For those who are new to the Triangle (or younger than 90), the stately buildings on the Duke University campus look as though they have stood there since the beginning of time. In reality, much of the campus was designed and built between 1925 and 1932 at a cost of $21 million. A tremendous collection of documents and photographs related to the project can be found in Duke’s University Archives Digital Collection.
In 1929, as some of the main buildings were being completed, A.A. Wilkinson explained some of the design.
The ornamental stonework on Duke’s new structures will be among the most beautiful in this country, and a great many of the intricate designs will have peculiar significance. Many months of study have been devoted to determine the nature of the designs, and it is now definitely settled that many of the world’s best known universities and colleges will be represented in stone on the new structures.
John Donnelly, an eminent New York sculptor, is making the designs for the art work on the 13 groups of Duke buildings, and the actual carving is being done by a large staff of skilled stonecutters. Including the designs of a purely ornamental nature, there will be hundreds of pieces mounted over various buildings, no two alike and all executed in fine detail in Indiana limestone which is the trimming for all buildings.
Most of the shields and seals are over arched doorways, windows, and entrances. Some are in groups of four, five, and seven, and several of the most prominent are alone. When the buildings are completed there is no doubt that the artistic finish will evoke much comment. While the massiveness of the entire group of buildings is impressive, the detail work itself is enough to hold long interest....
Escutcheons such as Duke is carving on its buildings will represent the background of education and medical science for all time. ... Some symbols are obvious, others subtle; yet behind them all are matters of importance. He who is able to interpret the full meaning of the field figures must know the history of the world’s foremost educational institutions.
Many of the shields and seals have been already carved, still the task is but partly finished. Visitors on the campus have stopped many minutes to watch the sculptors at work with their chisels and mallets. Among these artisans are men who have worked on some of the world’s masterpieces in stone.
The entrance to the school of medicine is perhaps the most striking example of ornamental stonework on the university campus. Rising between two five-story turrets, the Gothic arches of the entrance extend upwards perhaps 70 feet, studded with insignias of nearly 30 internationally famous schools of medicine and hospitals. High above them all is the familiar crest of the Duke family....
Ten shields have been carved on the library elevation of the union, which is probably the most pleasing view of the structure, with its cloister of exceptional beauty. These shields are of University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Wofford, Furman, Randolph-Macon, Wake Forest, Davidson, Vanderbilt, and Washington and Lee. ...
Standing out plainly from the library elevation will be two important shields, one of the State of North Carolina and the other of the City of Durham. ...
Seals and shields of these institutions were not selected arbitrarily, but for their particular significance with Duke University in association, purpose and ideal. Many not yet included may be added as the building program of the university grows.
Besides the shields will be scores of appropriate designs symbolic of various stages of the development of science and education. Others have more fanciful suggestions, especially the grotesque figures which look down upon the courts of the dormitories. One is a wise old owl whose seriousness is in marked contrast to a merry little elf nearby who plays happily on a saxophone.
During the course of the past two years much has gone on on the new Duke campus, and those among the thousands who visit the site each week and who desire to see everything must go slowly if they are to see even a part of the detailed work, which many pass by in their amazement at the mere size of the buildings. The N&O 7/7/1929
Photos courtesy Duke University Archives