Looking southeast from the Durham County courthouse, 07.15.68.
(Courtesy of The Herald-Sun newspaper)
The Venable Tobacco Company complex remains one of the most significant examples of an independent tobacco processing company remaining in Durham. The complex has twice-been adaptively reused
— first as leased space by artists, architectural salvage, and flea markets — and, most recently, as renovated office space for biotech companies, the local independent newspaper, and the City of Durham. While the churches, houses, and businesses of Hayti once stretched to the southeast of the complex, Venable Center today constitutes the last remaining set of historic structures between the railroad tracks, Blackwell St., Fayetteville St., and the Durham Freeway.
Venable Warehouse (1905)
In 1905, the two northern bays of the Venable Tobacco Company Warehouse (now known as Dibrell B and C) were built by Durham Tobacco and Inspection Company (DTS&I), newly incorporated by the Dibrell Brothers of Virgina and a Winston-Salem based partner, Sterling Smith. An L-shape, masonry and ironclad “Dry House” was added next to the older prize house, on the site of the existing Prizery; these were also leased to Venable Tobacco. It contained an engine and boiler drying apparatus, power screw, shafting and belting, and other equipment. By 1913, the third, southern bay of the Venable warehouse (now known as Dibrell A) had been constructed, and the masonry and ironclad “Dry House” had been expanded with additional iron- clad construction to form “Prizery no. 1.” The old prize house had either been incorporated into the expanded building or had been destroyed.
In July 1922, a new Venable Tobacco Company was incorporated under the laws of North Carolina. The firm was directed and owned by individuals from families prominent in the Durham tobacco industry: Clinton W. Toms, Jr., James S. Cobb, and his son J. O. Cobb. The Dibrell Brothers, however, retained a major interest in the firm.
Redrying machinery — notably the Mayo dryer — came into use in the first decade of the century; between the boom years of 1916 and 1929, many companies enlarged their redrying and storage facilities. Usually of fireproof or fire retardant construction, redrying plants required expensive equipment, including engines, boilers, and prizing apparatus, as well as specialized and unskilled labor. The high initial investment and fixed costs of these operations meant that only larger firms could afford them.
The Prizery (ca. 1930) and Receiving Room (1952)
The Prizery was rebuilt as a three-story structure of slow burn construction - the building that exists today. Maps indicate that this occurred between 1922 and 1937; the architecture of the building suggests a construction date circa 1930. A large, two-story metal-clad redrying plant and a building for stemming and hanging appear to have been built at the same time as the new prizery. All of these buildings, along with a boiler room, are identified on maps of the complex from 1913. The enlarged complex indicates a dramatically expanded capacity for the company.
Prizeries or "prize houses" began to proliferate after the Civil War, as bright leaf tobacco replaced the older dark leaf variety. Because there were few local markets in North Carolina, dark leaf tobacco had to be transported over long distances to Virginia markets. Growers sorted their leaves simply, according to size, and pressed or “prized” them in part to make transportation more manageable. With the introduction of bright leaf tobacco, grading became more complicated, and growers were encouraged to bring their tobacco “loose” – unsorted and ungraded - to local auctions. Tobacco brokers bought green, bright leaf tobacco at the famous "loose leaf auctions" held at local sales warehouses. They transferred their purchases to prize houses, which they often owned and which often had attached redrying facilities. Here, the tobacco was sorted and redried in redrying machines, taken off the sticks, and "prized" or pressed into hogsheads. It was then transferred to a warehouse where it would be aged until ready for shipment to manufacturers.
In 1952, a one-story Receiving Room was added to the south facade of The Prizery. The need for added capacity suggests increased demand from markets opened up after World War II. The location of the addition allowed access from Poplar Street via service doors on the east and west facades. Loading facilities oriented toward the road, rather than the railway, suggest the shift that had occurred by this date in the transport of tobacco.
Along with the Venable Warehouse, The Prizery and Receiving Room accommodated important stages of production between the farmer and the factory. The buildings form one of the few surviving complexes in Durham dedicated to these intermediate processes of the tobacco trade. As such, they bear testimony to the volume and prestige of the commerce that made Durham the tobacco capital of the world.
In 1969, the stemming and hanging building, redrying building, and cooper shop were destroyed by an immense fire. After the fire, and tobacco had to be shipped to Danville for redrying. In the early 1970’s, Venable Tobacco merged with several Dibrell Brothers companies, taking the name of one of these, C. W. Walters. The complex continued to function as a tobacco facility until the early 1980's.
At that time, the property was purchased by West Brothers Trucking Company, which partitioned the interior for use as office spaces. The Prizery operated as the Venable Business Center, providing tenant space for a number of commercial tenants. The warehouse building was used by a variety of tenants as well, most notably a number of construction/architectural salvage businesses, beginning with the Summer Beam and the Building Recycling Center, and later by Peters' Design Works.
In 2002, Andy Rothschild and Scientific Properties purchased the complex, and in 2004 began renovation of The Prizery building and Receiving Room. These renovations were completed in 2006, and the structures currently house offices and, since 2008, Somerhill Gallery in the Receiving Room.
Scientific Properties began construction on the warehouse building (Dibrell A, B and C) in mid 2007, and completed shell construction by December 2007. The building currently houses two city departments: the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the Equal Opportunity, Equity Assurance Department, and will soon house additional office tenants like Hutson Law.
Visit the Endangered Durham blog for more on the history of Venable Center