There's no place like Epworth

A lint czar, a Purple Parlor, and roach infestations. Just some of the reasons Duke's oldest building might be its most lovable.
Writer: 
October 30, 2017

Fenella Saunders ’95 leaned across a restaurant table: “They’re talking about tearing down Epworth,” she said urgently. “You must find out about this. They must not knock down Epworth.” She was far from alone in her concern: a rumor had spread. Letters came in, to Duke Magazine and to the administration: What was up with Epworth? Epworth was under siege. Save Epworth!

So: deep breath. “The bulldozers are not on the way,” said Tallman Trask III, Duke executive vice president, through whose office any such bulldozers would drive, so to speak. Epworth’s years as a dorm may be numbered, but “I don’t think people will demolish it,” he said. “To my mind it falls in the category of the Ark,” a beloved and historical building that has gone through many changes in purpose but remains ineradicably part of Duke’s identity. Epworth may work as office space. If renovation ends up costing less than expected it might even continue on as a dorm, though that seems unlikely. But it’ll stick around.

Epworth is Duke’s oldest building—along with the red-brick Crowell Building, next to it on East Campus, it opened in 1892, when Trinity College moved from Randolph County to Durham. Every Duke grad remembers the chapel and Cameron Indoor Stadium. What those who never lived there don’t realize is its alumni hold Epworth in almost as high regard. Though nobody ever wonders whether to tear down Cameron or the chapel.

Whereas wondering whether to tear down Epworth has been a hobby at Duke for a century.

Walk around Epworth now, behind the East Campus main quad near Buchanan Boulevard, and it at first strikes you as weird but hardly noteworthy. From one angle it looks like a hotel, from another a house, from a third, a barn. It has two stacked and sloping porches, a few somewhat scattered dormer windows. It has a couple of oddly placed bay windows, and the whole package does seem a bit off-kilter. Which makes sense once you understand that the building is only a third of its original self.

Epworth originally “covered nearly an acre of ground and faced to all points of the compass except north,” according to C.B. Warren, a 1906 Trinity graduate, a Virginia newspaper editor. It housed happenings and batik tie-dyes in the bathtubs when it was home to Duke’s first arts-themed dorm. As home to the SHARE living group (Student Housing for Academic and Residential Experimentation), Epworth ultimately became known for its collection of, by its own description on a flier, “freaks, weirdos, nuts, deviants, [redacted] loons, [redacteds], Marxist [redacted] [redacteds].

“We,” the SHARE flier archly continued, “prefer the word ‘individualists.’ ”

Some might say Epworth was the natural home for a group like SHARE, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Whatever the building’s future, Epworthian Diane Weddington ’72, M.Div. ’76 probably has expressed it best: “It doesn’t matter,” she recently said. “It’s still our old Epworth.”

Epworth was not, as lore has it, the original hotel for the racetrack and fairground that occupied what is now East Campus before Julian Carr donated the property when Trinity came to town. The property did indeed hold a racetrack and fairground, but Epworth was built in 1892, along with the Crowell Building and Old Main (later called the Washington Duke Building). Epworth was initially called the College Inn, though in 1896, at the suggestion of President John Kilgo, the board of trustees changed its name to Epworth Hall, after the birthplace of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, whose father was rector of Epworth, England. It occasionally shows up in various publications as the Epworth Inn or Trinity Inn, but its name is now officially Epworth Residence Hall.

And though it’s true that Epworth was once about three times its current size, fire did not remove the parts that no longer exist. A fire in 1911 did destroy the Washington Duke Building (itself scheduled for demolition anyway), and in 1914, when Epworth was a mere twenty-two years old, the board of trustees decided that most of it was too much trouble to maintain. They knocked down two-thirds of it, including a four-story square tower, a round tower, and everything else that wasn’t pure dorm. Though a framed history in the dorm itself refers to “a major fire,” the only fire the university archivists know about was the 1911 Washington Duke fire. That may, in memory, have been conflated with the renovation.

BUT EVEN BY THAT 1914 RENOVATION, Epworth was the beloved old wreck that nobody quite knew what to do with. The very first issue of the Trinity Alumni Register, in April 1915, included C.B. Warren’s “Memories of the Old Inn.” Warren makes the comment about the building facing every direction except north, and he goes on to describe the enormous, multistory collection of towers, bay windows, dormers, gables, and porches—a fantasy in shingles. “It had a roof which from above looked like most anything you might think of that had no special shape or outline,” Warren writes. “I can not describe it, for I am not sure that I ever saw it all. Every time I ever looked at it there was some nook, cranny, or parapet, which I had never seen before.” He compares it to a labyrinth and tells a story about a visitor, lost in the twists and turns, finally asking a student how to get out of the building. The student solemnly points to his open window. Even now, with a downstairs porch you can’t enter through, counterintuitively placed stairwells, and off-center corridors jutting this way and that, Epworth confuses the casual visitor.

The original Epworth had a chapel and a dining facility that could seat 250. In addition to seventy-five rooms, it had parlors used by campus societies; it had a laundry, a shoe store, a barber shop, and a convenience store. But the heating barely worked, and it was a project to maintain—the college renovated Epworth once in 1905 and then less than a decade later knocked down everything but some of the dorm rooms. “It’s a wood-frame building, occupied by teenagers for 120 years,” Trask says now. “So it has its share of issues.”

