Behind a Front Street mansion, a 19th-century kitchen holds pride of place
By William Irvine • Photographs By Rick Ricozzi
When William Belvedere Meares (1787-1841) built his Greek Revival brick residence in 1826 on the present site of the downtown post office, it was one of the showplaces of Wilmington. A member of the Senate from 1828-34 and the founder of the Bank of the Cape Fear, Meares also owned Bluff Plantation in Brunswick County. The three-story Wilmington house was later occupied by Union troops in 1865, when it served as a hospital for the 7th Connecticut and 3rd Ohio Volunteers; a later owner sold the land to the U.S. government (for the post office) and the house was moved, relatively intact, to its present location near Front and Church Streets in 1887.
In 2017 the Meares House was purchased by Matt Verge and Dan Spinello, who saw the potential to restore it to its former glory. “The owners had broken the house up into apartments in 1986,” says Spinello. “They had a thought of moving back in, so the configurations have minimal walls removed so it could be easily converted back to a single-family house.” There are now two apartments on each floor.
In addition to a large backyard that slopes gracefully down to the Cape Fear River, the house came with a Wilmington rarity — a one-story brick dependency, the former kitchen, which the pair soon renovated and offered as a rental property. It’s one of the highlights of this year’s Back Door Kitchen Tour, which will be hosted by the Residents of Old Wilmington on Oct. 12.
Beginning in Colonial times and through much of the 19th century, kitchens were often separated from the main house for a few good reasons: Having the kitchen in a different building kept the main house much cooler in the heat of summer and free of cooking odors; and in the event of a kitchen fire, the house would be safe from harm.
Ray Kennedy is a theater producer and director who has spent more than 30 years doing theatrical productions in Wilmington, mostly for the Opera House Theatre Company. He has owned a house in Wrightsville Beach for 20 years and recently returned to the area from New York, where he had spent time for the past decade. But he had downtown on his mind, and decided to rent out his Wrightsville Beach place and look for something in the historic district.
“My spiritual home is Thalian Hall,” Kennedy confesses. “And I was spending a lot of time down here, so I thought I would give it a try. Many of my close friends live in the neighborhood.” (When not downtown, Kennedy divides his time between a house in La Grange, North Carolina, and a place in Palm Beach.) So when he saw the kitchen house was for rent, he pounced.
The modest brick dwelling is a mere 550 square feet, but seems much larger, thanks in part to the 12-foot white clapboard beamed ceilings. The floors, formerly concrete, are now covered in attractive white oak. And the house is designed with many space-saving features.
One enters into a combined living room and kitchen, the latter occupying the entire east wall of the house. The walls feature floor-to-ceiling pine cabinets that conceal a refrigerator and freezer adjacent to a very tall, slender dishwasher. “We ended up buying the appliances at stores near New York, because they have things that are well-suited to smaller spaces like apartments, says Spinello. “Down here everything was way too big for the space.” There are upper shelves for kitchen storage and a portion of Kennedy’s majolica collection lines a high shelf.
The living area is centered around a large working fireplace, perhaps the only remnant of the original kitchen. The room features a portion of Kennedy’s highly personal collections of majolica and fine art, which includes works by Canadian artist John Bird, Jenny McKinnon Wright, Steve Bakunas — the husband of actress Linda Lavin, a friend of Kennedy’s — and his friend Jacques Rosas.
Upon entering the cozy bedroom at the rear of the house, it becomes clear that you must be a serious neatnik to avoid perpetual clutter. There is the luggage at the foot of Kennedy’s bed, for instance, which is full of clothes. “You just have to edit what you like to wear,” he says with a laugh. There is room for an elegant 1800s desk and chair, however, and Kennedy has concealed a large-screen TV on the wall above the bedroom doorway.
The small bathroom has a marble counter with a basin sink, a highly functional design that allows room for two large storage drawers beneath. Outside the bathroom is a narrow door, which reveals a small stacked washer and dryer.
And the real treat is the spectacular backyard garden. “God led me here because it had a better garden,” says Kennedy, an avid gardener who spent many years cultivating his backyard plot on New York’s Upper West Side. There is an alleé of azaleas, huge camellias and a large live oak tree with a lawn running all the way down to the river. Kennedy has created a courtyard by the front of his house with smaller container plants and a large bed of sunflowers. And it doesn’t sound like he is giving up this special place anytime soon: “I have always been a history buff and loved old houses, so living in an early-19th-century house, walking everywhere downtown, plus being on the river is just amazing.” b
William Irvine is the senior editor of Salt.
Residents of Old Wilmington’s 14th annual Back Door Kitchen Tour will take place on Oct. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to the Meares House, there will be eight other downtown properties open for tours. Tickets are $30. For information, call (910) 398-3723 or visit rowilmington.com. Since its founding in 1973, Residents of Old Wilmington (ROW) promotes preservation and beautification of the downtown historic districts through advocacy, volunteer projects and monetary grants.