A City Not Like Anywhere Else

As Wilmington grows, preserving the past while welcoming a new generation of architects gives the historic Port City a unique look and feel all its own

By J. Michael Welton

Architecturally, Wilmington is in an enviable position.

For years, the city has created its own context — old and new, modern and traditional, commercial and residential — every day.

For starters, there’s Historic Wilmington Foundation. Over the past 50 years, it’s been spiffing up downtown assets for adaptive reuse — and attracting energetic owners to make it happen. I learned that a few months back, at first over coffee with HWF Executive Director Beth Rutledge at the century-old Dixie Grill downtown. Then came an eye-popping walking tour of classic 19th- and 20th-century architecture — once downtrodden, but now reborn.

HWF started out in 1966 as an offshoot of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, when the city was in stark decline. “There was no railroad and no infrastructure, and I-40 had cut us off,” Rutledge says. “It showed in the houses and buildings — there were no historic districts, and nobody fought for them, either.”

The organization started out by buying one building at a time, saving it and then selling it. “It had a phenomenal effect — they’d fix up one, and it became easier to do the next,” she says.

Now HWF has preserved hundreds of properties in a variety of ways — moving houses, stabilizing buildings and loaning funds to owners to restore them. Along the way the organization has shown the real value of preserving the past. As it turns out, people not only want to experience history, but to spend money on it — either as owners or tourists.

“It’s the heart of the city. It’s what people come for and what they appreciate,” she says. “These are the things that are rare and only in Wilmington — a city that’s not like anywhere else. That’s not by accident. It’s by intention.”

The Investors

Investors are seeing Wilmington’s value too – like chef, author and PBS personality Vivian Howard. In late 2017, the Deep Run native and owner of two famous Kinston restaurants opened a third — in downtown Wilmington. Now Benny’s Big Time, her pizzeria, has snagged its spot on historic Greenfield Street. Sure, Howard’s got two more coming up in Charleston, S.C., but Wilmington was on her short list first, and that gave this city a bump-up in status.

Wilmington has also caught the eye of Jamie Branda, owner of a 41-year-old upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant called Floriana. He’s planning to open his second venue at the corner of Market and Water Streets, after scoping out Birmingham and Huntsville in Alabama, and Chattanooga in Tennessee. When he found that Wilmington trumped them all in foot traffic, Branda opted to go where the people are. “It’s what we know and something we feel comfortable with — that longtime residential and tourist business,” he says. “It’s what D.C. is like, so it felt like something where we would not have to over-tweak our model.”

Then there’s 38-year-old James Goodnight of Raleigh, who has acquired and renovated seven commercial buildings downtown, four on Front Street and three more on Princess Street. The latter trio — at 222, 226 and 230 Princess — were built in 1921, 1929 and 1942, respectively. They’re all sweethearts from a bygone era, and they’ve all undergone careful restoration at the hands of Raleigh’s Maurer Architects.

222 Princess, with its Mission-style architecture and tabby stucco, is faithfully restored. 226 Princess may have been altered in the 1960s or ’70s, but it still shines today. Still, 230 Princess takes the cake. “It was very much intact — including the marble cladding on the front, the original door and the hardware,” says Laurie Jackson, project manager and partner at Maurer. “It was built by an architect for an insurance office, but it looks like a bank even though it’s very small.”

And it’s all but impossible to ignore two new projects on the riverfront. River Place will soon offer 92 luxury condominiums, complete with concierge, club room and roof-level pool. On 5 acres bordering the Riverwalk section near Port City Marina, Pier 33 will deliver 286 luxury apartments, 20,000 square feet of commercial space, and a parking garage with a 525-space capacity. What these two lack in architectural aesthetics will presumably be made up for in waterfront views.

The Moderns

The building that really caught this critic’s eye is one that has undergone the least amount of change. First Bank, at the corner of Market and Second streets, was designed in 1958-59 by Charles Boney Sr., an early graduate of N.C. State’s School of Design. Clearly a disciple of Mies van der Rohe, Boney executed his design here in bronze and glass outside and inside, with terrazzo and a dramatic, double-height lobby and floating staircase. Later, his son would design a deft and respectful addition at its rear.

Ironically, buildings like First Bank sometimes survive, completely intact, because poverty preserves them. “There might have been a time when people thought it was outdated, but couldn’t afford to update it,” Rutledge says. “Imagine someone wanting to modernize it — but because they didn’t, we have what we have today.”

Wilmington and its environs would see more influence from the School of Design, although traditional architecture surely ruled the second half of the 20th century. “The only reason there’s modern architecture here is because a few standup architects promoted it,” says Michael Kersting, an N.C. State grad and principal in the Wilmington firm that bears his name.

Those N.C. State modernists came here preaching the orthodoxy they’d been taught, then practiced it with near-religious fervor. “It wasn’t until Boney and Haywood Newkirk and Ligon Flynn came around and challenged traditional architecture with a fair amount of modern work that their legacy came into being here,” says Kersting.

Flynn in particular was prolific in Wilmington, designing his own office at 15 South 2nd St. Known now as The Atrium by Ligon Flynn, it’s available for special events. Until his death in 2010, he also designed a number of public spaces in Wilmington, including the lobby and box office for Thalian Hall and the Lower Cape Fear Hospice.

He’s best known, though, for his residential work, especially his groundbreaking modern homes on Figure Eight Island. In fact, once N.C. State grad and landscape architect Richard Bell laid out the island for development in the 1960s — preserving its natural heritage of marshland and maritime forests in the process — Flynn and Henry Johnston paved the way for modernists like Kersting to follow.

