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Turning Over a New Leaf in Durham

American Tobacco District marks its 10th anniversary as a tobacco factory turned cultural mecca.

Founded by Washington Duke in 1890, the American Tobacco Company dominated the tobacco industry from its home base in Durham, North Carolina. After Duke was released from prison during the Civil War, he traveled 137 miles to his home in Durham, where he found Bright Leaf Tobacco still growing on his family farm. With the help of family members and friends, Duke’s tobacco hobby grew from a measly log cabin to a series of large factories that became known as “Duke & Sons.” Duke merged with four rival tobacco companies to become president of The American Tobacco Company.

waterAmerican Tobacco eventually acquired Lucky Strike and some 200 other rival firms to become the biggest tobacco company in the world. With Pall Mall and Tareyton also to its name — and promotion from Frank Sinatra — American Tobacco was king. The company renamed itself American Brands in 1986 and now goes by Fortune Brands.

Cigarettes are no longer made in Durham, but Duke (for whom Duke University is named) and American Tobacco’s legacy remains as a renovated entertainment district with restaurants, sporting events and live performances. Originally organized as an entrepreneurial location for tobacco business since 1865, this district is also home to the 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

This year, the American Tobacco District will celebrate a decade since its renovation and renaissance. “As American Tobacco District celebrates its tenth anniversary, we are committed as ever to create a world class venue for business, families, foodies, sports fans, theater lovers and residents,” says the district’s General Manager Rick Polley. “With a new hotel and visitors coming to campus this year, we are excited to kickstart the next 10 years of growth in our community.”

The district currently entertains more than a million visitors per year, and some 4,000 employees work at the campus every day. Many structures of the tobacco manufacturing process have been renovated and serve different purposes. Originally used as a coal shed, The Cage is now a basketball court equipped with rubber floors and bleachers — the perfect location for an impromptu game. For a more formal type of entertainment, the Full Frame Theater is used for various screenings and classes, though it was once the tobacco industry’s power plant. The iconic smokestack is now referred to as just The Stack — a casual location for concerts and hangouts.

Although some historic structures have been renovated, other buildings in the district serve a more functional purpose. Durham Performing Arts Center, or DPAC, is the Triangle’s primary location for live entertainment, listed No. 4 in performance attendance in the country in 2013. WUNC, North Carolina’s public radio, is also located in the complex, broadcasting live to 2 million North Carolinians every day.

But one of the most important and financially crucial elements of American Tobacco District is its restaurants. From Cuban to Italian and American, American Tobacco has a variety of dining options. After watching the Durham Bulls win a baseball game or a casual game of basketball at The Cage, Tyler’s Taproom and Tobacco Road Sports Cafe are two exceptional places to refuel and relax with friends. Some highly regarded burgers at Tobacco Road include the Carolina burger, the Durham Bull burger and the North Carolina Bison burger. Tyler’s Taproom is particularly known for its 70 beers on tap along with a speakeasy available to rent for buffet-style receptions. If you are attending a performance at DPAC, stop by Cuban Revolution.

cuban

For an entirely unexpected experience, visit The District at 410. This student-operated restaurant has chefs who double as students at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. The menu changes every 11 weeks to correspond with the semester schedule, but the students are known to create some tasty and exotic dishes.

The American Tobacco District is an exceptional area to explore and grasp a historic cultural experience, along with a taste for Durham’s finest restaurants. The District is constantly adding new entertainment and living options, including “Living: American Tobacco,” which offers apartments for rent and recently broke ground on an Aloft hotel that will be adjacent to DPAC. Moe’s Southwest Grill recently opened, and future restaurants include Ed Mitchell’s ‘Que and Which Wich.

As the weather warms up, plan to head to the district for a concert at the DPAC, inaugural Art of Cool jazz festival in April or a casual dinner with friends. Let the Lucky Strike water tower and smokestack rising toward the sky serve as a reminder of where American Tobacco has been and where it’s going.

Photos courtesy of American Tobacco District. 

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