A Grandee Visits a Grande Dame
Spencer Compton explores the legendary Carolina Apartments
Illustration by Romey Petite
When I was in short breeches, my most elegant mother, Mary Noel, liked to bend an old saying: “Curiosity skills the cat,” she would say, encouraging me to explore the world around me, even if I soiled my silken blouse or bloodied my busy knees.
Indeed, I developed a hunger for how things work and connect, from the Archimedes screw pump that filled the moat around our Compton Wynyates estate to who was screwing whom in the highest reaches of British government.
While my contemporaries in Parliament considered I, Lord Wilmington, to be a dullard and a fop, many of the realm’s deepest secrets and machinations were at my polished fingertips. (Which is why I became prime minister of Great Britain in 1742.) My lifelong inquisitiveness (some spelled it meddling) has served me well in my current explorations of this city, named for me by my protege, Royal Gov. Gabriel Johnston, once the grandest man in this land.
Which is why I recently found myself, flashlight in hand, exploring the very bowels of the Carolina Apartments, the oldest and most singular of the town’s high-rise habitations. It is one said to be haunted by ghosts and certainly the memory of Wilmington’s most famous and flamboyant artist, Claude Howell.
“This is where I come hunting for ghosts,” said my guide, sixth-floor penthouse resident Donald Parham, a compact, well-maned Beethoven lookalike who also wielded a flashlight to penetrate the gloom. (He had left his ghost-busting, shriek-producing lightsword in his apartment, where he has better luck seeing the Carolina Apartments’ famous spirits.)
Pipes dripped in this subterranean maze that twisted hither and yon at the corner of Fifth and Market streets. Ahhh. There’s the dumbwaiter born 112 years ago, parked brokenly at the bottom of its pit as if it had plunged to its own death. Around the corner at the bottom of a seemingly forgotten shaft is the original elevator car with its distinctive swing-arm controller built by Moffatt Manufacturing of Charlotte, which launched its elevator business at the time the Carolina Apartments were built in 1906 and 1907, I learned. I’d wager it was the first electric passenger elevator car in the city.
There are the bins that once held coal. And beside them, the original Gurney 1130 boilers from Toronto that formerly fed steam throughout the massive masonry building. They remain fantastically imposing, lined up with their mouths hanging open like hungry iron mastiffs from hell. In the winter, my guide explained, the upstairs apartments would be so hot all the top floor windows would be open.
“The architect must’ve been drunk,” I couldn’t help but muse while trying to get the feel of the footprint of this most unusual creation. It seemed to wind underground well beyond the borders of its upstairs structure, perhaps under Market Street or even the neighboring Kenan Memorial Fountain. (Looking up the building’s history in the fabulous research room at the city library — complete with my signed portrait! — I learned the architect, Robert Louis Sharpe, was part of the team that designed the New York Stock Exchange.)
During my thorough tour from the basement to the roof, I marveled at how one structure could be so thoroughly befuddling — and interesting! Two staircases — one cramped and spiraled for the help — practically hold hands as they climb through the floors. An almost-ancient, wood-walled Otis elevator — the successor to the ghostly one in the basement — trundles creakingly up and down the building near the double-barreled staircases, across from the since-removed freight elevator that was once busy hauling ice, pianos and furniture, and close to the metal outdoor staircase that mate the two halves of the building. This means there were five avenues for vertical conveyance in this Flemish bond brick behemoth, not to mention the original wooden fire escape ladders. (Despite this plethora, more than a few people have leapt to their deaths here.)
Apartments stagger from room to room, each saying something different. Doors open to other doors or to floorless balconies with metal railings that look as if they’ve been on the ocean floor for generations. High-ceilinged hallways are narrow and long, as if they were stretched out and up by some capricious hand.
All of which means . . . there is magic here!
“There’s a whole different vibe,” said Primus Robinson from his suite on the sixth floor. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” If anyone can define “vibe,” it would be this man. Mr. Robinson, 71, is the president of the Cape Fear Jazz Society and a former disc jockey. His narrow entry hall is lined with gold and silver records he earned while running the R&B, jazz and jazz fusion arms of big record labels like Atlantic and Elektra in New York and Philadelphia.
