The Wall Surrounding East Campus

Writer: 
August 1, 2007
The wall surrounding East Campus

The wall surrounding East Campus. Duke University Archives

You may be familiar with the urban legend that the wall surrounding East Campus is actually ten feet high—the three feet that we see supported by seven more feet buried underground.

In one version of the story, the Duke family requested that the wall be ten feet tall as a requirement of their donations; administrators wanted a wall no higher than three feet and buried most of it to comply with the Dukes' condition. It makes for a good story, but the truth is that the wall has only a fourteen-inch foundation.

Many urban legends often have some basis in fact, and while there is not an obvious one for this story, we do have some leads. In 1915, several changes were made to the landscaping of the Trinity Campus (today's East Campus) as faculty houses were moved off campus. That same year, Benjamin Duke paid for the construction of the wall while his younger brother, James B. Duke, funded campus landscaping.

The records of President William Few include frequent correspondence about the project with the Duke brothers and the builders of the wall. In a letter dated September 15, 1915, Few informs the wall's designers that James B. Duke has requested the wall be thirty-six-inches high, not the thirty-four inches proposed in their construction plans.

The following month, Few received a letter from Benjamin Duke not only confirming the request for a thirty-six-inch-high wall, but also recommending that the wall be located ten feet from the curb and noting that more dirt might be needed for the foundation.

Did these requests and recommendations from the Duke brothers lay the foundation for the story that grew to be the legend of the wall? The archival record indicates that at least parts of the story are true: It's possible that the horizontal move became the basis of the vertical myth.