Lord Spencer Speaks

The Hidden Gems of Greenfield Lake

Maybe the best housing deal in the Colonies, methinks

A sparkling woman of a certain age surprised me a bit as I, Lord Wilmington, waited in the appliance section in the Lowe’s on Carolina Beach Road recently.

It’s not just that she came up to my waist. Being a willowy 6 foot, 8 inches tall with hair artfully arranged on top, I had long ago grown accustomed to towering over my subjects. Indeed, my height, my solemn bearing and, ahem, my beauty, contributed mightily to my becoming Speaker of England’s newly formed House of Commons and later, in 1742, its second Prime Minister.

It wasn’t just the woman’s energy and the flash of her eyes behind her glasses that caught my full attention. It was her statement that she herself—after winning a battle with lung cancer — had gutted her new house, which she had bought in a lottery for $11,000 near Greenfield Lake.

Excuse me? This diminutive woman, ripping walls down while recovering from cancer? It’s only been a recent development that yours truly, Spencer Compton, could swing a hammer with more force than the gavel I occasionally and reluctantly used in Parliament.

And really, Madam, $11,000 for a home by that beautiful lake? And in a lottery?

As I have stated in previous missives for this grand publication, I have a great curiosity for this river city named for me. I have marveled at the variety of neighborhoods and their differing architecture. And I have savored their histories like the port I would sip each eve at London’s storied Kit-Cat Club. (That’s where my portrait was painted, a copy of which resides in your City Hall.)

I have discovered the uncanny Mill Village neighborhood off Wrightsville Avenue and met many of its longtime residents. I have walked the blended Carolina Place section, where the Whigs of my day (today’s liberals) would live. I have dined with new friends in the Sunset Park development, which was originally designed to house the city’s grandest mansions until the Second World War erupted, bringing a sudden need for inexpensive bungalows for ship-builders at the neighboring port.

I have sauntered the beautiful streets and alleys of Forest Hills and even received an invitation inside the walled enclave that is Landfall (once my elegant stature became known about town).

Yes, I have also wandered the area above my residence at 4th and Queen Street, trying to unlock the persistent and bloody mystery of why most of Wilmington’s murders happen within a few blocks of 10th and Castle streets. (I shall share my findings in an upcoming report.)

And I have found and fallen in love with Greenfield Lake, which I discovered had its genesis when I was House Speaker across the pond and my beloved protégé, Gabriel Johnston, was capably governing this colony for the crown, which he named Wilmington in 1739. Back then, it was a swampy series of creeks where Dr. Samuel Green had his rice plantation. A spillway and a millrace would later transform it into one of our city’s best-loved and oft-used features.

The tousled woman in a grey sweatshirt explained that she had won the right to buy one of those rectangular, military-style homes made of cement block that adorn the northern and eastern wooded shoulders of Greenfield Lake Park like crude but sturdy jewelry. Ah-ha! My manicured eyebrows twitched with interest. I had wondered about those rugged houses and the people in them during previous walks and rides on the five-mile track around the lake. I had rightly assumed they were government-built, but wrongly believed (as it turns out) they were for port workers during the war and still belonged to the government. I had also heard it is gloriously inexpensive to live there, and that there is a lengthy waiting list of people wishing to do so.

My bubbly new friend could only briefly explain about the lottery system before being whisked away to the refrigerator section by a Lowe’s worker. My curiosity stimulated, I mounted my landlord’s trusty Harley-Davidson motorcycle and rumbled off to investigate. What I found is said to be the last remaining housing co-operative of its kind in the entire nation.

“It’s the best-kept secret in Wilmington,” said Lydia Horne, manager of the 90-acre, nonprofit Lake Forest development. The defense department built the 584 units starting in 1940, she told me. Some could barely house my previous slipper collection. The one-bedroom units have just 435 square feet of living space, the two-bedroom units swell to 596 square feet and three-bedrooms have 741 square feet. But many of these duplexes have been combined over the years for double or even triple the space. I learned that the development is divided between the Lake Forest Parkway side of the lake (originally for officers) and the Pinecrest Parkway portion (historically for enlisted families).

City records I perused at the main library indicate it was part of a wartime home-building boom here that began in the late 1930s under the guidance of the newly minted Wilmington Housing Authority to deal with a surge of new residents that would nearly quadruple Wilmington’s population by the end of the war. I find this fascinating. While some in Parliament believed I was just a powdered and perfumed fop, it’s the attention to these kinds of details that made me indispensable to both King Georges I and II. Imagine all the colonies England had around the world when Dr. Green was growing his rice here, and all the complexities of running them at some semblance of a profit. From my childhood at our family’s moated Compton Wynyates estate, I had an easy gift for the realities of the realm.

I learned the non-profit Veterans Homes used the 584-unit development (and similar ones across the nation that later failed) to inexpensively house veterans returning from the war, a benevolent practice that suits my Whig sentiments down to the ground. Lake Forest Inc. took it over in 1957, Madam Horne explained. The co-op owns the actual structure of each home — the walls and roof — and is responsible for exterior painting, shingling, repairing soffit and fascia, etc. (All things this dedicated follower of fashion has learned to do since Hurricane Florence.) But the home belongs to you for your lifetime and that of your descendants, if they want it. Or you can sell it.

