Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina until 1910 and even though the population was only 20,000 its position as the state’s leading port brought a sophisticated mix of buildings to its streetscape. That street grid was laid out in 1733 on a bluff overlooking the Cape Fear River, some thirty miles before it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. That bluff made possible an innovation seldom seen in coastal towns - houses with deep foundations and basements.
But the coastal location also meant little stone for building and the reliance on cedar planks meant a town vulnerable to fire and little remains of Wilmington before about 1840. That was the year the Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad opened which unleashed a burst of economic energy that would power the town for the next century. During the Civil War, Wilmington was the chief port of entry for Confederate blockade runners and it was the last port in use by the Confederacy.
The waterfront was stuffed cheek to jowl with piers and warehouses. The wealth that poured across the docks built fine homes only blocks from the river, some that may be recognized by film buffs and television fans. When Italian film director Dino DeLaurentis set up shop in the United States in the 1980s he chose Wilmington and today the city is home to the largest television and movie production facility in America outside California.
Our walking tour will begin in the heart of Wilmington’s historic waterfront, at the spot where Governor William Tryon built his house 250 years ago just steps from the Cape Fear River...
Market Street and Water Street
The city was once studded with fountains like this with similar scallop-shaped troughs from which horses could drink. Smaller receptacles below served dogs. This cast-iron fountain dates to 1915 and was called the “Anti-Germ Individual Cup Fountain” because it offered just such a service - small paper cups that could be filled from the spigot. This fountain, whose operating days are long in its past, originally stood in a median at Market and North 14th streets before being moved here. Surrounding the fountain are stones typical of the type found in Wilmington streets before bricks became the pavers of choice at the turn of the 20th century.
WITH YOUR BACK TO HORSE TROUGH WALK OVER TO THE CAFE FEAR RIVER. ON THE OTHER SIDE IS...
USS North Carolina
Launched in 1940 the USS North Carolina was awarded 15 Battles Stars for service during World War II. The battleship was decommissioned in 1947 and stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on June 1, 1960. The $76,885,750 ship was purchased for $330,000 largely raised on the spare change and lunch money from North Carolina school kids participating in the “Save Our Ship” campaign. It was maneuvered into its position island in 1962 and has served as a living memorial ever since.
TURN AROUND. THE BLOCK LONG BUILDING LOOMING OVER THE WATERFRONT IS...
Alton Lennon Federal Building and Courthouse
2 Princess Street
This block-filling Neoclassical sandstone building was constructed between 1914 and 1916 as the United States Courthouse and Customs House. Supervising architect for the United States Treasury James A. Wetmore designed the bookends of the building to match the original customs house from the 1840s. Customs departed the site in 1966. The building was renamed the Alton Lennon Federal Office Building in 1976 after a hometown United States Congressman.
WALK BACK OVER TO THE HORSE TROUGH. WALK UP MARKET STREET ONE BLOCK TO FRONT STREET.
Atlantic Trust and Banking Building
2 North Front Street
This was Wilmington’s first true skyscraper, constructed in 1911. The designer was Joseph F. Leitner who came to Wilmington in 1906 with his partner William J. Wilkins and became the official architect of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1909. For the town’s first building over five stories Leitner followed the convention of the day to make the nine-story Atlantic Trust and Banking Building resemble a classical Greek tripartite column with a decorative carved stone base, plain brick central stories and an elaborate upper floor with stone stringcourses, more stone carvings and a modillion block cornice.
TURN LEFT ON FRONT STREET.
21 North Front Street
This five-story stone headquarters for the town’s Masons was constructed in 1898 and features a spectacular Richardsonian Romanesque corner entrance, marked by a powerful arch and stout, polished columns. In 1995 Hollywood icon and modern art enthusiast Dennis Hopper bought the temple and restored the 61,000 square-foot building while living here.
25 North Front Street
This Italianate-flavored commercial building was constructed in 1878 by merchants Donald MacRae and Louis Otterbourg. As MacRae faded from the scene it became best known as Otterbourg’s Iron Front Men’s Wear Depot, offering Wilmington’s most extensive line of men’s and boy’s furnishings. The “Iron Front” was just that - the columns were crafted from cast iron, a cheaper and easier alternative to stone and masonry that was popular in the 1870s. In 1910 the building was purchased by dry goods merchant J.M. Solky but not to continue as a local emporium. Solky renovated and outfitted the first floor as a movie house. The Grand Theatre operated until 1923 when it was converted back into a McClellan dime store.
