UNC botanist William Chambers Coker bought the first of 230 acres that would become Coker Hills in the 1920s, intent on preserving a place where his students could explore and learn about nature.
“He fell in love with Chapel Hill when he came here,” said Jill Ridky Blackburn, whose recently released book, “Historic Coker Hills,” explores how Coker’s land became a shaded neighborhood off North Elliott Road. Proceeds will benefit the Chapel Hill Historical Society.
Blackburn begins the book with a broadly detailed look at the environment and history of the land, before delving into Coker’s life, from childhood walks with his father in South Carolina to his role as a UNC professor and Chapel Hillian.
“He loved the flora, the fauna, and he started identifying trees in the area,: she said. “He was an alderman at one point for the Town Council, and he would get very upset when anyone would try to cut down a tree in the downtown area. It’s so much of what we hear today.”
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After Coker died in 1953, others continued his environmental legacy and love for quality construction, Blackburn said. The book also tells the stories of those architects, builders, homes and people that made Coker Hills a community.
Preserving the land
The land lay about a mile east of the town’s border when Coker first explored its trading paths and wagon trails, making note of the flora and fauna fed by the waters of Booker Creek.
Granodiorite (granite) and quartz speckled the hills, a remnant from over 600 million years ago, when scientists think North Carolina was part of a volcanic island chain off the African coast.
The trees now shading homes might have been saplings when Coker walked there. Blackburn said a local forest ranger noted evidence of clearing over the centuries by Native Americans and European settlers harvesting timber and crops. A mule shoe found in her back yard supports that theory, she said.
Stewardship of the land fell in 1953 to Coker College, a women’s college that Coker’s father founded in South Carolina. The college asked Henry R. Totten, Coker’s longtime colleague and land agent, to develop a neighborhood.
Totten led the design work, while leading prospective buyers on walks and helping to write a protective covenant. He called the neighborhood Coker Hills and named the streets for botanists and naturalists who influenced Coker or were his students.
“He said to the town in one of his letters that he thought this was better than any stone marker that could have been put in place for Dr. Coker,” Blackburn said.
The result was a neighborhood that today reflects the natural world in its landscaping and its architecture, Blackburn said. Many homes share a modernist style, emphasizing strong lines, simple forms, and open, efficient space. Others feature more traditional ranch, colonial and Cape Cod details.
Architect Arthur Cogswell was a prominent resident and architect, designing at least nine homes, including his own at 308 N. Elliott Road. Other notables include James Paul “JP” Goforth, Joe Hakan, and Bob Bacon, whose “deck home” building style emphasizes exposed beams and wood details.
The push for a Neighborhood Conservation District in 2008 to protect that historic character inspired the book, Blackburn said. She tried to get others to write it, but it kept falling back in her lap, launching more than four years of research, interviews and fundraising.
Preserving local stories is crucial as commercial growth pushes against neighborhood borders, she said.
“That’s why history is so important,” Blackburn said. “I think it’s so important for the town to understand this, because how do you go forward with planning for the town unless you know more about the history and where things came about.”
Book for sale
Jill Ridky Blackburn’s self-published book, “Historic Coker Hills: A Botanists’ Neighborhood in Chapel Hill,” is available at Flyleaf Books, Bull’s Head Bookshop and the N.C. Botanical Garden Gift Shop in Chapel Hill; at McIntyre's Books in Fearrington Village; and through the Chapel Hill Historical Society.