Written By: Lori Wilson
On Sunday mornings, I wake up with my partner to go house hunting with our realtor. We ride from home to home thinking about acreage and square footage and always arguing about location. Though, for me, these outings have become much more than my first foray into debt. I’ve quickly realized that Wilmington architecture is the city’s biggest art show.
For nearly 50 years, the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) has existed to preserve local buildings with a narrative and structural past. The organization has assisted in establishing eight National Register of Historic Places districts in the area, making it so my Sunday browsing includes delightful sights of large Italian-style porches and square cottages a mile away from skyscrapers imitating Greek columns.
“Wilmington has a rich architectural history,” says George Edwards, executive director of HWF, who was kind enough to give me a history lesson. “Wilmington always had people of means. They wanted to have unique architecture, and wanted to have distinct churches. People brought in architects from up and down the east coast.”
Wilmington includes architectural diversity, but diversity certainly doesn’t thwart recognition. Since incorporating in 1739, the Port City has been influenced by a variety of architectural styles as settlers moved in and out of the area. Some owners were looking to make a European-influenced statement, some wanted designs that bode well in the heat, and others were looking to revive the colonial period that they often celebrated.
Oldest on the Block
Early on, Edwards tells me, builders built what they knew and with what they had available, which translated into many Georgian-style wood homes. You’ve probably passed by the Burgwin-Wright house on your way to Front Street. Built in the late 18th century, this is one of four original colonial structures in the area. Lucky for us, this property was made open to the public as a museum that offers free educational programs and hosts various community events.
Like many Georgian homes, the Burgwin-Wright house’s design is considered plain, though it’s certainly one of the more ornate of its kind. Built for the wealthy merchant John Burgwin, the symmetrical-looking structure includes a detailed fixture by the front door that brightly lights its core. Impressive eaves run along its roof edges—another Georgian trend.
This house on the corner of Market and 3rd is built on the ballast stone foundation of the former city jail. Ballast stone is common in our river-adjacent town, as it was often carried at the bottom of ships to replace cargo.
“You would have to go inland to find quarry,” Edwards says. “Or you would have to send to England for stone and people fired brick right down here.”
The Mitchell-Anderson house, built in 1739, stands proudly in stone at 102 Orange St. Along the centuries-old brick, the HWF plaque dubs it the “oldest surviving structure in Wilmington.” Like the Burgwin-Wright, this 4,500 square-foot house features the symmetry and style of Georgian architecture with some quarry flair. This property has been used by various corporations and is now being restored for commercial use.
Two other homes qualify as verifiable 18th century properties–the DuBois-Boatright house across from St. James Parish and the Cameron-Dixon house near the intersection of S. Front and Church Street.
Edwards and his team at HWF make it part of their mission to preserve these homes and any others with rich historical context. In fact, the DuBois-Boatwright house made HWF’s 2013 “Most Threatened Historic Places” list, which prompted the community to come together to restore and respect this Georgian beauty, whose brick foundation needed some love so that its interior could keep housing memories.
Adapting to the Environment
As the city grew, so did its style. During the 19th century, Italianate style homes flourished in Europe, and the trend quickly translated in the United States. Wilmington saw a particular increase in this style due to the Italianate’s warm-weather readiness. According to Edwards, these homes featured lower roofs, upper vents, and large porches that extended out to provide shade.
The Savage-Bacon House (originally built in 1841) at 114 S. 3rd St. represents this sort of style, with some Neoclassical Revival updates made after Henry Russell Savage’s original ownership. Coincidentally, owner Henry Bacon, Jr., worked as a noted architect and is accredited for designing the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. and the monument to the Confederate soldiers on 3rd Street. The house is currently a bed and breakfast called Rosehill Inn.
Thinking again about the Georgian trend, architects and homeowners tweaked the style’s standards to better suit the high temperatures. Traditionally, chimneys stand on the interior of a Georgian home wall to help trap heat. But, as Edwards says, homeowners realized that’s “just silly” for this area, given the humid hot air that characterizes summertime. Therefore, you see a quick adaptation of builders putting the chimneys outside of the home.
City Living at Higher Heights
In the late 19th century, as the city continued to flourish, the United States embraced a new category of dwelling—the skyscraper. The Murchison tower, built in 1919, stands most notably at the corner of Chestnut and Front with ideal views that overlook our Cape Fear River.
“[Our skyscrapers] are almost an interpretation of the column form,” Edwards says. “It has three elements—base, thin but sometimes smooth-fluted shaft, and then at the top of the column is the fancy capital.”
Edwards explains that these scrapers, or glorified columns, boast embellished and inviting bases in order to lure the customer inside. Likewise, the fancy tops often display ornate terracotta, copper, or glass to “cap off the building,” directing the eye from the bottom through the simple in-between and all the way to the top.
I’m particularly keen on the Atlantic Trust Building in the center of it all, whose unique triangular tower shape fits so seamlessly in at the intersection of two of Wilmington’s most important streets, Market and Front.
Cute Little Cottages
The cottages in Carolina Place off Market Street provide scenes of my favorite drive-bys. I see large porches, unique doors, and innately charming walls surrounded by oak trees. Apparently, it makes sense that these lots provide me nostalgia even though I’ve never lived in one.
“In the late 19th century, you see Americans who want to look back at their own history,” Edwards says. “You see colonial revival, the styles that revived the Dutch cottage. Americans were looking back at the glory days of the country.”
You’ll find a splendid plethora of these cottage colonial-type interpretations in both Carolina Place and Carolina Heights, both of which are recognized districts in the National Register of Historic Places. Though some of these homes have seen significant redesigns inside, the outdoors still beckon with celebrated and highly desired styles.
For those who are looking to add some of that cottage charm to your current residence, WHF has recently revived its Legacy Architectural Salvage, which sells pieces from homes of all different eras. At the rear of Stevens Hardware at 1831 Dawson St., you’ll find antique doors, windows, trim, glass knobs, light fixtures, and more. It’s open to the public most Saturdays.
This is something my partner and I plan to take advantage of once we finally make an offer on our first home. The options in Wilmington are so plentiful, so we’re taking our time to find the property that complements us best, though I seem to have a growing affection for this cottage style. Perhaps, we’ll find a cozy brick one-story with steps that lead to the front porch and a door with so much detail that it isn’t just considered a way to get into a house.