Love in the Heights
A preservation-minded couple’s sensitive restoration of a turn-of-the-century house in Carolina Heights
By William Irvine • Photographs By Rick Ricozzi
In a 1908 feature story, the Wilmington Morning Star informed its readers about a new neighborhood taking shape northeast of Market and 17th streets. Carolina Heights promised “in the very near future to be not only Wilmington’s most fashionable, but one of its most delightful suburbs.” Developed by Mary Bridgers, an heiress of Col. Robert Bridgers of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and other business interests, Carolina Heights featured capacious lots divided by service roads through the center of the blocks off the numbered streets. Bridgers recruited Chicago architect Burett H. Stephens to assist in the designs of the neighborhood’s substantial houses, an appealing mix of Georgian and Colonial Revival, Shingle style, and all manner of Bungalow variations.
It was this appealing mix of architecture and walkable scale that attracted Wade and Ashley Wilson to Carolina Heights. “We fell in love with it,” says Wade. “It’s a front-porch neighborhood. You can sit out front and wave to the neighbors. The lots are a quarter-acre, so they are spacious. You get a nice neighborhood feel but can still maintain your privacy.”
The Wilsons’ attractive 1909 Dutch Colonial on Princess Street, designed by Burett Stephens, will be featured as part of this year’s Azalea Festival Home Tour, sponsored by the Historic Wilmington Foundation.
When the Wilsons purchased their house in 2014, it had been empty for about five years. Known as the Judge Johnny Walker House for its previous owners, it still had good bones, but needed some modern upgrades: The house had no central air-conditioning and radiator heat; the old wiring needed to be replaced as well.
And the interiors? “They were state-of-the-art 1965,” says Ashley with a grin. This included wall-to-wall carpets, which were glued to floors of fine yellow pine. “I spent many months removing the carpet from these beautiful floors,” she says. Almost all of the original architectural moldings are still in place. In the living room, 10-foot ceilings are graced with thick beams. The Wilsons were also attracted by the original large front windows, which are complemented by two sets of French doors.
While they were poking around in the attic one day, they found an old box of light fixtures covered in dirt and dust. “Wade kept moving that box around, but I wouldn’t let him throw it out,” says Ashley. A sensible decision, because they turned out to be the original solid brass light fixtures. Two of these now grace the downstairs, a hanging pendant lamp in the front hallway, and a vintage four-light hanging lamp in the dining room.
The Wilsons have long supported local artists, and the downstairs is a veritable gallery, with oil paintings and works on paper by Claude Howell, Jack Berkman, Peggy Hall, and Sam Bissette, among others. There is also a charming framed quilted artwork depicting a jester fishing on the edge of a crescent moon. “This is a work by the nuns of St. Mary — formerly in Jester’s Cafe,” says Ashley. A sunny Italian landscape by Chip Hemingway graces the kitchen.
The front hallway is flanked by the living and dining room, and the latter has a distinctly Arts and Crafts aura, thanks in part to the shoulder-high wainscoting that surrounds the room with a shelf atop it. “I think these were certainly used to display china — there is a plate rail along the back of it,” says Ashley. The shelf now holds silver cups and other family pieces. Family portraits hang above.
In the corner of the room is a coal-burning fireplace with a magnificent cast-iron carved plank in front of it. “That’s original to the house—it’s known as a summer cover, what you would use to conceal the fireplace off-season,” says Wade.
The kitchen is in the back of the house, and the Wilsons incorporated a former back porch, which is now a comfortable seating area. Ashley kept the old side-by-side sink — great for cleaning up — and there is a countertop of black granite and a stove for a serious cook.
One of the benefits of a Dutch Colonial design is that it gives you a lot of space under the roofline, and the upstairs floor of this house is no exception. It is deceptively spacious, with four bedrooms and two bathrooms surrounding a central hallway. One end of the second floor, originally a sleeping porch, has now been divided into two rooms, a laundry room and a bathroom with a lovely claw-foot tub. The master suite also features a walk-in closet with movable shelving and a state-of-the-art bathroom. There is also a “man-cave” for Wade that features reclining chairs that Ashley mentions would only be acceptable upstairs and out-of-sight. The overall effect is a house lovingly restored, but with a keen eye to 21st-century living.
“When you have a house this old, you realize that not everything is going to be perfect,” says Wade. “All hundred-year-old houses will have termites, old plumbing and wiring. But you know what? It’s all worth it.”
William Irvine is the senior editor of Salt. His latest book, Do Geese See God? A Palindrome Anthology, is available on Amazon.