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Building a Dream: Forest Beginnings

Decades ago, The Forest at Duke was merely a beautiful vision – a dream not yet born into reality. It began in the minds of a group of neighbors in Duke Forest, with Dr. and Mrs. James Crapo leading efforts to see it become a tangible community.

The Crapos, along with their friends and supporters, took note of an available tract of land adjacent to their own neighborhood. The 42 acres, they envisioned, could one day house a full service, continuing care retirement community – one where many of them could ultimately move in and thrive.

The first Forest logo, created toward the beginning of its history.
The original Forest logo, created by R. Powell, Inc. in March 1989.

The Forest wasn’t built in a day

Beginning in 1980, the group spent roughly ten years working to acquire the tract of land. At the same time, they designed their dream for the eventual groundbreaking of The Forest. That decade of incredible effort soon paid off.

1989 was a landmark year for the community, as its original logo was created, the first sales counselors joined the marketing team (back when the marketing office was housed on University Drive), and The Forest was declared a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. Additionally, architects Calloway Johnson Moore, PA presented their final building floor plans to more than 240 priority depositors at July open houses.

By September, a sign identifying The Forest was erected on Pickett Road, and in December, the architects were ready to showcase their Community Center floor plans.

An early rendering of the front façade of The Forest.

Breaking ground

On July 19, 1990 – a warm and sunny Thursday – 250 people gathered under yellow-striped tents to attend the ground breaking ceremony and celebration. The crowd included many prospective residents, friends, and key figures in The Forest’s beginnings, like the project directors, members of the Board of Directors, the project manager, and the managing contractor.

The joy and excitement in the air as the first shovels full of dirt were turned over were palpable. As an article from The Forest at Duke Newsletter, Vol. 1 No. 3, recalls, “A couple of Duke classmates, Class of ’37, greeted each other and found they will soon be neighbors. Another guest reported hearing the voice of his best friend from 20 years ago. Their careers had taken them in separate directions; now they and their wives will be among The Forest’s founding residents.”

Construction commences

A construction photo taken in the Forest's early history.
This picture, taken shortly after the commencement of construction, shows the edge of The Forest’s property line. Pickett Road is on the right.

After the ceremony, it didn’t take long for the work to begin. On August 20, 1990, crews started clearing and grading the land and cutting the necessary roadways. However, they took special care to save the trees that buffered the property. Additionally, historic tobacco barns, to be kept for a picnic site and storage, were left standing at the southwest corner of the tract, next to the pond.

The work – a sizable undertaking – was expected to be finished rather quickly. After all, the contract with the managing and general contractor specified that the project be substantially completed within 700 days of its beginning.

Financing for this incredible vision was furnished through the sales of tax-exempt bonds, provided by the North Carolina Medical Care Commission (NCMCC), under the State Department of Human Resources’ Division of Facility Services. At the end of October 1990, about $53 million of these bonds went on sale, with many sold to prospective Forest residents. At the time, The Forest at Duke received the largest bond issue ever authorized by the NCMCC for such a project.

Workers moved quickly to clear and grade the land for construction. Look closely on the left to see the original tobacco barns standing in the distance.

An innovative concept

In September, just weeks after the project got its official start, The Forest’s marketing team proudly announced that sales had reached the 90% mark. Finally, the community – the land, the buildings, and the people – was becoming a reality!

The Forest at Duke was already ahead of its time in terms of its building concept. Per Project Manager Karen Montgomery, “To best serve our residents, services and amenities need to be under one roof. The architect has achieved this by creating a series of three interconnected buildings that encompass the 160 apartments, the Community Center, and the Health Center.”

A landscape to remember

While engineers, consultants, contractors, and construction crews were hard at work, so too was landscape architect Doug Stimmel of Stimmel and Associates. Doug’s primary objective was to “create a lasting natural environment, conducive to gracious retirement living.” With that in mind, he set out to beautify the grounds while saving as many of The Forest’s original trees as possible.

The original job site sign detailing each of the contractors responsible for the many facets of The Forest’s creation.

Doug’s plan included a grand vision to match the original dream of the Crapos and their Duke Forest neighbors and friends. He added evergreen and deciduous trees and planted a variety of flowering shrubs and hedges to bring year-round color to the community. He also crafted courtyards all around the apartments, planted a rose garden adjacent to the formal dining area, and traced walking paths throughout the grounds.

