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Duke’s Central Campus Burns – With a Purpose

October 24, 2019

Sometimes the best thing you can do with an old building is burn it to the ground – especially if you’re assistant chief of training for the Durham Fire Department.

Chief Willie Hall will get that opportunity over the next two months. The Durham Fire Department is working with Duke University to burn the old Duke Central Campus apartments for training firefighters, the biggest training exercise the department has seen in decades.

construction on Duke's Central Campus
Construction of the Central Campus apartments began in 1972. Photo courtesy of Duke University Archives.

Duke acquired the land for Central Campus in 1964 from Erwin Mills, a hosiery factory, although it didn’t immediately settle on using the land for housing. The Central Campus apartments were built in the 1970s as one, two and three-bedroom spaces with their own kitchens and bathrooms for graduate students and their families. In the 80s, the apartments were used for undergraduates as well. Selective Living Groups (fraternity, sorority and social selective groups) were housed on Central Campus, and while it was close to the main areas of campus, it was separate and calmer. Undergraduates continued to live on Central Campus throughout the 90s and 2000s.

Now, though, the Central Campus apartment buildings are beyond their lifespan. The last students moved out of Central Campus in May 2019, and the new 700-bed Hollows buildings came online in the fall to accommodate Duke undergraduates.

While the apartments are no longer usable, Duke will retain the land. Some will be used to expand Duke Gardens and some as temporary employee parking. Administrators have not shared longer-term plans for the Central Campus land.

A task force studying the future of Central Campus said in its executive summary the property is “a valuable asset and should be reserved for future strategic and opportunistic uses supportive of and consistent with the university’s mission.”

Most buildings on Central Campus will be demolished. The Fire Prevention Division flagged the demolition as a training possibility, standard practice for any major demolition.

firefighter standing in front of a burning building
A Durham Fire Department firefighter watches as a Central Campus apartment building burns on Oct. 24. Photo courtesy of Duke Facilities Management Department.

Duke and the Durham Fire Department worked together to get the appropriate city and state permits. They thought through safety precautions, like making sure asbestos remediation was complete and ensuring sufficient water supply.

Kyle Cavanaugh, the vice president of administration at Duke, coordinated arrangements with the Durham Fire Department.

“This will provide unique and helpful training for those that are entrusted with protection and saving lives in our community,” Cavanaugh said.

A large apartment complex for this training exercise is a unique boon for the fire department, which usually trains using single-family residences. They rarely get to train in buildings with multiple floors, varied rooflines, shared attic space and multiple points of entry.

“This is a once-in-a-career opportunity to train a whole department,” Chief Hall said. “It will be the biggest magnitude training event in my 32 years on the force.”

From October through December, all of the 400-plus members of the Durham Fire Department will train in the buildings. They’ll light fires in the buildings and treat them just as they would in a real fire: pulling hoses, setting up ladders, forcing entry and conducting search and rescue.

People in the area surrounding Central Campus may see and smell smoke on the training days, and traffic will be limited in the area. The fire department says that access along Anderson Street, Alexander Avenue, and Oregon Street should not be affected. The first training burn is happening this week, Oct. 24-26, and future training burns may change depending on the weather but are tentatively set for:

  • Nov. 14-15
  • Nov. 20-23
  • Nov. 25-27

Jackson Steger, who lived on Central for two years and graduated from Duke in 2018, said the burning of Central Campus isn’t making him nostalgic.

“Honestly, I say good riddance,” he said. “I don’t have a problem getting rid of something old in order to make way for something new.”

A version of this post was published by Duke Today.