By World War II, though East Campus housed mostly women, Epworth housed the men of the engineering school. In 1944, one of them, William Becker ’46, wrote a sort of counterpoint to Warren’s 1915 love letter. He expressed sadness that Epworth was no longer what Warren had called a “hotbed of college spirit and American manhood,” concluding that “it is the unanimous opinion of all who have lived in Epworth that after the war this…should be razed and a new building be erected in its place.”

Not so unanimous. In 1949, Duke modernized the building instead of razing it. By the 1960s, Epworth was again filled not with men but women—it housed female graduate students, which Brenda Neece, a onetime Epworth faculty-in-residence whose mother attended in those days, recalled earned it the name “Menopause Manor.”

But in 1967 Epworth started on the course that now in many ways defines it: as a safe place for the artists and contrarians looking for a home on a campus that for decades felt conservative and judgmental. A home for, as it were, Duke’s freaks and geeks. Opening as Contemporary Art House made Epworth Duke’s first theme dorm, “a community whose members choose to live together in an atmosphere unique to the Duke campus,” as its mimeographed application form from 1968 puts it. In 1966-67, Epworth was an all-freshman dorm, and the women that year liked the house—and each other—so much that they petitioned to stay together, based on their shared interest in the arts. “They went to the deans and said, ‘We need someplace on campus where people who love the arts and aren’t very happy with traditional dorm living can live,’” recalls Diane Weddington, who lived there starting in 1969. Petition granted, and Epworth started out with standing committees in music and dance, drama and literature, graphic arts and photography, and crafts.

“We would have poetry readings,” Weddington says. “People would get a new play in from England and perform it in the living room. We would take an old truck and go to the city dump and make found art. We had musicians, we had artists, photographers.”

The Ark had a photography lab, and the university instituted a key-card system, in part to let Epworth women come and go. (“Because artists keep weird hours,” Weddington says.) The artists had group meals; ad hoc music performances; and “in the big bathrooms people would tie-dye batiks in the tubs,” she laughs. “It was unique in that way. Someone was always creating something.”

Notable among the creations was a found-sculpture grandfather clock, crafted of an old gym locker as the case, an oil drum lid for the face painted with numbers and a big smiling sun, its midsection stuffed with a chaos of springs and gears.

“This is where the big sign was,” said Gail McMurray Gibson ’70, A,M. ’72, who during a quiet winter break revisited Epworth, as she stepped up to the door. “With a sun on it.” Then, walking through the door, “And here’s where the famous clock was.” The smallness of the dorm compelled her then and it does still—it looks like a house, and so for its residents it feels like a home. “It was like a rooming house, a home,” she says. “Because it was small, it had such a sense of freedom and possibility.”

Gibson was part of the opening crew in 1967-68, the first year it opened as the Contemporary Art House; she invited Weddington to join. She pointed out her old room and a public area that had been a formal parlor, with elegant Victorian furniture. Whether a long, odd wooden bench that lines one side of the entry hall was there at the time she cannot recall, though it’s hard to make a good case that it would fit anywhere else. They staged “happenings,” involving the porches as performance spaces: “On a Sunday afternoon, anyone in the dorm who wanted to perform” did what they felt, says Gibson. They hung paintings on lines strung between the trees surrounding. “It was such a different time.”

Epworth has never left her life—Epworth friends had a wedding shower for her in the nearby gazebo, and when she married and moved off campus, she heard about a sale of Epworth furniture and bought one of the two-person desks that once populated the dorm rooms. She still owns it.

EPWORTH REMAINED AN ARTS-THEMED DORM through the 1970s, but it didn’t get what you might call its biggest break until 1983-84, when the SHARE living group moved there from Alspaugh, where it had spent a purgatorial year between its first home (it was founded in Wilson in 1970) and its ultimate expression in Epworth. The academic and residential experimentation of SHARE’s acronym included coed living and house courses. But it had from the start a happy reputation as a home for the “rabidly radical, a flophouse full of drug-crazed ne’er-do-wells who somehow managed to keep their GPAs high enough to remain at Duke,” according to Roger Corless, then professor of religion, who was invited to be faculty-in-residence several times over the group’s existence. “In short,” he continued in a piece he wrote in the Duke Faculty Newsletter in 1996, “it was more like the real world than the nervous, conservative kitsch that Duke so often presents as its public image.”

Which is exactly what the people who lived in Epworth as part of SHARE in those days sought. “Here’s the thing about Epworth/SHARE,” says Robert Clough ’98, the group’s historian. (Clough matriculated in 1987 and left school in 1990, returning to finish his degree in the late 1990s, itself an Epworthian journey.) “There’s a synergy to the two, but they’re two different things.” Started as a more academic experiment, SHARE “became a place where its original roots changed very quickly. Some of the academic stuff fell by the wayside, and the residential stuff got played up as a place where everybody could be freaky in their own individual way.”

