Stepping through the neon-sign archway of the American Tobacco Campus, the Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower are silhouetted against the bright North Carolina sun. The staggered warehouse chimneys that once fed hot summer air to drying tobacco now cast a jagged shadow across the concrete walkways. A retired train is perched upon a reclaimed rail system suspended above the square, a stream cascades loudly down concrete slabs, and string lights weave across a bustling piazza. Locals and tourists alike chatter and nibble at cafe tables and enjoy a lovely day in Durham.
Cigarette and tobacco history may be controversial, but what is cut and dry is the mark that American Tobacco made on the city of Durham, North Carolina and the entire country. It’s a story of economic and entrepreneurial success of bright business moguls — a history preserved in these 19th century factory buildings, reimagined as a million square feet of apartments, offices, restaurants, and more.
It began during the Civil War. When North Carolina soldiers brought their unique brightleaf cured tobacco to war, it went viral. Tobacco peddlers John Ruffin Green and William Thomas Blackwell, riding the success of the tobacco trend, teamed up in 1868 to found Genuine Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco, which would provide a moniker for the city for years to come.
Meanwhile, Washington Duke returned home from the Civil War to become a tobacco farmer. From 1870 to 1890, his company expanded from a shed on his farm to a factory in downtown Durham. His sons took over the business at its peak, and Washington went on to found Trinity College (which would become Duke University).
As the century approached its turn, loose leaf tobacco and cigarettes grew in popularity, with Duke & Sons shredding the competition. In 1890, they acquired Blackwell’s Bull Durham brand along with Lucky Strike and over 200 other tobacco firms — and The American Tobacco Company was ignited, controlling 90% of the world’s tobacco production and distribution.
American Tobacco prevailed for over 80 years until the health risks of cigarettes became widely known in the latter part of the 20th century. The company attempted to bring on products and brands outside the tobacco realm, but the changing attitudes toward tobacco and competition in the marketplace forced American Tobacco to close in 1987.
The W.T. Blackwell and Company building (also known as the “Old Bull” building) was constructed in 1874 and manufactured Bull Durham Tobacco — the first nationally marketed brand of tobacco products — until 1957. It’s adjacent to the main American Tobacco campus and remains part of the American Tobacco Historic District. Its distinct Italianate-style architecture and colorful, graphic Old Bull advert on the front of the building make it an iconic piece of Durham history. Once the world’s largest tobacco factory, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and is now occupied by apartments.
The 14 buildings and three structures that make up the main American Tobacco Campus were built between 1874 and the 1950s and were all working factory and office buildings for the company (renamed Fortune Brands) until it was snuffed out in 1987. The buildings sat abandoned for over 10 years, aside from being used for tactical training by the local police. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, the property, including its crumbling smokestack, was purchased by Capitol Broadcasting Company (owners of the Durham Bulls) in 2001.
American Tobacco Campus Today
After four years of renovations, Capitol Broadcasting reopened the campus in 2005 with commercial residents. American Tobacco Campus is now home to apartments, a theater, an event venue, a YMCA, the former Burt’s Bees HQ, and a radio station. You can get an old-fashioned cut and shave at the barber shop or see the original coal-fired boilers from the tobacco factory at Power Plant gallery. Locals can apply to be a part of the American Underground– 26,000 square feet of subterranean startup incubator offices.
Choose from the variety of restaurants that offer Japanese, Cuban, Southern, or Southwestern cuisine, pizza, steak, burgers, and sandwiches. Or sample creations at the dining lab for students of the International Culinary School. Sip on coffee from the cafe, sample beer at the taproom, or stretch out on the big lawn for a concert or festival. There’s a little something for everyone– whether you live in Durham or come from out of town!
Durham is a transformation city. More than half of its residents were born out of state, and the city’s downtown has seen mass redevelopment and adaptive reuse sparked by the creative reimagining and historic preservation of the American Tobacco Historic District! For those who are planning a trip to Durham– the Tobacco Campus is a do-not-miss. And if you’ll be in the Raleigh area, a day trip to Durham will be worth your time! It’s filled with history and creative examples of #hipstorical! Roll on over.
Suggestions for more hipstorical places in Durham? Email me and help me build my archives!