Pavilion may replace historic Duke Park bathhouse

jwise@newsobserver.comFebruary 18, 2014 

  • In times past

    The Duke Park bathhouse and the swimming pool it served were built through the federal Depression-relief Works Progress Administration and opened in 1934

    According to accounts at the time, some 5,000 Durham residents were on hand when the city opened its “modern alternative to the ‘old swimmin’ hole.’ ” Olympic champion Helen Sterling gave a diving exhibition for the occasion.

    The pool became a summertime focal point for Durham’s white population. (Until city pools were integrated in June 1963, blacks were restricted to the pool at Hillside Park across town.) Generations of Durham’s youth, learned to swim there. Spectators watched swim meets and the annual Water Pageant from a concrete grandstand.

    The grandstand remains, though covered in places by eroded dirt supporting weeds. Recurring maintenance problems led the city to close the pool itself in 1993. Three years later, the city proposed razing the bathhouse to build a new entrance plaza as part of a parks bond package, but though the bond package won voter approval the plaza was never built.

    Since then, the bathhouse has stood unused - except, for several years, storing old parking tickets and water bills and, more recently, a few props for the neighborhood’s annual Beaver Queen Pageant. Only the restrooms remained open, and they were regular targets of vandalism that dissuaded many park patrons from using them. The city has recently installed new restrooms at the park.

  • Budgeting

    The City Council holds public hearings on the 2014-15 city budget during its regular meetings March 3 and June 2.

    Meetings, in the City Hall Council Chambers, begin at 7 p.m. You’re welcome to attend, or watch live on Cable channel 8 or the city website,

    If you would like to speak at a public hearing,, sign up in advance by contacting the City Clerk’s office at 919-560-4166, or fill out a "Speakers’ List" card from the clerk's desk in Council Chambers before a meeting starts.

    Remaining “Coffee With Council” meetings are:

    •  March 8: 10 a.m.-noon, Campus Hill Recreation Center, 2000 S. Alston Ave.

    •  March 13: 5:30-7:30 p.m., City Hall - Council Committee Room

    •  March 15: 9:30-11:30 a.m. – Holton Career and Resource Center, Child Care Center, 401 N. Driver St.

— There’s a new idea in the air about what to do with the historic, but dilapidated, bathhouse in Duke Park: open it up to the air.

Instead of rehabilitating the bathhouse, built in 1934 for a swimming pool that no longer exists, city General Services Director Joel Reitzer has suggested turning into an open-air pavilion. The idea has caught on among neighbors.

“I live in the neighborhood and really like the city’s basic concept of creating a large pavilion, It could be used for events ranging from picnics to outdoor movies to the popular Beaver Pageant,” Christine Westfall said.

“I regret that we didn't get an enclosed facility as we were originally thinking, but a pavilion is a move forward at least,” said Pam Campa.

“Something is better than nothing,” agreed Sandi Gray-Terry. “We have many neighbors who don't even know there was a pool there, which is why we have a bathhouse in the first place.”

Duke Park, just off Interstate 85 and Roxboro Street, was donated to the city by Brodie Duke, eldest son of tobacco magnate Washington Duke and has been a well-used spot since opening.

“Folks come here from all over the city and the county to use our park,” said Gray-Terry. “I have friends with young boys who come from Treyburn to have a great place for their kids to play.”

A swimming pool and bathhouse were the park’s first amenities, opened in 1934, and served until recurrent maintenance problems led to the pool’s closing in 1993. The bathhouse, though, remained and residents and preservationists urged the city to restore it for historic value and possible use as a community center.

According to Duke Park Neighborhood Association President Dan Read, “a lot of angst and effort” went into bathhouse-preservation efforts.

The City Council held a lengthy discussion on it in 2011 ( Neighbors offered to raise money to match a city appropriation. In 2012, Preservation Durham put the bathhouse on its “Places in Peril” list (

Nothing came to pass. Then, last October, Reitzer and Parks and Recreation Director Rhonda Parker went to a Duke Park Neighborhood Association.

“They wanted to advance the subject of restoration,” Reitzer said. “We did recount the fact we’ve already had the architect do a study on the restoration, and it was very expensive.” More than $1 million, he said.

Given that the park doesn’t have a swimming pool any more, Reitzer, said last week, he suggested “other types of uses ... a picnic shelter, perhaps.” Salvageable material from the bathhouse might be re-used and a historic plaque or marker placed.

“Really celebrate what was but move on,” he said. “There is always a need for shade and a place for people to convene.”

While the neighbors talked the thought over, Reitzer was doodling. “I’m an architect and architects doodle,” he said. His “doodle” showed a long, low open structure, its outline similar to that of the bathhouse, with a substantial fireplace near one end reminiscent of a bathhouse ventilation stack.

“They really embraced the pavilion idea,” Reitzer said.

Even Duke Parker Bill Anderson, for years the bathhouse restoration’s most vocal lobbyist, has endorsed the pavilion – and made a pitch for money to make it happen last week during a “Coffee With Council” meeting on the 2014-15 city budget.

“It's an affordable option that won't require much maintenance but will provide a recreational venue for countless Durhamites for years to come,” he said.

Anderson and neighborhood association President Dan Read used the association’s email list to encourage a show of support at the meeting. Anderson was the only speaker, because, Gray-Terry said, the neighborhood didn’t want Duke Park to take up too much meeting time; but as soon as he finished, she said, “12 to 15” audience members held up signs reading “Duke Park Bathhouse.”.

“It definitely was a show of support,” said Councilman Steve Schewel.

Later in the week Councilman Don Moffitt said a pavilion “would be a really good addition” to the park.

“That’s the direction I think we’re headed right now,” said Reitzer, who added, “One of the things I want to make sure we do on this pavilion is proceed with caution” and make sure the project is well publicized – so no one can complain they didn’t know about it after the pavilion becomes a done deal.

Duke Parker Westfall said that’s important, too.

“If city staff solicit solid neighborhood input before they finalize the design, the pavilion could be a flexible structure that serves the whole city well,” she said.

“The area already is a natural amphitheatre due to the hill and stone seating that faces the bathhouse. It’s easy to imagine that after the renovation it could become the ‘Forest Theatre’ of Durham,” she said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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