed is set off as a park, with a meandering street called “Park Way” bordering the park. The intersecting streets of Ninth Street, Carolina Avenue, Park Way (now Oval Drive and Oakland Avenue), Virginia Avenue, Alabama Avenue, and Hester Avenue (now Georgia Avenue) are included in the subdivision, but only a few lots face these streets, because the lots fronting on Club Boulevard are so deep. A dotted line down the center of Club Boulevard indicates the trolley line, and almost all lots have sewer connections. The only structure indicated on the plat is the Durham Country Clubhouse in the westernmost block of Club Boulevard.
West End Land Company president Robert L. Lindsey helped run the Durham Public Service Company, which owned the trolley system, and was active in civic affairs. Lindsay was an alderman, a trustee of Watts Hospital, and an avid golfer. Others in the company were Alphonsus Cobb and T. C. Worth. Beginning in 1916 a large advertisement in the Durham Morning Herald announced “There Is Every Reason Why You Should Own a Home On CLUB BOULEVARD, the Beautiful Residence Section Between Watts Hospital and the Country Club.” Listing such neighborhood assets as city water and sewer and the macadamized boulevard with curbs and gutters and cement sidewalks, the Durham Realty & Insurance Company boasted that four homes had recently been completed and four more were under construction.
The grantee index showing lot sales from 1913 to 1923 lists approximately ninety sales in the new subdivision. Sales were slow until 1919, when lots began to sell like hotcakes, hitting their peak during 1921 when twenty-seven lots were sold.
In 1913 John Sprunt Hill’s bank, the Durham Loan and Trust Company, subdivided a tract known as “Englewood” to the south of Club Acres, extending from Ninth Street to Alabama Avenue. Englewood was designed to link with Club Acres, with Carolina Avenue and Virginia Avenue extending through to Club Boulevard. The 198 lots are considerably smaller, averaging 50 x 150 feet in size, and the intersecting streets of Edith, Virgie, Hale, Rosehill, and Oakland break up the south side of Englewood Avenue into smaller blocks than those on Club Boulevard.
The western anchor of the district, the Durham Waterworks, was completed in 1917 – one of the first modern municipal waterplants in North Carolina. The city purchased acreage on the west side of Hillandale Road, at the west end of Club Boulevard, and built a ten-acre reservoir, filtration plant, pump station and other buildings (1405 Hillandale Rd.). W. M. Piatt & Company, which specialized in waterworks engineering, constructed the plant. The original filtration plant is a three-story brick Romanesque Revival style building with a one-story wing. Together with a diminuitive matching pumping station and a whimsical valve house with a bracketed tile roof and diamond-paned windows in the center of the lake, the waterworks has statewide historical and architectural significance in the history of municipal engineering facilities. The plant expanded in 1927 with a two-story brick wing built to receive the underground aqueducts coming from the new city reservoir at Lake Michie. The building was doubled in size with a stuccoed Art Moderne addition in 1949-50.
One of the most important landscape amenities of the Watts-Hillandale district was a later addition. The majestic willow oaks that now form a leafy cathedral along Club Boulevard were planted by the City of Durham in the late 1920s. Margaret Brawley, wife of Senator Sumpter C. Brawley and resident of 2422 W. Club Boulevard, petitioned the city to plant trees along Club Boulevard and other city streets throughout the 1920s.
During the years of the Great Depression, growth in the Watts-Hillandale District slowed considerably. Hill’s City Directory for the early 1930s reveal that many district homeowners took in borders, often nurses who worked at the hospital. Durham’s trolley system closed down in the early 1930s. Watts Hospital continued to thrive, but the Country Club did not. The depression and competition from the thriving Hope Valley Club doomed the Hillandale Country Club. In 1939 John Sprunt Hill donated the Hillandale facility and golf course to the Durham Foundation, which operates the course today. The clubhouse was torn down around 1950, its land subdivided and new houses built on the site in the 1960s.
The Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood had largely reached its current appearance by the mid-1940s. Only a few undeveloped lots remained. In the late 1940s and 1950s brick and frame Minimal Traditional-style houses and Ranch houses, as well as duplexes, appeared on these infill lots. Residency was quite stable, with many of the original homeowners remaining in the neighborhood throughout their lives, into the 1960s and 1970s. Watts Hospital abandoned its campus in 1976 for the new Durham County General Hospital in the north section of the rapidly growing town. In September 1980, the first class of high school students moved into the deserted Watts Hospital buildings as the campus began a new life as the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a boarding school for academically talented students from all over North Carolina. The old Spanish Mission style buildings have been lovingly restored, while new, architecturally harmonious buildings have been added. In one of the city’s best examples of adaptive reuse, old Watts Hospital now thrives as NCSSM and continues to stabilize the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood.
The Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association was founded in 1984 to preserve and enhance the residential character of the area. The six-block length of Club Boulevard is a grand urban gesture, one of the loveliest streets in Durham. The ancient willow oaks between the sidewalks and curbs on both sides of Club Boulevard soar one hundred feet in the air to create a leafy bower. Many of the houses have been rehabilitated in the past two decades. Among the association’s traditions are a July 4 children’s parade which began in 1950, FestOval, a fall gathering in Oval Park, and Night of Lights, a celebration of the neighborhood with luminaries in front yards, and a food drive for local community organizations.
Excerpted from Watts Hillandale Historic District Preservation Plan also available from the City of Durham’ site
updated 5/26/2014 by Jamie Gruener