Anyone who wants to see what modern architecture has done for Wilmington and the oceanfront nearby would do well to take a ride to the beach with Kersting. He’s responsible for 30 houses on Figure Eight, including five now on the boards or under construction, 28 more in Wrightsville Beach, and another 20 on the Intracoastal Waterway. He’s done all that since setting up his firm in 1995.

Kersting’s work is decidedly contemporary, though his clients may lean toward a more conservative approach. “We’ve done some traditional coastal architecture on the outside, but the detailing inside is a little edgier,” he says. “A lot of our clients challenge us to find that balance of traditional beach vernacular with modern details.”

Kersting isn’t averse to showing a visitor his own designs on Figure Eight Island. But he’ll also point out the architecture of Flynn and Johnston, as well as Hugh Newell Jacobsen’s exquisite cottage on a crest overlooking the ocean. He’ll also stop to ponder a sleek and gabled dogtrot, a classical form created by architects Mathew Weaver and Clark Tate, from Atlanta’s Point Office.

“Modern architecture is a growing trend here now. Wilmington may be a conservative city, but that’s slowing as people from the Northeast and California move in,” Kersting says. “There’s a cultural shift. It’s far more inspired by contemporary styles: The younger generation wants more modern homes. A lot are coming to us, and we’re getting it done.”

The Districts

One more Wilmington architect with a modernist bent is Rob Romero. In 2016, he began designing homes and workspaces for the Cargo District, a three-block area bounded by 15th, 17th, Queen and Castle streets. Developer Leslie Smith specified the use of shipping containers, a familiar form for the Port City. “The guidelines from the city are specific about not seeing all that corrugated siding, so there’s cement board to conceal it in a way,” Romero says. “But you can still tell it’s a shipping container.”

Stacked and welded together to yield nine units, Square Two Live + Work containers rest on wood frames for kitchens and baths. Each unit is a compact 620 square feet, with one bedroom, a custom-built staircase, concrete flooring downstairs, and vinyl plank flooring upstairs. There’s custom cabinetry in the kitchen and bath, matte black plumbing fixtures, floor-to-ceiling tile in the glass-enclosed shower, a built-in queen bed, and a custom-fabricated aluminum balcony.

The Cargo District has transformed an area of town that once was not only neglected, but avoided. Now it’s a destination for work-from-home businesses — and a residence for others. It may seem irregular, but that’s why a new generation in Wilmington avidly seeks it out. “I get a ton of calls about it — it gets better and better, and brings in other people,” Romero says. “It has a bright future, no doubt. There’s a barber shop, a coffee place and a brewery.”

Prior to 2002, the area now known as the North Fourth District was an abandoned African-American community undergoing demolition. “There were some people preserving six or seven buildings in five blocks, because that’s all that was left,” says developer David Spetrino, a design/build professional. “But basically, there was no reason to invest in North Fourth because nobody was living there. There were some houses left over from the railroad era, and some rundown tenements.”

So Spetrino stepped up to the plate, bought an entire block, and began to execute his vision for residential development. “Between 2002 and 2007 we delivered 115 housing units in five different buildings,” he says. “The first one was 15 units, the second was 26, the third was 10, the fourth was 17, and the fifth was 27.”

He was creating condominiums where none had existed before. More development would follow, and the North Fourth District is mostly residential now, with some support services. It was initially made up of the 500, 600, 700 and 800 blocks of North Fourth Street, but now stretches out to the 900 and 1000 blocks. “The 500 block is old construction, 600 is 50/50, 700 is 70 percent new, and 800 is 90 percent new,” he says. “It brings in about a quarter-million dollars in taxes now.”

Many of the residents of the North Fourth District now are older, financially stable and looking for a walkable community. “They may be in their twilight years, but they don’t want to be in a golf course patio home,” he says. “They’re paying $750,000, and they get an elevator and a rooftop deck.”

About the same time that Spetrino was building his condominiums at North Fourth, Tribute Properties was envisioning a new luxury development to be built on the site of the former Nesbit Courts public housing project, which had previously served as wartime military housing. It’s now called the South Front District — and it’s gone from down-at-the-heels to uber-hip almost overnight.

“It’s evolved from a crime-ridden, desolate area into a booming community,” says Molly McDonough, regional director at Tribute in Wilmington. “On Friday nights now there are restaurants, coffee bars, yoga classes, and the salt spa. It’s a truly overwhelming transformation.”

Tribute developed its apartments in two phases, keeping their original footprints. “We bought it in 2002 and in 2011 had our first move-in,” she says. “They are luxury residences — a Class A property — and they are modern and LEED-certified.”

Included are the original 217 renovated units, plus the 1940s-era revamped Block Shirt Factory, and 54 additional apartments, with rents ranging from $1,100 to $1,750. It’s all residential, bounded by Front and Willard and Greenfield streets, on the south side of town. Commercial development has been encouraged by the city for industrial buildings on Greenfield Street. “It’s pretty exceptional to evolve this nicely,” she says.

These days, comparisons for Wilmington and its environs are almost inevitable. Some suggest similarities to Asheville, Charleston and even Savannah. But McDonough will have none of that. “We’re in a league of our own,” she says.

That’s because she and her peers have learned how to create context, day after day, year after year. The result is a city that’s now a magnet for innovative minds — and good design.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He is architecture critic for The News & Observer in Raleigh and author of Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge, 2015). He is also editor and publisher of an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

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