World Building at Duke in an Emerging Durham: 1924-1932 (2023-2024)


The establishment of the Duke Endowment in 1924 enabled the massive building campaign that gave us the Duke University we know today. That building history has been researched in its essential parts. However, two aspects remain under-investigated: how the building process itself developed from a series of plans that included competing concepts of landscape, social organization and place; and how that building process intersected with and impacted local individuals, communities and institutions. 

A deep dive into the choices surrounding the building of Duke and its relationship to Durham will help us consider questions about the broader integration of the university and the city. By taking the building of Duke’s campus as a focal point in the history of the city, we can investigate how the “world building” efforts of Duke’s leaders intervened in the existing lifeworld, landscapes and built environments of Durham and its inhabitants in the 1920s. 

Two prior Bass Connections projects — Building Duke and Digital Durham — have demonstrated how Duke has been both a creative and a destructive force in the history of Durham. By gathering spatial and historical evidence that can be found in things like construction plans, maps, building designs, city plans, census data, news stories, oral histories and archival photos, we are better situated to visualize that past.

Through first-hand data capture of the existing city fabric and its natural and built environments, as well as exploration of contemporary social-cultural and demographic information, we will also be able to juxtapose historical sources with the present situation of the campus and the city. By synthesizing primary archival and secondary historical research and visualizing past and present traces in maps, models and digital stories, we can address crucial questions of Duke’s and Durham’s histories and examine how the seeds of our current structures, systems and inequities were planted.

Project Description

This project examines not only how built environments result from social, economic and political conditions, but also, crucially, how they contribute to the development of these very conditions. Using Duke University and its construction in Durham between 1924 and 1932 as a model, team members will explore how construction and destruction are forms of world building, both physically and conceptually understood. 

Giving equal attention to the cultural and social development of Durham and Duke, team members will examine building at four different scales: Duke’s physical and built environment, the world of Duke in Durham, the broader context of Durham in the 1920s, and the projection of the university’s image (as well as the city’s image) to the nation and globally. Using these scales, the team will investigate connections as well as ruptures between the university and the city as their landscapes changed and the project of building Duke intervened in the life of the city and its inhabitants. 

Key themes to be explored include: the transformation of the landscape and the founding myth of the “university in the forest”; the flow of materials (e.g., bricks, stone, cement) through the local and regional building economy; the lived experiences, built environments and lifeworlds of the people who lived in the city in the decade around Duke’s inception; and the ways in which Duke’s and Durham’s roles in the global economy were rooted in early twentieth-century world building.

Team members will:

  1. Review archival and scholarly evidence (e.g., maps and plats, construction plans/records, regional newspapers, photographs, correspondence) gathered by the Building Duke and Digital Durham initiatives as well as archival repositories previously unexamined by these teams to study physical changes in the landscape before and after 1925.
  2. Explore computational methods for examining history, including digital mapping, data structuring and visualization, 3D modeling and digital storytelling.
  3. Investigate relevant Duke/Durham case studies that highlight themes such as historical conceptions of place; differing experiences of space for women, African Americans, laborers and elites; implications of change over time in select landscapes or building sites; and social, economic and political networks connecting or distinguishing the built environment at various interpretive scales.

Anticipated Outputs

Digital and physical exhibition at Duke Libraries; animated video; mobile application; project website; narrative articles focused on digital humanities methods; dataset

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 3 graduate/professional students and 6 undergraduates with interests in historical, digital and visual knowledge. Students from all levels and fields are welcome to apply. In particular, the team would benefit from students with skills in photography and videography, 3D modeling, mapping and/or curation. Students with strong archival research and writing skills, as well as expertise in visual communication are also encouraged to apply. 

Students on the team will gain skills in the digital humanities, including extensive experience with primary historical sources, constructing evidence-as-data, exploring varied digital methodologies and developing digital visualizations for a broad public audience. Students will also investigate critical topics in U.S. southern urban history that will illuminate how spatial decisions deeply intersect with social hierarchies and conflicts at various interpretative scales, from the hyper-local to the global. Finally, all students will participate in exhibition planning that involves discussing and conceptualizing audience needs and considerations of venue and presentation modalities. 

Students will have several options for earning credit on the team, including “core” fall and spring courses, independent studies and paid opportunities:

  • All students are strongly encouraged to take both core project courses, ARTHIST 390S/ISS795T: Duke’s Historical Landscapes (Fall 2023) and ISS 356S/758S: Digital Durham (Spring 2024), where they will develop historical research, narratives, datasets, maps and 3D models about Duke and Durham. The fall course will meet on Thursdays from 10:15-12:35. These courses will lay a strong foundation for participation, especially for learners who are newer to historical research and/or digital humanities methods. Students who enroll in these courses will gain the most comprehensive, integrated view of the project and will have opportunities to aggregate work done outside the course structure into a single mapping and modeling environment, such as ArcGIS online and a related website. However, these courses are not required, and it is not necessary to have taken the first semester course in order to take the second one or vice versa. To facilitate collaboration across the whole project, students enrolled in the courses will be invited to join the Friday meetings (described below) once a month.
  • Students who opt not to enroll in the core project courses will meet on Fridays from 10:00-11:00 a.m. and have the option of earning credit through independent studies. Team members in the Friday group will work on subteams concentrating on related projects underway as part of the Digital Art History & Visual Culture Research Lab. These include, for example, efforts to document a more inclusive history of Bennett Place; a project tracing building materials and networks used in Durham public buildings; and efforts to create digital maps and models that tell the history of how Durham was built in the1920s and 1930s. Students may also propose new subteams based on their interests. In addition to this Friday meeting, subteams will meet together weekly as small groups at times to be determined.

Final crediting options will be determined in conversation with the project leaders and based on student availability. When applying for this project, students will be asked to indicate their availability. 


Fall 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Fall 2023: Students participate in Duke’s Historical Landscape course or Friday meetings; complete literature review; explore archives; develop familiarity with digital methods
  • Spring 2024: Students participate in Visualizing Durham 1924 course or Friday meetings; develop case studies on specific themes using digital storytelling methods; finalize evidence and data for December 2024 exhibition
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Finalize exhibition


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

This Team in the News

New Bass Connections Project: World Building at Duke in an Emerging Durham

New Project Teams Will Delve Into Duke’s History to Mark the Centennial


Image: West Campus Progress Picture #294, 1930, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Black-and-white photo of a West Campus building in progress, 1930.

Team Leaders

  • Robert Buerglener, Arts & Sciences-Information Science and Information Studies
  • Hannah Jacobs, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Victoria Szabo, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Ed Triplett, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

/graduate Team Members

  • Savannah Fitzpatrick, Digital Art Hist/Comp Media-AM
  • Veda Kanduri, Master of Engineering Mgmt-MEG
  • Kalei Porter, Liberal Studies-AM
  • Bryan Rusch, Art and Art History-PHD
  • Ruojin Shi, Digital Art Hist/Comp Media-AM
  • Wendy Vencel, History-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Annapurna Bhattacharya
  • Carmen Chavez, Economics (BS)
  • Brooke Hira, Art History/Visual Arts (AB)
  • Hailey Kasney
  • Elaijah Lapay, Program II (AB)
  • Katherine Newbold, Mathematics (BS), Statistical Science (BS2)
  • Ruth Player, Civil Engineering (BSE), Art History (AB2)
  • Isabel Shew
  • Madison Wall
  • Jiayi Wang
  • Nathaniel Waxman, Art History (AB)
  • Malynda Wollert, Art History (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Trudi Abel, Duke Libraries
  • Carson Holloway, Duke Libraries
  • Paul Jaskot, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Philip Stern, Arts & Sciences-History