Chapel Hill Historic District

Chapel Hill Town, Orange County, NC

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The Chapel Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡]

From the earliest days of North Carolina's history as a state, its leaders planned to establish a state university. Article 41 of the Constitution of North Carolina, ratified December 18, 1776, "provided for a school or schools, with the instructors' salaries financed by the public, and provided further that "all useful learning shall be encouraged and promoted in one or more universities." Not until 1789, when the legislature passed bills presented by William R. Davie of Halifax County for establishing and chartering a state university, and suitable financial arrangements were made, did the establishment of the university begin to become a reality. A committee was chosen by the board of trustees to select an appropriate site, to be near the center of the state. The committee investigated several locations. New Hope Chapel Hill, named after nearby Anglican New Hope Chapel, was chosen partly as a result of the efforts of Hillsborough's James Hogg, who favored that location and urged friends in the Orange County area to make generous offers of land and money. On December 3, 1792, the committee unanimously recommended Chapel Hill as the seat of the university.

The trustees laid out the campus carefully, developing a comprehensive plan that included the campus, broad expanses for park, and the town area. The central plan involved two wide strips of land at right angles to each other, to be used as park areas, one going east toward Point Prospect and the other establishing the primary axis for the campus. It was a time when the builders of the new country sought to lay out plans on an ambitious scale appropriate to the great democracy of their ideals. The trustees of the new university "with vision and insight," fortunately "conceived in comprehensive design and massive proportion" a plan that would be appropriate not only for the time they could foresee but also for the much wider needs of the twentieth century.

Despite the large scale of their plans, the physical beginnings of the university were quite modest. On January 15, 1795, the University of North Carolina became the first state university to open its doors. It consisted of Old East, an unpainted president's house, and a pile of lumber. The faculty (Dr. David Ker, a graduate of Trinity College Dublin) waited until February 12 for the arrival of the student body (Hinton James of then New Hanover County). By the end of the first term, July 15, forty-one students were enrolled. The growth of the university, run for a time by the trustees and a "presiding professor," was slow. Finances were often uncertain for the "university's original endowment consisted of old claims on sheriffs and other officers, and escheats, including unclaimed land warrants granted to Continental soldiers," collection of which was often difficult. But "by constant struggle and periodic appeals for private benefactions, the institution grew despite general poverty, opposition to taxation, denominational hostility, and sectional controversies." Throughout the early part of the nineteenth century, the university remained very small, but under the presidency of Joseph Caldwell (1804-1812, 1817-1835), the institution grew "from a small classical school into a creditable college." In 1826, when Professor James Phillips arrived to teach mathematics, the faculty consisted, in addition to Caldwell, of Elisha Mitchell (Chemistry and Mineralogy), Nicholas M. Hentz (Modern Languages), and William Hooper (Classics). The village of Chapel Hill which depended upon the university was correspondingly tiny, with a population consisting of these faculty families, a few tutors, and a small number of people who ran boardinghouses, a blacksmith shop, and a store.

The second third of the century, under the presidency of former governor David L. Swain, saw considerable growth. Swain "did much to popularize the University over the whole State and to build up its endowment." Increasing wealth in the state led to a rising number of men being sent to college. In 1836 the student body numbered 89; in 1839, 169, and in the next decades, the Gold Rush and the wider cultivation of cotton stimulated the economy further, with the result that in 1849 there were 191 students; in 1854, 324; and in 1857, 461.

During the period before the Civil War, President Swain took a growing interest in the appearance of the campus. Distinguished architects were employed to design buildings and improve the landscaping, notably Alexander Jackson Davis of New York, who had designed the North Carolina Capitol (1832-1844), and William Percival, who had designed a number of structures in the region. Professor Elisha Mitchell (an indefatigably curious and energetic scientist who measured Mt. Mitchell, establishing it as the highest point in the eastern United States) suggested that the innumerable stones that dotted the land might be gathered up to make low stone walls (like those of his native New England) to beautify the campus and keep out wandering livestock. This project, with Swain's support, went on for many years and inspired the townspeople to build similar walls around their lots. The low stone walls that are today a part of Chapel Hill Historic District's charm derive from Mitchell's project.

Paralleling the growth of the campus, the village of Chapel Hill also grew during Swain's administration. When Swain arrived in 1836, the village had "but one store; physician; no schools; no churches; no pastor; no lawyer, [By the end of his presidency there were] eight or ten flourishing stores; four handsome churches; ...half a dozen schools; ...and handsome residences had sprung up all over the town..."

The coming of the Civil War, however, had a drastic effect on university and village alike. By the 1864-1865 academic year the student body was reduced to about fifty, but Swain refused to close the university, and it remained open throughout the war. In April, 1865, Chapel Hill was occupied first by Confederate cavalry and then by Federal troops under General Smith B. Atkins (who, to the horror of most of the village, fell in love with and married President Swain's daughter, Ellie, which led to hard feelings against Swain and the university in the bitter post-war days). Little damage was done to Chapel Hill; Swain had previously talked with Sherman about sparing the village and campus from destruction. After the war the university was denounced by Unionists and former Confederates alike, each of whom saw it as harboring reprehensible ideas. Conditions went from bad to worse. The university was closed; Republican Governor W.W. Holden ousted Swain and replaced him with Solomon Pool. The university was reopened and operated for a short time under Reconstructionist control. The campus was ill-used, the quality of instruction was low, the student body decreased, and the village population rapidly dwindled. Finally in 1871 the university closed again. Only a few people living in poverty remained in Chapel Hill, which was aptly called "the Deserted Village."

