Step inside an historic jewel, polished to reflect its heritage.
Written by: Beth Rutledge | Photography by: Michael W. Smith
In 1854, Wilmington buzzed with energy and promise. Steamships and the railroad shuttled ever-growing masses of people and goods; the Port City was its own gateway to the world. That year, Franklin Pierce was president, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, the Wilmington Gas Light Company was established, and Wilmington’s first German immigrant, Jacob Wessel, moved into his just-built house at 120 South Fifth Avenue.
Wessel, an unmarried 40-year-old merchant and shipper had hired James F. Post to create the property: a gracious presence on an upscale thoroughfare. Securing Post was no small feat, as he was arguably the city’s most in-demand architect (the following year, Post would join John Trimble to start construction on City Hall/Thalian Hall).
Today, the Fifth Avenue Italianate with Greek Revival and Rococo Revival accents is the earliest surviving antebellum house designed and built solely by Post. Its current owners have spent more than a decade restoring and renovating the home, and are about to invite you inside for a closer look.
On approach, a feature that must have awed guests of a bygone era still makes a bold first impression. The glossy black cast iron gate wears a pattern rich with symbolism. A lyre represents harmony and a winged hourglass signifies the flight of time. Downturned arrows, a prompt to put weapons away, are repeated along the entire fence.
If you had any doubt, be assured you’re entering a world not quite like the one behind you.
In 2005, when homeowners Kathy and Chris Wilson bought the place they call, Tuscany: The Jacob Wessel House (Chris had been a student in Italy), it had changed ownership several times and been considerably altered over the years. Among other revisions, the gate was painted white. Instead of the elegant “come-and-go” staircases Post installed at the front of the porch some 150 years prior, there were utilitarian steps at one end. And inside the house, every room required attention.
Historic preservationists and collectors, the Wilsons have spent a quarter century together and understood that this special place needed dedicated stewards. Their initial thought was, “We loved the aesthetics and historical context of this house from the first time we saw it, but we couldn’t afford it at the time.”
Deferred maintenance, dropped ceilings, and a layout that showed the scars of modification were ultimately not enough to deter them. Chris, a Southern regional artist known for his North Carolina landscape portraits, was struck by original details like the ionic columns in the rare double parlor. And the room’s tray ceilings and ornate cast iron mantles were more than impressive, they were inspiring.
“We recognized it was a significant contributor to the architectural heritage of Wilmington,” Chris says of their home. Adds Kathy, “We could see past the tremendous amount of work that had caused the house to go unsold for three years in a booming real estate market, and we believed we were the ones with the fortitude to restore the house to its potential.”
Virtually every inch of Tuscany has now been rehabbed, from plaster walls and plumbing, to hardware, HVAC, and all points between. During the Backdoor Kitchen Tour on October 14, the main floor will be open to the public, and that’s where many of the Wilson’s efforts can be enjoyed.
Pause in the front foyer, and directly ahead is a staircase that looks as if it has always glided residents from floor to floor. In fact, it’s a stately reproduction based on Post’s 1854 design.
The original stairs perished in an 1898 arson fire. Not long after, a tight-turning central staircase was installed. The Wilsons made Post’s staircase a reality again with only slight changes to the architect’s plans. To comply with building codes, new, taller spindles now define the balustrade. And instead of costly mahogany, the lustrous handrails are dark-stained poplar.
The foyer offers views not just of fine architectural accents, but also of the abundant antiques lending character to Tuscany. In the front dining room, a crystal fixture that was a gasolier in the White House and found its way to Wilmington in 1903 is a brilliant halo above the 18th century table. Other main floor treasures include Chippendale chairs, English and European pewter, and regionally crafted oak and walnut furniture.
Floor-to-ceiling window casements that used to lead to a back porch now serve as airy doorways to the spacious new kitchen, uniting past and present. Like almost everything else in the house, this room has stories to tell.
The kitchen cabinets are made from cherry trees downed during a storm on an Edgecombe County farm the Wilsons once owned. Raise your eyes to dozens of 19th century choppers collected by Kathy Wilson’s father; drop your gaze to behold bright folk art fruit sculptures sitting atop sleek quartzite counters. Underfoot are new ceramic tiles recalling old slate.
Another marvel? While most Southerners are accustomed to the symbolism of the pineapple, that of the artichoke may surprise some. For the Wilsons, this kitchen carving represents what they wish for all who pass through their doors: prosperity, peace, and hope. Now and for years to come.