Orton Hotel/Billiards Room
131 North Front Street
Kenneth Muchison left a New York City business career to become a company commander in the 54th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. He rose to colonel just before his unit was captured in a nighttime encirclement on the Rappahannock River in Virginia on November 7, 1864. After being released from prison camp after the war Murchison embarked on a wide-ranging business career in New york and Wilmington that included interests in banks, insurance and real estate. At one time he owned the summit of Mount Mitchell, North Carolina’s highest peak and in 1880 he purchased the fabled Orton Plantation across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington. In 1886 he had the Orton Hotel built here and the venerable guest house was a Wilmington fixture until the hotel burned in 1949. The pool room that was located in the basement survived, however, and continued to operate. On November 13, 1953, pocket billiards champion Willie Mosconi set a new worlds record by pocketing 365 balls. Legend has it that all the guests got out alive the night of the fire, save for a 25-year old tug boat hand named William Stevens, whose body was discovered in the rubble. Willie’s ghost is still said to be seen in the billiard hall, shooting nine-ball and enjoying his time with the patrons.
United States Post Office
152 North Front Street
In the early days of mail delivery the postmaster was the post office. He would set up shop in stores or even his home and receive a wage based on the amount of mail processed. The post office in Wilmington moved into the federal Custom House when it was constructed in 1846. The first dedicated post office in town arrived in 1874 in the form of a two-story brick buiding on the corner of Second and Chestnut streets. A stately Romanesque-styled post office crafted of Wadesboro brown granite followed in 1891. Its entrance was marked by carvings of two faces, one elated and the other dejected - said to be onereceiving a letter and the other face meeting an empty box. The current Colonial Revival style post office was a Depression-era project completed in 1937. It provided employment not just to builders but to artists. The mural inside the lobby was created by William F. Pfohl and Thomas Lo Medico contributed eight bas relief figures in the northern stairwell.
STOP AT THE CORNER OF CHESTNUT STREET.
The Murchison Building
201 North Front Street
The 11-story Murchison Building stood as Wilmington’s tallest building from 1914 until 2007. Developed by Murchison National Bank, the skyscraper followed traditional design practices by resembling a classical Greek column with a defined base (the ornate lower floors), a shaft (the unadorned central floors) and a capital (the decorative cornice.)
Murchison National Bank
200 North Front Street
Irish-born architect Charles McMillen became a leading architect in Duluth, Minnesota in the 1880s. His best-known building was the city’s Masonic Lodge. When the Wilmington Masons began casting around for a new temple, McMillen submitted a design and won the competition. He re-located to Wilmington and stayed ten years, winning many commissions for his facility with “big-city” architectural styles. Here he adapted the Beaux Arts style with a rusticated stone facade for the Murchison National Bank in 1902. The bank left this three-story home for the tower across the street in 1914. It spent most of its life known as the Acme Building.
TURN RIGHT ON CHESTNUT STREET.
Cape Fear Hotel
121 Chestnut Street
Geoffrey Lloyd Preacher, a major figure in southeastern architectural history, best known for his large-scale hotel and apartment work in Georgia, designed the Hotel Cape Fear that opened on January 10, 1925. It was not an altogether happy experience for the architect - he lost his American Institute of Architects membership in 1927, following unsubstantiated charges of mishandling construction funds in the building of the hotel. Once the city’s premier hotel, the ten-story Neoclassical Cape Fear Hotel survives as an apartment building.
Cape Fear Club
206 Chestnut Street
Founded in 1866 and officially incorporated by the General Assembly in 1872, the Cape Fear Club lays claim to being the oldest continuously meeting social club in North Carolina. For nearly a century those meetings. many lubricated by its celebrated “Cape Fear punch,” have taken place in this temple-fronted brick structure.
TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET.
310 Chestnut Street
John Montague Trimble, who rose from an acclaimed stage carpenter to renowned theater builder, designed Thalian Hall, which was constructed between 1855 and 1858. Of the more than 30 theaters created by Trimble in antebellum America, this is the only one that still stands. The new building housed the town government, the library, and an opera house. Tom Thumb, Buffalo Bill Cody, Oscar Wilde, and John Phillip Sousa all performed or spoke in the building. The building has faced several threats from the wrecking ball over the years but has enjoyed a series of renovations, the most recent being a $5 million sprucing up in 1988.