I found him to be a man after my heart, with a noble brow shielding a large, well-used cerebrum. His voice seems to harmonize with his colorful decorations, stacks of diverse books (his dog-eared and fat Oxford Companion to Jazz looks like a pastor’s Bible) and, of course, the beautiful views from his windows.
I felt myself sinking into his couch and truly feeling the spirit of this building. It really is, as neighbor Donald Parham said, like living in the past. “I like old buildings, architecturally interesting places,” said the well-named Primus Robinson. “And this place is interesting. I feel content here.” What about ghosts ? (After all, the Carolina Apartments are on the city’s ghost tour. “I’d welcome it, but I haven’t seen it,” he says.
But he said he likes to imagine the presence of “the great Claude Howell” permeating the building. Ahhh, Claude Howell . . . I have heard so much about this wondrous artist, printmaker, colorist, teacher, globetrotter and irrepressible character since my arrival here. And people said I was odd!
There was Claude Howell — who was born and died in this building — standing strip stark naked on his sixth-floor balcony, so often that the horse-carriage tour guide had to look up and check before pointing out the historic building to passengers.
In your modern vernacular, he had balls!
There was Claude Howell (1915-1997), brightly gay, with his perpetual scotch and cigarette and cucumber sandwiches made by his mother and suite-mate. A master of costumes and his own style, he started Wilmington College’s (UNCW) art school even without a degree (he worked as a stenographer for the Atlantic Coast railroad) and would make his students paint small squares of paper to master the nuances of color, for which he was renowned.
His fame bloomed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and he became the first North Carolina artist to be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Claude Howell famously brought to the world the beauty and character of coastal Carolina and its people. He also kept a fungus plant in his apartment closet that he would extract liquid from to restore health and vitality. Simply smashing, this fellow! He would’ve been welcomed at London’s Kit-Cat Club, where only the grandest humans (ahem) were allowed.
Checking the city directories at the library, I learned there have been a wide variety of people who have lived at this sprawling structure with its 12-bay facades, uncanny stone balustrade, scroll brackets and, in the beginning, wrought-iron carriage lanterns. A century ago it housed minor railroad executives and train masters, an eye specialist, the owner of a book and stationery store, a cotton mill vice president, the assistant manager of the Schloss Theater, the co-owner of a dry goods store, the manager of Eureka Dye Works, two traveling salesmen, and assorted widows or daughters of the well-to-do, among many others. The apartments range in size from 800 square feet and up and currently rent for roughly a dollar per square foot.
As my new long-haired friend Donald Parham (he had attended the original Woodstock music festival as a 15-year-old) squired me around the building, we met some of the current residents, who remain a quite diverse lot in terms of age and color, more than a few sharing their flats with canine companions. “This place is not for everyone,” one said as he led his hound to the larger stairwell because he finds the elevator slow and uncertain. Indeed, if your tastes run to gleam, straight edges, modern kitchens and big open windows, you’ve clearly made a wrong turn.
But if you don’t mind a few cracks and creaks and hunger for vintage character and “vibe,” you’ll find a home here.
Filmmakers have loved to use it for their movies, from the 1986 classic Blue Velvet to the independent film Uncle Frank, filmed here in May about a character somewhat like Claude Howell.
Our tour ended on the roof with one of the most fabulous views in all of Wilmington. I stood marveling, imagining what it was like in 1905, before all the high-rise hotels and riverfront development. The antique masonry coping is unlike any I’ve ever seen or imagined. And up here you can clearly see why the structure seems so baffling below: It’s actually two separate buildings connected on one side by the stairwells and elevator shaft, and on the other by an uncanny arched parapet wall that feels like a section of an ancient Roman aqueduct, or part of our old family manse in Warwickshire, England.
That the wall hasn’t shifted or toppled over the years testifies to the quality of its engineering and construction. It’s a lovely, scruffy and curious place. If I wasn’t so happy in my Queen Street digs, I would certainly seek a residence here. My new bell bottoms with brocade trim and emerald silk shirt would be right at home here.
But don’t tell my mother. Despite her advice to explore, the always impeccable Mary Noel Compton would be mortified by these Carolina Apartments. — Spencer Compton b