The Conversation

Anything with a Past

Beth Rutledge’s passion for saving and preserving
Wilmington’s old buildings


By Dana Sachs

Beth Rutledge: Executive Director, Historic Wilmington Foundation

How would you describe your job?

I carry on a long tradition of protecting and preserving old buildings.

What does that mean on a daily basis?

It can mean anything on any given day. It can mean bigger advocacy efforts. It can mean answering questions for someone who walks into our office. It can mean relocating a building. Last winter we moved a little bungalow from 310 Bladen St. after the owner, to his credit, donated it to us on the condition that it be relocated. So, it’s really big things, like moving a building, which we don’t do very often. It’s small things, like being able to talk to people about their wood windows.

How did you become interested in historic preservation?

I was born this way. I have always loved old buildings — old things, vintage clothes, anything with a past. When I realized that old buildings weren’t just here by accident, that was when I started becoming more active in historic preservation.

One of the biggest controversies in Wilmington these days concerns two older buildings downtown: the former Belk Beery department store, which now serves as the county’s main library; and the Borst Building. The county is considering demolishing them and developing a new public-private partnership called Project Grace, which would include housing, a relocated Cape Fear Museum and a new library. What’s HWF’s position on Project Grace?

We are not against developing the parcel. Our main concern is that they keep those two buildings as part of their development. The Borst Building was built in 1926 as Wilmington’s first Chrysler dealership. That area on Second Street used to be called Automobile Row. What’s really significant is that Chrysler started in 1924, and two years later, where did they want a dealership? Wilmington. Think about that. The fact that they expanded to Wilmington is fairly significant, and speaks to the activity that was happening then.

As for the Belk Beery Building, it’s a shining example of adaptive reuse. The county made it into a library in the early 1980s. But it’s also significant as the last existing department store downtown. It’s an echo and a memory of what was there, and it’s successfully being reused now.

The Historic Wilmington Foundation just published its annual list of Most Threatened Places, and that list includes both the Borst Building and the Belk Beery Building. What other buildings made this year’s list?

One of our most threatened places is the Reaves Chapel in Navassa. The North Carolina Coastal Land Trust recently purchased it, and we are partnering with them to help preserve the building. It’s on our list because there are still a lot of moving parts that need to come together for the building to actually be saved. Partnerships like that are what I hope HWF will do more of. When we join forces, we are stronger.

How do you respond to the criticism that HWF is averse to change?

There is nothing in this town to support that argument. If that were proving true, we would all be living in buildings from the 1600s or 1700s. That question — “Are you just going to save everything?” — well, look around. Clearly not. But if a building is viable and usable, why isn’t it preferable to use what’s already here? It’s ecologically sound. It’s environmentally sound. It’s an economically great decision. There are two old buildings on the Project Grace parcel. Why is it preferable to put those two buildings in a landfill if we don’t have to? The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a principle they call “Re-Urbanism.” Adaptive reuse is the default, demolition the last resort.

You talked about the value of preservation in terms of economics and environmentalism, but how would you advocate for preservation with someone who really values what’s new?

OK. It’s going to sound like I’m avoiding the question, but I promise I’m not. I’m just going to meander a little bit. Tom Mayes is the general counsel at the National Trust and author of the book Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being. He’s going to be the keynote speaker at our annual luncheon on November 21. The book talks about why old places matter. He uses words like “continuity,” “memory,” “architecture,” “creativity,” “learning,” “community,” “economics.” That’s just it in a nutshell. People don’t come to Wilmington to shop in the big box stores. They come because what we have here is extraordinary and unique.

What are your favorite buildings in the city?

I have so many. I have a couple downtown that I really love. The Huggins Building on Market Street. The Bonitz Building on Princess. And the old Bullock Hospital Building on North Front. These are all commercial buildings. They’re all being used. These buildings make me happy. Every time I walk past one of them, I point it out to my husband as if it’s the first time I’ve seen it and I go, “Oh my God, I love that building.”

It’s encouraging to hear that there are so many positive preservation stories in this town.

Absolutely. Wilmington has eight historic districts. We have a remarkable quantity considering how small our city is.

Can you name some historic districts we might not even know about?

Westbrook-Ardmore, which is bounded, roughly, by Dock Street to the north, Queen Street to the south and between South 14th and Wrightsville Avenue. It includes bungalows and Colonial Revival houses. Also, our smallest historic district is on Market Street, right past 17th, where the mansions are. There’s, like, four of them. That’s our smallest.

How can people who live in old houses maintain them without spending too much money?

Legacy Architectural Salvage. We opened it four years ago. Part of our mission is preserving and protecting irreplaceable historic resources of Wilmington and the Cape Fear. A historic resource is not just a building. It’s also an old window. A piece of flooring. A piece of trim. We realized that having an architectural salvage arm was a way to help people be great stewards of their homes. We’re keeping pieces and parts out of the landfill and we’re allowing them to continue being used.

In your eyes, what is the great value of historic preservation?

Historic preservation is not just “Washington slept here.” This is about making use of our built history. The way that old buildings are constructed proves how they were built to last. They were built with incredibly dense, strong wood. So you can feel the difference in a beam from a house built in the 1920s using wood that was probably 200 years old. You always hear that saying, “They don’t make them like they used to.” They can’t!

I know not everyone feels the way I do. There was an old brick building on Castle Street, the Jaffe Building. It was just a shell, but that building was like, “Look at me, I’m still here.” Then she came down during Hurricane Florence. That was wrenching. I got teary.  b

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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