Capstone Gift Kicks Off Lilly’s Transformation

Rendering of expanded and renovated Lilly Library, showing NW corner with new loading dock area and windows.
Rendering of the renovated and expanded Lilly Library as approached from the northwest, showing the new loading dock and back terrace.

University Receives New $5 Million Grant for Renovation and Expansion

By Aaron Welborn

Duke University has received $5 million from Lilly Endowment Inc. for the renovation and expansion of Lilly Library on the university’s East Campus, capping off years of planning and fundraising to bring the university’s first library into the twenty-first century.

The grant from the Indianapolis-based private foundation is its second gift, following a lead gift of $5 million in 2018, and comes just as the renovation project is scheduled to begin. Lilly Library closed to the public after final exams on May 4, and construction is expected to last two years.

When complete, Lilly will reflect a blend of original historic charm and modern features—with a footprint that will be nearly 75 percent larger. Highlights include expanded study spaces, more technology-equipped project rooms, a writing studio, a 75-seat assembly space for public programs, a film screening room, and a café. In addition, the renovation will address urgent facility needs, including improved accessibility and environmental controls.

“We are grateful for Lilly Endowment’s continued generosity in support of this project,” said Duke President Vincent E. Price. “This gift will help enhance the Duke experience for our undergraduate students, strengthen services for faculty and graduate students, and enliven East Campus for generations to come.”

Rendering of renovated library space, showing atrium and user seating area.
Rendering of the main entrance atrium, with a new second-story balcony connecting the building’s two wings.

Situated at the heart of the university’s East Campus designed by Julian Abele and the Horace Trumbauer architectural firm, Lilly Library is Duke’s first library. When James B. Duke’s 1924 Indenture of Trust transformed Trinity College into Duke University, the original Trinity College library was torn down and replaced by the red brick and marble building now known as Lilly. The new library opened to students in 1927, before West Campus construction was completed.

Lilly Library is named for philanthropist Ruth Lilly, a great-grandchild of pharmaceutical magnate Col. Eli Lilly, whose son and grandsons established Lilly Endowment as a charitable foundation in 1937.

In 1991, Ruth Lilly made a gift to “renovate and computerize” the library where her two nieces spent time as they attended the Woman’s College at Duke. That gift renamed the building and provided its only significant update since it was built almost a century ago.

Rendering of the Booklover's Room, showing people browsing books and reading.
Rendering of the Booklover’s Room on the first floor, a relaxed and warmly furnished space for casual reading.

Since then, Lilly has served as the primary library for first-year Duke undergraduate students, as well as students and faculty in academic departments based on East Campus. It is also home to Duke’s extensive art, art history, philosophy, and film collections.

Although integral to East Campus, the building lacks most of the features of a modern-day research library. The aging building was designed to serve an early twentieth-century population of 650 students. Today, approximately 1,700 first-year students live and study on East Campus, and the library plays a key role in orienting them to college-level study and research.

“This is a truly remarkable gift,” said Joseph A. Salem Jr., the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs at Duke. “The role that Lilly Library plays in the lives of our students is especially important, and this transformation will have a profound, long-term impact. We are so grateful for Lilly Endowment’s generosity, which will enable us to create the kind of library East Campus deserves, designed with the students and scholars of today in mind.”

Members of the extended Lilly family have a long association with Duke. In 2018, Lilly Endowment’s first $5 million gift toward the renovation project was matched by a combined $5 million from William and Irene Lilly McCutchen, the Ruth Lilly Philanthropic Foundation, and Peter and Virginia Lilly Nicholas. Today, a new generation of Lilly family members include recent Duke graduates and current students, and current Duke parent Rebecca Lilly serves on the university’s Library Advisory Board.

Rendering of Lilly Library cafe, showing people talking, sitting, and passing through.
Rendering of the new cafe-like commons, a place for students and faculty to meet over coffee. The added entrance on the southwest side of the building will open onto this space.

“It is inspiring to witness the generosity of both Lilly Endowment and the multiple generations of Lilly family members. Their impact on Duke is exponential,” said Dave Kennedy, Vice President of Alumni Engagement and Development. “I am thrilled to see how our beloved and soon-to-be renovated first library will transform the Duke community—all thanks to such committed donor support.”

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private foundation created in 1937 by J. K. Lilly and his sons, Eli and J.K. Jr., through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. While those gifts remain the financial bedrock of the Endowment, the Endowment is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with its founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion. The Endowment funds programs throughout the United States, especially in the field of religion, and maintains a special commitment to its founders’ hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana.

Visit the Lilly Project website to see more renderings, FAQs, and follow our progress: