Skip to main content Skip to home page

Familiar Faces: Discovering the Dukes of Rough Point

On the morning of my first day at NRF as the Laird Museum Studies Intern, I nearly missed my exit.  When I pulled onto the I-95 South ramp from Providence, I realized that if I just kept driving, the interstate would take me all the way down the Eastern Seaboard to North Carolina.  In just a couple days on the road, I could walk through Duke University’s campus, the magnificent Gothic wonderland that I call home; I could be reunited with my friends working in Durham for the summer; I could return to my regular campus job at the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.  Restless with first-day jitters and unsure what my summer in Newport might hold, I must admit I was tempted by the absurd idea to just keep driving.

Never fear—I made it to work on time.  For a student interested in museum work and public history, a summer internship at a place like Rough Point is kind of the dream.  It doesn’t hurt that Rough Point belonged to the Dukes, the family that gave both their name and their generous financial support to the university I love so dearly.  My first week I was tasked with familiarizing myself with Newport history, NRF’s mission, and the incredible collections at all of our public properties.  I took this instruction to mean marveling at the beautiful gardens, spectacular handcrafted furniture, and priceless artwork at both Whitehorne House and Rough Point Museums.  It shouldn’t have surprised me that Doris Duke’s home is full to bursting with reminders of Duke University, but to my delight, I am discovering that these two places are connected in more than name.

The first of these reminders waits in Rough Point’s kitchen, tucked against the wall to the right as one comes through the doorway.  It certainly was not the first thing I noticed—that was the view, a glorious vista of sun, sea, and stone.  And compared to the large hearth and polished refrigerator, the two-foot-tall box covered in plain white porcelain tiles can seem unremarkable.  But this rectangular chest is a cigar humidor, an appliance that holds the key to the fortune that helped create both Rough Point and Duke University.[1]

James B. Duke transformed his father’s business into the supremely successful American Tobacco Company, which at one time produced 90% of the tobacco products sold in the United States.[2]  Mr. Duke had expanded the enterprise enough to withstand the Sherman Anti-Trust Act—Duke Energy is the most well-known example of this diversification—and he continued as one of the richest men in the world for the rest of his life.  In 1924 he established the Duke Endowment, a $40 million trust fund created to support several Southern hospitals, churches, and schools, including Trinity College, which was promptly renamed in honor of the Duke family.  $19 million was made immediately available for the construction of the university’s new campus, and at Mr. Duke’s death in 1925, he bestowed an additional $67 million to the Duke Endowment.[3]

After his charitable donations, the bulk of the Duke fortune was left to his only child, Doris, who was just twelve years old.  The “richest little girl in the world” grew up to continue her father’s legacy, both in philanthropy and collecting artwork to fill houses like Rough Point with priceless treasures.  The seemingly-unremarkable cigar humidor, tucked into the corner of the kitchen, is a concrete reminder of the tobacco industry and fortune that made places like Rough Point and Duke University possible.

There are plenty of other connections to Duke, too many for a single blog post.  There are names printed on signs at Rough Point that I recognize from my research into the construction of Duke University with the Franklin Humanities Institute last summer: Horace Trumbauer’s architectural firm designed both James and Nanaline Duke’s modifications to Rough Point and Duke University’s West Campus; Frederick Law Olmsted orchestrated the beautiful landscaping at Rough Point and his sons continued his legacy with their designs for Duke’s campus.[4],[5]

The list continues: the magnificent 16th century tapestries hanging in Rough Point’s dining room used to hang in the reading room of the Duke University library.[6]  James B. Duke’s portrait displayed at the top of the main stairs at the museum is identical to his portrait hanging in the Gothic Reading room— and also matches the stance of his statue at the center of Duke’s Abele Quad, complete with cigar in hand.[7]  Upstairs, the exhibit “Beyond Fortune: The Life & Legacy of Doris Duke” features a photograph of the Duke Tobacco Company storefront that I recognize from the University Archives.[8]  No matter which room of the house or part of the gardens I may be strolling through, it seems that Duke University is never too far away.

Whenever I get on I-95 South, I still think about how the interstate could take me right back to Durham.  Or, I could continue with my commute, cross the Claiborne Pell Bridge, and walk through the house where reminders of the school that I call home wait for me around every corner.

 

Gretchen Wright is the Emily A. Laird Museum Studies Intern for the summer, as well as a rising senior at Duke University studying English and Classical Studies.  Come to Rough Point, Whitehorne House Museum, or Prescott Farm and ask her about Duke!  She can’t wait to discuss Gilded Age mansions, historical preservation, and the highs and lows of college basketball with you.

 

[1] http://www.newportrestoration.org/room/kitchen/; http://newportalri.org/items/show/18388

[2] Patrick G. Porter, “Origins of the American Tobacco Company,” The Business History Review 43, no. 1 (1969): 1.

[3] William E. King, “Duke University: A Brief Narrative History,” Duke University Archives, accessed 11 June 2019, https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/uarchives/history/articles/narrative-history.

[4] “History of Rough Point,” Newport Restoration Foundation, accessed 11 June 2019, http://www.newportrestoration.org/roughpoint/history/.

[5] Mark Hough, “Duke Landscape Designed by Landscape Architecture Greats,” Duke Today, 25 April 2012, https://today.duke.edu/2012/04/landscapemonth.

[6] http://www.newportalri.org/items/show/18377; http://www.newportrestoration.org/room/dining-room/

[7] http://newportalri.org/items/show/7029

[8] http://www.newportrestoration.org/exhibit/beyond-fortune/

Photos courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Back to top