Hence the lottery. Veterans still get top preference, but anyone can call in on the first Monday of the month and get in the next day’s lottery, if there are houses available. They typically sell for between $5,000 and $15,000. Those with criminal records or bad credit need not apply, explained office assistant Tiffany Whitaker, who was busily answering the phone on this first Monday. “No, we’re not going to do the lottery tomorrow,” she told a caller. “Call back Monday, May the 6th.”

Between calls she told me you can do whatever you want to the inside, from gutting it like my friend at Lowe’s did or just repainting or rearranging.

Monthly maintenance fees run a little under or over $200 a month, depending on unit size. That and utilities are typically all it costs to live there once you’ve bought in or inherited.

“Would you like to see my house?” asked 73-year-old Sandra Cayton, a Lake Forest board member who also comes up to my still-sleek waist. This nimble woman had just finished vacuuming the development’s 2,000-square-foot auditorium, which has seen countless meetings, dances and weddings in its nearly 80-year-old history. “Are you riding a motorcycle?” she asked. “Jump in my car. I think you’ll fit.” Her car turned out to be one of those thundering Dodge Challengers, as black and silky as a raven’s wing. “It’s got plenty of get up and go,” she said, pushing the starter. I could feel the rumble in my liver and, as a new and happy Harley rider, I complimented her on it. “It wasn’t loud enough when I bought it,” she said. “So I took it to the muffler shop.”

A few blocks away she pulled into the covered parking area of an immaculate three-bedroom duplex that she and her husband turned into one big home.

“We knocked down every wall, all the ceilings,” she said. They raised four girls here, and she cared for her husband, a well driller, until he died last year from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The living room is as vast and nicely appointed as the one I saw at Landfall. “Check out this bathroom,” she said. It’s a huge, beautifully tiled affair with a walk-in shower big enough for me and a rather towering potted plant. My family’s castle would be honored by such a bath. Her home even has a separate room for a tanning bed and the ground-water heating and cooling system her husband lovingly installed.

We visited on her couch and talked about her husband and their secure, happy life here. Her seal point Himalayan cat Cassie deigned to lounge royally upon my lap as we chatted. “Everybody looks out for everybody,” she said after offering refreshments. What if someone gets in their cups and disturbs order, or starts collecting cars without wheels? “You go in front of the board,” she replied briskly. I recalled she is on the board and doesn’t mind vacuuming an entire auditorium by herself. “Two strikes and you’re out.”

That’s why you’ll find order and quiet if you roam the neighborhoods as I did, slowly motoring and frequently stopping. I discovered many owners have built additions, porches. garages and outbuildings. As I looped around the lake, I had to stop at a cluster of these domiciles overlooking a sweet stretch of water and the lake’s most picturesque walk bridge. I found it to be one of Wilmington’s nicest views, in contention with some of downtown’s most prime real estate overlooking the mighty Cape Fear.

One of these crown jewels belongs to 73-year-old Phillip Jones and his wife of 54 years (and high-school sweetheart), the elegantly named Troy. She grew up in the house, which belonged to her mother and Army-veteran father. “We moved here when I was eight years old” from a smaller unit in the neighborhood, she told me.

“We dated here,” Phillip said while we relaxed in the front yard by the gazebo he added. “We parked in the back by the cutout.” He had spent his infancy in Sunset Park, but grew up by the lake within sight of his future wife.

“I’ve been fishing here for 65 years,” Phillip, a fellow motorcyclist, said as we soaked up the azalea-framed view of Dr. Green’s masterpiece. As youngsters, he said, they swam in the lake by the spillway, which had a white sand beach and a lifeguard. There was a children’s zoo and a red train for riding. As he reminisced, neighborhood children cavorted and bicycled past, each respectfully addressing my host as “Mr. Jones.” He is a man of some skill. He was in the Navy and became an instrumentation specialist for General Electric.

He’s also the pastor for the Born Again Baptist Church in Snead’s Ferry, where the couple lived until after Troy’s mom moved out of the old block homeplace 20 years ago.

Phillip completely gutted it before moving in. “There was nothing left but a hole in the floor where the commode was,” he said. When he rebuilt it, he designed it around the furniture they cherished. It’s an uncanny place that you can circle around inside, with angled walls and interesting recesses, including one with a jacuzzi in the large bathroom.

The yard is lovingly tended and there’s a large chunk of manicured parkland in their front yard. “I tell everybody I’ve got seven acres in front taken care of by somebody else,” Phillip said. “We’re living pretty good.” I heartily agreed.

Rumbling slowly away, I gave thanks for finding another vibrant and unusual piece of the fabric of this city, and for the new friends who live there. I hope you find Wilmington and its history as savory as I do, even if it’s not named after you. — Spencer Compton

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