In a Duke then perceived, Clough says, as “a very J. Crew kind of place that was dominated by fraternity culture,” SHARE offered more as a character refuge than a place of academic experimentation. It lost members (a struggle that dogged the group for its entire existence) and thus had to leave its home in Wilson, ending up in Epworth. “To me it was the perfect blend,” he says, “because the building itself is so strange and beautiful in its own way.” Its history of scattershot renovation left “this odd stub of a building, where you can enter the side way; the front porch looks a particular way; there’s a phone booth that became a study room; these huge, huge ceilings; these large expansive stairs; and the upstairs common room, which we called the Purple Parlor.”

Oh yes, the Purple Parlor. A tradition from its early days in Wilson, SHARE had a large room painted purple for its group meetings. At Epworth, that translated into the second-floor common area, where the two hallways connected. The Parlor may have been the heart of Epworth, though the connection directly below it, called “the Crossroads,” in some ways competed.

If within Epworth there were divisions, overall it was Epworth against the world. Epworth stands out as the first place at Duke that LGBTQ people could be themselves, many Epworthians note. “In the early ’90s Duke was still a fairly homophobic place,” says Ryan Holifield ’93. “Epworth was one of the very few safe spaces. Where people could be comfortable with sexual orientation, whatever that might be.” Epworth painted the East Campus bridge pink—and received scornful teasing from fraternities. It became so associated with LGBTQ rights that it called its (terrible) flag football team “The Agenda,” a play on claims that residents were dupes of a nefarious homosexual agenda.

That sense of freedom to be yourself at Epworth “was the reason I want to Duke, frankly,” Holifield says. He stayed there during A.B. Duke Scholars weekend, and “you could pick up on the sense of humor there. You could pick up on the absurd. Epworth really stood out as a place where you could be yourselves.” As a homesick freshman the next year in Trent Hall, then a notoriously rowdy freshman dorm, he went to an Epworth party, learned they had an empty room—again, a constant problem for SHARE—and was home. And that sense of humor was central from the start. “We appointed ourselves,” he recalls, “the lint dorm.”

Which may be the apotheosis of Epworth. Steve Newman ’92, the first-ever Epworth Lint Czar, recalls. Theme dorms had started at Duke, and Epworth/SHARE was surprised to see another dorm called the arts dorm. “There already was an arts dorm,” he says. “It was Epworth!” But the university still wanted a theme for Epworth. This clearly required action.

“I came up with lint,” Newman says. “It’s not visible, but when you put something through the dryer, it appears. It’s a mystical substance.” They wondered: “If you put lint in the dryer, would little shirts come out? That didn’t turn out to be true.” They saved a year’s worth of lint in a cardboard box. They had lint parades. “That in some sense sums up Epworth,” Newman says. “Somewhat subversive, frankly somewhat self-congratulatory.”

THOUGH WITH THE LINT CZAR, SHARE had probably attained Peak Epworth, its constant trouble filling room slots never abated. SHARE regularly faced threats to its place in Epworth, but things always somehow worked out. Then in 1997, as Duke filled East Campus with only first-year students, SHARE moved. Not for lack of fight: Current and historical residents created a telephone-book-sized scrapbook of letters, images, and pleas to keep SHARE in Epworth: “I learned far more in Epworth than in any other building on campus,” said July Hruby ’96; Clough said, simply, “There will always be the need for an Epworth.” But move SHARE did, to Central Campus, and it soon expired. Epworth itself became just another first-year dorm.

Or maybe not. Sophomore Alex Pierson says that when he tells people he lived in Epworth, “they either don’t even know it exists or they say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ ” Its reputation for poor heating and cooling hasn’t changed much in a century, and now adding to the adventure are fierce roach infestations—at least once bad enough that students were moved to hotels during treatment. Just the same, “we play Frisbee in the halls, we set up a little mini golf,” says Pierson, who follows with a highly Epworthian comment: “Everyone seems to have something against Epworth,” he says, “except people in Epworth.”

Sophomore Annika Sharma got her Epworth assignment at her home in India, so she didn’t know what to think. She reached out to an upperclassman she knows. “It’s a house,” he told her. “It’s like a home.” And she says that perfectly sums Epworth up. “It’s like a community, and you don’t get that community in other dorms. When I was filling out living applications for this year, I realized how much I would miss this place.”

Just the same, don’t get crazy. “Epworth is nice, but do I want to live here for four years?” she says. “Not so much. Not with the roaches. And if the radiators had more in between, not like either sauna or freezer.” Epworth should stay a dorm, she’s convinced, but it does need some upgrades. She leads a little tour. “Get rid of that carpet,” she says, pointing at the framed rug that has hung in the Crossroads for years. “And the sofas need to go, I can attest to that.” She leads down one of the wide halls with those high ceilings. She points to that long wooden bench. “And I don’t see the point of this,” she says. “No one sits on this. Who would sit on that and stare at the bulletin board?”

Sharma’s walk through the dorm echoed Gibson’s, though Gibson had gone more slowly through the wide, empty halls, running a finger along the hip-height chair rail atop the wainscoting, still there under layers and layers of thick institutional white paint. “It was always a kind of shabby chic,” Gibson said. “But that was what I loved about it.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.