Friends and alumni of the antebellum university were determined to reopen it. After a "heroic fight," led by long-time Chapel Hill resident, Cornelia Spencer, and future president, Kemp Battle, who struggled against heavy debts and considerable ill will, the university was at last reopened, March 20, 1875, by an act of the legislature providing financial support from the interest on Land Scrip Funds. The story is told that when the good news was sent to Chapel Hill from Raleigh, "Dr, Battle and Mrs. Spencer...went up to the dilapidated, shuttered college, where grass grew in the paths and cobwebs hung in the empty classrooms, and the two of them pulled the tattered rope and rang the bell in the Old South Building. For a solid hour they rang it, laughing and crying, and the whole town heard the joyous peals and knew that the good days had come again."

The growth of the reopened university was "leisurely but steady." Under the leadership of President Kemp Battle (1876-1891) and other presidents who followed him, the campus, student body, and activities of the university expanded, although money was still hard to come by. It was not until 1881 that the General Assembly appropriated public funds for the maintenance of the university. In the early twentieth century, the university's finances became more secure, and its reputation for "scholarship and freedom in research and teaching" grew. In 1932 the Chapel Hill campus became part of the Consolidated University of North Carolina, which included campuses at other cities as well. Many times during its history, the university has been charged with being "a 'hotbed' of some 'ism' detested by the majority or masses or both: a hotbed of infidelism at various periods, a hotbed of Federalism, a hotbed of secessionism before and after the Civil War, a hotbed of Unionism afterward, a hotbed of Communism in recent years." At these times, one writer observes, "the self-assured dignity of the dowager village...stares down the yappers." For the most part, however, the university has remained a much-loved and respected center of education in the state. It has become as well a large and diversified university ranking among the foremost universities regionally and nationally.

Chapel Hill has always grown with the university. (Town planning officials estimate, year in and year out, roughly a 50-50 ratio between student body and townspeople.) It is today a small, busy, rather sophisticated town where, despite the rapid development of the campus, residential, and commercial areas, a vestige of its old intimacy remains, "its sociability interwoven with intellectual liberality." It is a town characterized by diversity, where the crustiest of the "old guard" may live just around the corner from the most flamboyant representatives of modern life styles. Yet common to nearly every element that makes up Chapel Hill's population is a strong awareness that it is indeed a special place of unique — and easily destroyed — charm. The citizens have worked hard, with a measure of success, to ensure that the "village atmosphere" is not destroyed by "progress." Despite the rapid growth of the university and the town, there are still many reminders, most of them appreciatively preserved, of the small, struggling village with its campus dotted by a few buildings, that stood in the midst of the forest over 150 years ago.

Dependent upon a university frequently plagued by financial hardship, Chapel Hill has never been a wealthy town. Most of its buildings are relatively modest; its landmarks are not grand or spectacular. Perhaps the most essential element of its heritage is an intangible one as important as any physical monument: From the earliest days to the present, Chapel Hill has inspired in those who have known it as students, residents, or visitors, a special fondness for it as a good place to be. The early residents of the village "always considered [it] a most satisfactory place to live. All the older folk who began their lives there unite in this testimony. When they left its shady groves they felt that they had left Arcadia behind them," Today, this feeling still exists: "None of us will go so far as to say that it possesses the tranquility and serenity of the Twenties, when Thomas Wolfe [and others) found adventure, melancholy, and beauty in their diverse pursuits on the old campus and the unexplored lands beyond..... It is not as small, and not quite as nice, but almost, and there is a whole new world of knowledge to be discovered here with the resources of mind and matter in abundance."


Allcott, John. "Outline of the University of North Carolina Historic District," Historical 1970. Unpublished paper in the files of the North Carolina Society.

Battle, Kemp Plummer. History of the University of North Carolina 1789-1863. Raleigh: Edward and Broughton Printing Company, 1907-12.

________. History of the University of North Carolina, 1868-1912. Raleigh: Edward and Broughton Printing Company, 1912.

Blake, Charles, "Notes on the Size of the Original Chapel Hill Lots," March 7, 1970. Unpublished paper in the files of the North Carolina Historical Society.

Henderson, Archibald. The Campus of the First State University. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949.

Johnson, Guion Griffis. Ante-Bellum North Carolina, A Social History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Lefler, Hugh Talmage and Newsome, Albert Ray. North Carolina: The History of a Southern State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Link, Arthur Stanley. A History of the Buildings at the University of North Carolina. Master's Thesis, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1941.

North Carolina, A Guide to the Old North State, American Guide Series of the Federal Writers' Project of the Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

Prince, William Meade. The Southern Part of Heaven. New York: Rinehart, 1950.

Russell, Phillips. "The Two Oldest Buildings on the Campus of U.N.C" Unpublished paper in files of North Carolina Historical Society.

Shumaker, James, and Campbell, Orville B., ed., Town and Gown, The University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill: The Chapel Hill Weekly, 1966-67, 1967-68, 1968-69.

Wilson, Louis R. "McCorkle Place, a Challenging Historic Site for Designation As A National Landmark." September 4, 1970. Unpublished paper in the files of the Preservation Committee of the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

‡ Survey Unit, John B. Wells, Supervisor, North Carolina State Department of Archives and History, Chapel Hill Historic District, Orange County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1971, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Battle Lane • Boundary Street South • Cameron Avenue East • Franklin Street East • Hillsborough Street • Hooper Lane • Raleigh Street • Rosemary Street East • Senlac Road

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