Doug made way for cottage residents to have incredible views, too. Wax myrtles, sugar maples, crepe myrtles, and magnolias filled the cottage grounds. Additionally, green thumbs could plant their own blooms in fresh garden plots.

Construction workers stand back to appreciate the bare bones of the Community Center.

Wrapping things up

The months passed and construction and landscaping efforts continued. The marketing team worked hard to keep up with the high interest of prospective Forest community members. Incoming residents included retired professors, military officials, and business executives, to name a few. About 38% were Durham natives, and 25% were from other parts of the Triangle. Still another 37% made their way to North Carolina from 25 states across the country. The Forest’s first marketing director, Linda Bennett, described the remarkable retirees as “a cosmopolitan group of people.”

In August 1992, just a few weeks shy of the community’s grand opening, The Forest held its very first activity: a construction party! Donning bright yellow hard hats, residents-to-be enjoyed a tour of the nearly complete construction site.

Unfinished cottages, still well in progress, border dirt-tracked roads inside the construction zone.

Right on time, The Forest’s 280,000 square foot main complex was complete and ready for the first arrivals. 80 cottages, surrounded by paved roads and an earthen berm with a privacy fence, sat primed for occupants.

The Forest becomes home

The first residents, two couples, moved into The Forest at Duke on Tuesday, September 1, 1992; Dr. George and Mrs. Ginny Ferguson made their way onto Silver Maple Court, while Dr. Everett and Mrs. Bernice Hopkins took up residence on Forest at Duke Drive. By this time, The Forest already employed about 70 team members.

Late ’80s and early ’90s model cars line the parking lot in front of the construction of the Forest apartments.

The first two months after The Forest officially opened its doors were busy, to say the least. During that early period, three or four move-ins took place every single day. New residents quickly unpacked and learned their way around the community. With a new Activities Director on board, the calendar filled up with extensive offerings inside and outside The Forest.

On campus, the party room, library, classroom, art studio, pool, exercise room, and auditorium were often in use. Though outside visitors taught a lot of the classes, residents led many of the activities themselves. Residents also enjoyed visiting local sites of interest and attending performances of Broadway at Duke, the Carolina Playmakers, and the Duke Artists Series.

The Health Center opens its doors

Under a contract with Duke University Medical Center, the Health Center opened in October 1992. The Olsen Center for skilled nursing accepted residents first, followed by the Holbrook Center for assisted living in January 1993.

Dedication of the two centers took place on November 20, 1992, each one named in honor of James and Kathy Crapo’s mothers, Melba Olsen Crapo and Helen Holbrook Dahlquist.

Growing at the speed of love

Making great progress!

With the main grounds and buildings on site established, Forest residents quickly set to work. They created an active, fun, and exciting community for themselves, with the enthusiastic support of friendly team members.

The residents brought rich histories and personal traditions to their new home. Soon, they set about crafting a dream retirement setting. A woodworking shop opened on campus, and a beauty and barber shop soon followed. Residents organized themselves into a Residents’ Association, creating and accepting a Constitution and Bylaws.

Behind the fence: a wide view of the Community Center and surrounding apartments.

A greenhouse added yet another lovely touch to the campus. Soon, an area of garden plots – now known as the Community Garden – popped up behind the line of cottages on Forest at Duke Drive. The swimming pool opened in February 1993, followed by the gift shop. Additionally, the rose garden became the setting for many exciting events and activities. Residents organized a number of special interest groups and committees, many of which continue to gather today.

The Forest at capacity

On September 1, 1994, The Forest at Duke celebrated its second anniversary. At this time, with 352 residents, homes at The Forest completely sold out and a wait list began.

The community had taken its place as a leader in the Triangle. Known for supporting the arts, The Forest hosted numerous events and volunteered many hours to community programs and organizations.

Embracing the past with hope for the future

An overhead view of The Forest at Duke, newly constructed and ready for new residents. This photo shows the property from Pickett Road.

Over the past 27 years, The Forest has seen many changes. At least one thing has remained constant, though: the original vision.

A dream that began in the hearts and minds of some Duke University faculty members and neighbors in 1980 continues to bloom and prosper. Thanks to the efforts of our founders, the passion of our 277 team members, and the spirit of our 324 residents, The Forest community is thriving beautifully.

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

Header image: An early overhead view, taken from above 15-501, shows the new construction
of The Forest at Duke. The picture also illustrates the wooded, largely natural state of
Pickett Road before much of the development we've seen over the years.
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