New Hanover County Courthouse
southeast corner of North 3rd Street at Princess Street
Alfred S. Eichberg, perhaps the first Jewish architect practicing in the Deep South, made his mark in Savannah but designed two buildings in North Carolina. The first was for the Rheinstein family, leading Jewish merchants in Wilmington, in 1891. While in town Eichberg submitted a proposal for the new county courthouse and won that commission. His symmetrical red brick building trimmed in rough stone grabbed several popular styles of the day, including Romanesque arched windows and festive Chateauesque roofline. The courthouse opened in 1893 to great acclaim; it was restored in 1988 with a price tag of more than $2 million. The Neoclassical Courthouse Annex to the rear is a 1926 addition.
TURN LEFT ON PRINCESS STREET AND WALK TO 5TH STREET. TURN RIGHT AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO MARKET STREET. IN THE INTERSECTION IS...
Market Street & 5th Avenue
William Rand Kenan, Jr left Wilmington for the University of North Carolina where he earned a degree in chemistry in 1894. He became an internationally known chemical and engineering adviser who participated in the discovery of calcium carbide and its use in the production of acetylene gas. In 1921 he contracted the retained the internationally renowned architecture firm of Carrere & Hastings of New York to create this fountain as a memorial to his parents. The monument was crafted in New York and shipped to Wilmington in pieces. The total cost was $43,000.
ON YOUR LEFT IS...
503 Market Street
New Jersey-born James Francis Post was making his way south through his twenties, picking up a wife in Petersburg, Virginia and settling in Wilmington at the age of 31 in 1849. Post would become the leading builder-architect in North Carolina’s largest city for the remainder of the century. He took on the commission for Wilmington’s most imposing antebellum house in 1859 for John D. Bellamy, a physician. The completed house is a mix of Italianate and Greek Revival styles with the mansion’s most prominent feature - a three-sided Corinthian portico - said to be the suggestion of a Bellamy daughter. The 10,000 square-foot house remained in the Bellamy family until 1946.
TURN RIGHT ON MARKET STREET AND WALK TOWARDS THE CAPE FEAR RIVER.
First Baptist Church
411 Market Street
The First Baptist congregation organized in 1808; the current red-brick church with its 197-foot steeple, was begun in 1859 and completed in 1870. The steeple, which swayed visibly in an average wind, was toppled by Hurricane Fran in 1996 and was rebuilt.
Temple of Israel
1 South 4th Street
There had been a small Jewish presence in Wilmington since its founding in 1739 but it would not be until 1872 that a congregation was organized by forty families. Begun in 1875 and dedicated in 1876, the Temple of Israel was the first synagogue constructed in North Carolina. Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan is credited with the Moorish Revival design, a style then in vogue for synagogues. James Walker, a Scots-born contractor and brickmason who came to Wilmington in 1857 and became the town’s leading builder over the next 40 years, served as supervising architect on the project. Today the Temple is one of fewer than thirty congregations to endure in its original nineteenth century structure.
George Davis Monument
Market and Third streets
The idea for a monument to George Davis, Attorney General of the Confederate States of America, took root in 1901, five years after the Wilmingtonian’s passing at the age of 75. The idea, however, did not sprout easily. After seven years the United Daughters of the Confederacy had raised only $190.76. Cotton magnate James Sprunt then ponied up $5,000 to cover the price tag for the 8-foot bronze sculpted by German artist Francis Herman Packer. The statue itself was unveiled on April 20, 1911. The base features gilded seals of North Carolina and the Confederacy.
224 Market Street
In 1781 Lord Cornwallis used “the most considerable house in town” as his headquarters while in Wilmington, shortly before he would surrender his British army in Yorktown to end the military part of the American Revolution. John Burgwin, a merchant and lawyer, had constructed the Georgian-style house atop the foundation of the former county jail. The “Wright” was Joshua Grainger Wright who purchased the house in 1799. Among his list of accomplishments were Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and first president of the Bank of Cape Fear. The house was altered and enlarged while in the Wright family until 1867. The house was preserved by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and restored as their North Carolina headquarters in 1937.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS BACK TO 3RD STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
St. James Episcopal Church
25 South 3rd Street
St. James Parish was established by order of the General Assembly in 1729 with the first church building coming along in 1751. It would be used by the British as a hospital during the Revolutionary War. In 1839 it was torn down and the bricks used to rebuild a new Gothic-flavored church on plans drawn by Thomas U. Walter, who would later design the new dome on the United States Capitol. During the Civil War St. James would again be pressed into service as a hospital. The graveyard dates back to the original church and includes the graves of Cornelius Harnett, signer of the Articles of Confederation and author of the clause for religious freedom in the constitution of North Carolina, and Thomas Godfrey, author of the Prince of Parthia, the first drama written by a native-born American produced on a professional stage. Philadelphia-born Godfrey died in 1763, never seeing his play published or performed, which occurred several years later.
