The Gothic Reading Room of Perkins Library serves as a gallery of prominent figures in Duke University’s history. Portraits of Washington Duke, James Buchanan Duke, and Benjamin Newton Duke are surrounded by those of trustees of The Duke Endowment, Duke’s previous presidents, and other notable figures in the history of the university.
When the General Library opened in 1930, well-known artist Douglas Chandor was commissioned to paint portraits of The Duke Endowment trustees, Mary Duke Biddle and Nanaline Duke, and the architect and builder of the campus. Between 1930 and 1932, the portraits were completed and hung in what was then known as the General Library’s reference room, as well as in other surrounding spaces.
In 1966, construction began on an addition to the General Library, and the library was named for Judge William R. Perkins, friend and legal counsel to James B. Duke. In 1969, at the completion of the renovation, reference services were moved and the old reference room became a study area known as the Gothic Reading Room.
In 1985, with the support and guidance of Charles B. Wade, Jr. and Mary D. B. T. Semans, the Gallery of Presidents was created in the Gothic Reading Room to display portraits of the presidents of Duke and its precursor institutions. Existing portraits of William Preston Few and Robert Lee Flowers were joined by newly-commissioned portraits of Marquis Lafayette Wood, Brantley York, Douglas M. Knight, A. Hollis Edens, Terry Sanford, and J. Deryl Hart. Portraits of Braxton Craven, John Franklin Crowell, and John Carlisle Kilgo were brought from other parts of the university, cleaned and restored, and placed in the Gothic Reading Room.
Over the years, a few portraits have been removed from the Gothic Reading Room. Chandor’s portrait of Mary Duke Biddle was moved to the Biddle Rare Book Room. Nanaline Duke’s portrait was placed in the Medical Science building named for her. For a time during the 1950s, a portrait of Artelia Roney Duke, second wife of Washington Duke, hung in the reference room while on loan from Elon College. A portrait of William R. Perkins was sent to Texas for a display marking the 100th anniversary of Chandor’s birth. The portrait now hangs in the office of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, North Carolina.
When presidents Keith Brodie and Nannerl Keohane retired, their portraits were added to the presidential gallery. Other additions over the years have been portraits of Mary D. B. T. Semans and John Hope Franklin, both trustees of The Duke Endowment.
In 2013, as part of the Rubenstein Library renovations, the portraits were moved to storage, where they will remain until the end of the renovations. When the Gothic Reading Room reopens, the portraits will be returned.
The survey of these portraits was funded by a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation