Take a Tour into Wilmington’s Past

Written by: Kharin Gibson | Photographed by Arthur Green

There are many things that we, in the Cape Fear region, anticipate each year.  As spring unfolds, we are eager to usher in the season with five, fun-filled days of celebration at the North Carolina Azalea Festival, our region’s premier annual event.

Of the myriad of festivities taking place during this time, one that best showcases the heritage and architectural history of the area is the North Carolina Azalea Festival Home Tour. The event, hosted by the Historic Wilmington Foundation, is a self-guided home tour that offers historical insights and visions into Wilmington’s past. This year, the tour includes nine historical homes, and one historic church. Tour-goers are free to explore the properties both Saturday and Sunday, April 8th and 9th.  The proceeds from this event help the Historic Wilmington Foundation protect, preserve and promote Wilmington’s historic architecture.

Peering through the door of Wilmington’s history, we are giving you a sneak-peek into one of the homes on this year’s tour schedule. The Fishblate House sits regally at 318 S. Front, elegantly capturing the design elements of the Italianate architectural style. This deep-blue, two-story home exhibits this style with its low-pitched roof, wide overhanging eaves, ornamental window frames and wrap-around porch, adorned with decorative Italianate square-post columns.

The home was originally built in 1878 for Mayor Solomon Fishblate and his wife, but due to tragedy a decade later, the house was sold to Henry Clay McQueen and his wife Agnes, who remained longtime residents. Henry Clay McQueen, born in 1848, could trace his roots back to King Robert Bruce of Scotland on his father’s side, and Sir John Moore, who was knighted by Charles the 1st, on his mother’s side.

According to the area historians, McQueen grew up in Cumberland County before moving to Wilmington.  At the age of 16 he was conscripted into the Confederate army.  Just two months into his service, he was shot in the leg during the Battle of Fort Fisher and taken prisoner.  In an interesting twist of fate, while a POW, he encountered a freed black slave and Union soldier Private Glasgow who had previously been a servant in McQueen’s sister’s home.  Later, after retirement, Glasgow and his wife would live and work for McQueen’s family at 318 Front.  Their kitchen and apartment is still a part of the home today although the servant’s kitchen has been turned into a den.

McQueen was a highly successful businessman and prominent man in Wilmington.  He became Chairman of Murchison Bank, People Savings Bank, Bank of Duplin and Director of Jefferson Pilot Life Insurance. McQueen died in 1935 and is buried in Oakdale cemetery.  For years afterward, his widowed daughter Agnes lived in the house, with her children, until her death in 1977.

The house is currently owned by Kristin and Dean Mays who, before moving in, spent five years renovating the home. “It sat empty for many years,” says Kristin. “When we bought it, it was basically just a shell.”

When The Mays took ownership, the structure had no kitchen or bathroom. They have diligently renovated the house and have managed to maintain much of the authenticity of the home’s heritage. The original plaster, cornices and molding remains. Restoration of the floors highlights the original oak inlay.

There have been some new additions to the property. For example, a detached garage was added, of course meeting the approval from the city’s Historical Preservation Commission.  The kitchen has been fully updated to function as a modern kitchen.  The homeowners, in reverence to the home’s heritage, have constructed a large custom, center-island supported by a base made from reclaimed heart pine wood that originally served as the home’s attic floor. The Mays have infused their own style into the home adding a stylistic warmth and richness. Accents include an eclectic mix of unique chandeliers, artwork, furniture, and collection of the homeowner’s carnival glass.

We promised just a sneak-peek, so without giving much more away, this home is a must-see on this year’s tour, which runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.  Docents will be available to present each home’s history and features and tickets are good for the entire weekend.  Tour-goers may start and stop anywhere along the tour. For more information check out the following: www.historicwilmington.org/azalea-festival-home-tour.

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