Namesake: James Southgate, right, with Trinity College President John Kilgo, top; aerial view of Southgate Hall, bottom. Duke University Archives
Namesake: James Southgate, right, with Trinity College President John Kilgo, top; aerial view of Southgate Hall, bottom. Duke University Archives

Popular myth

—at least among generations of Duke freshmen—has it that Southgate Hall, on East Campus, was originally built as a mental hospital.
August 1, 2009

Popular myth—at least among generations of Duke freshmen—has it that Southgate Hall, on East Campus, was originally built as a mental hospital.

Historical records tell us otherwise. The building was actually part of the Trinity College administration's 1914 efforts to establish a coordinate women's college, intended to formalize a commitment to women's education stipulated by an 1897 gift from Washington Duke. Southgate was intended to be the nucleus of the future college, centered in the southwest corner of the campus. In addition to seventy dorm rooms, plans called for a gymnasium, an assembly room, a dining hall and kitchen, classrooms, staff offices, and an infirmary.

The establishment of the coordinate college, known as the Woman's College, was ultimately delayed until 1930. Nevertheless, Southgate opened in 1921 as a women's dormitory. Named for James Haywood Southgate, a Durham civic leader and businessman who served as chair of the Trinity College board of trustees from 1897 to 1916, the building highlights an early collaboration between the college and the city.

Southgate's friends in Durham raised over half of the $211,000 cost of the building. Benjamin N. Duke and the college's students and staff provided the remainder.

In the mid-1930s, when most men were housed on West Campus, male students enrolled in the engineering school (one of several schools and departments that shared East Campus with the Woman's College), and were moved into Southgate. They dubbed their new living quarters "The Shack."

But back to the persistent stories about Southgate's origins as a mental hospital: Late in 1944, Duke established a rehabilitation clinic on Main Street, which runs in front of the building, to treat veterans suffering from war-related psychiatric disorders. Soon after, the engineering students left Southgate for West Campus. Perhaps rumor had it that the dorm would become an expanded hospital facility. In fact, it once again became a women's dorm.