100 South 3rd Street
The Wilmington & Raleigh Railroad was the first railroad company in North Carolina received its charter in 1834 and began laying track in 1836. The first train chugged down the tracks in 1840 but by then the line extended from Wilmington to Weldon in Halifax County, the longest railroad in the world at 161 1/2 miles. The road would officially be renamed the Wilmington & Weldon railroad in 1854. After the Civil War two-time Confederate Congressman from Wilmington, Robert Rufus Bridgers, became the line’s longest-serving president. Bridgers died in 1888 and the Wilmington & Weldon merged into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1900. Elizabeth Eagles Haywood Bridgers was a Robert Rufus daughter-in-law, widowed by Preston, a town merchant. She spearheaded the construction of the mansion in 1905and brought in big-project architect Charles MacMillen who delivered a grand Neoclassical palace behind a towering circular Corinthian portico. MacMillen used white Italian Carrara marble for the entrance walls and Indiana limestone, dressed on site, for the walls. It was one of the few Wilmington houses to be built of stone and is today operated as the opulent Graystone Inn.
First Presbyterian Church
125 South 3rd Street
The Presbyterians have had a presence in Wilmington since a resident minister arrived in 1760. Plagued by fires through the decades its current meetinghouse only dates to the 1920s, however. It is the work of Hobart Brown Upjohn, whose grandfather introduced the Gothic Revival style to America with his Trinity Church in New York City. Hobart Upjohn was a prolific church architect in North Carolina, responsible for some 50 designs. Here he blended Norman, English Gothic and Elizabethan influences in stone for the Presbyterians. Dr. Joseph R. Wilson was pastor from 1874 until 1885; his son Woodrow, who would become the 28 the President of the United States, was a student at the time and spent a year and his vacations in the church Manse.
Zebulon Latimer House
126 South Third Street
Zebulon Latimer, a merchant from Glastonbury, Connecticut, built this house in 1852 when the Italianate style was all the rage. Wilmington caught the fever and had many such houses built, and this is one of the best. Brothers Robert B. and John Wood were the builders with carpentry provided by James Post. The house boasts fine architectural details such as window cornices and wreaths in the frieze openings, all made of cast iron, and a piazza with intricate, wrought-iron tracery. The Latimers lived here until 1963 when the Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear took possession and shows the house as a Victorian showcase.
THIS STRETCH OF 3RD STREET CONTINUING TO CASTLE STREET CONTAINED SOME OF WILMINGTON’S FINEST LATE 19TH CENTURY AND EARLY 20TH CENTURY HOMES. EXPLORE AS FAR AS YOU’D LIKE AND TURN AND RETURN TO THE BRIDGERS MANSION. AT DOCK STREET, TURN LEFT.
St. Thomas Preservation Hall
208 Dock Street
When the cornerstone for this building was laid in 1846 the total number of Catholics in Wilmington was 79, none with money or influence. Yet they were able to pull together $797.00 to purchase this lot and an energetic Father Thomas Murphy went fund-raising in New York and Philadelphia to hire the town’s leading builders, J.C. and R.B. Wood. The builders constructed a massive central gable and lancet arched windows of three lancer units in place of a tower. The Roman Catholic Church served until 1979 when it was officially deconsecrated in and has since served the needs of the citizens of Wilmington as a unique rental event space.
CONTINUE TO THE RIVER AT WATER STREET.
Cape Fear Riverboats- Henrietta III
101 South Water Street
The first Henrietta was a pioneer steamboat on the Cape Fear River built by James Seawell in 1818. She would ply the river between Wilmington and Fayetteville for forty years, running one and one-half million miles on the Cape Fear. When Cape Fear Riverboats began operation in 1987 its flagship was the Henrietta II, North Carolina’s only true sternwheel riverboat. She has since relocated to Maryland and Henrietta III, a three-level, 600-guest riverboat carries on the tradition.
TURN RIGHT ON WATER STREET (THE CAPE FEAR RIVER WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT AS YOU WALK).
18 South Water Street
The Brooks Building was constructed between 1910 and 1920 as a warehouse for J.W. Brooks Grocery. The three-story brick building looks like most of its waterfront neighbors with working class roots but it is actually constructed over the water - to maintain excessive weight, the walls are triple brick thick in some places, with massive wooden beams.
CONTINUE ON WATER STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT MARKET STREET.