As water levels recede and residents begin to recover from the torrential rainfall and flooding, it’s amazing to think there are a few local buildings that have seen this type of weather many, many times over and they’re still standing.
This includes the DuBois Boatwright House in the first block of South Third Street, which at nearly two and a half centuries, is firmly historic Wilmington’s second oldest home and one of the longest-standing buildings of any sort here.
While the home built in 1767 may still be standing, it does need help. Over the past five months Beth Pancoe of SDI Construction has worked to take this piece of Wilmington’s history, and make it work better than it did before.
According to Pancoe, the home was originally owned by John Dubois, a local merchant and alderman, which she describes as the equivalent of a modern day city councilman. The Wooster family inherited the house in the 1840s. Through marriage, ownership was transferred to the Boatwright family who have owned it ever since.
In 2013 the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF), listed the Dubois Boatwright house on their ‘most threatened’ list. In April the current owner, Julie Boatwright Petee, hired Pancoe as a contractor to work on the rehabilitation of the house. It has been a tedious process, which required stabilization efforts during the first five months of construction.
“The house was literally pulling itself apart,” said Pancoe. “When our engineer first came in to look at the house he wouldn’t even step foot on the second floor, it was so bad. However, we were able to put together a plan and our team has been so great executing it…it’s really coming along now.”
By the end of 2016 Pancoe expects the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home to hit the rental market.
While projects such as these can be difficult, she prefers them to building new homes and business sites, because for Pancoe the act of saving a story makes all the difference. As she describes how the original 18th-century beams were hammered together for the walls with such an incredible precision, she’s glowing, like a kid with the coolest science fair project ever.
This value of the preservation process has been instilled in her since she was a girl. Pancoe grew up a tinkerer, repairwoman, and a do-it-yourself specialist. She had to, she said, because as the daughter of a minster, her family depended on items the congregation donated to her family. Everything they used while living in the parsonage was secondhand, and nothing was new. If something broke, they had to fix it themselves. Over time, restoring and repairing an old piece of furniture or appliance became more of a hobby than necessity.
Her pension for restoration has driven her to work on historical rehab projects throughout the Wilmington area for the last 28 years, with more than 40 currently under her belt including the oldest synagogue in the state, the Temple of Israel, and the Wise Mansion for UNCW.
For Pancoe, restoring historical houses is like creating a personalized museum, leaving pieces of the existing structure to feature as exhibits for its future residents. For this home, Pancoe will use most of the original wood used in the ceiling and the walls, which after all this time is still structurally sound.
“Look at the ceiling joists here; they’re original and someone had to saw all of this by hand,” said Pancoe, pointing to describe it. “Can you imagine doing all this work like that? It’s still here and functioning…the craftsmanship that went into this house is truly remarkable.”
Pancoe has made it a point to preserve as much of the original wood as possible. In fact, most of the wood used in the construction of the home is almost 500 years old, and is still just as solid as ever. What she could not use in the restoration, she’s donated to the Cape Fear Museum including some of the home’s original shingles.
“Some of it’s very hard to hammer because it’s heart pine and unbelievably strong. My guys had to pre-drill some if it before they could hammer it back in,” said Pancoe.
She doesn’t want the antique wood behind the walls to be forgotten either, so she’s adding a few special designs into the home to draw attention to its history. This includes small doors on some of the walls in the house, which open up so residents of the home can see the original wood in use. She’s also exposing part of the home’s original shingles and roof inside the house, which you can see while descending the stairs from the second floor into the main living room. She’s done this because the house’s original stairs—which she’s also preserved—were once on the exterior of the home, and she wants the next residents to imagine what it used to be like for its original tenants.
“I like adding things like these little exhibits because it’s the oldest house I’ve worked on and it’s just so cool, I want to share this house’s life and its unique architecture with everyone,” said Pancoe.
“This is educating people to appreciate what was done in the past…We can’t get houses like these again. You can’t find this anywhere and we should never give it up.”
The cost of preservation
For the average person, historical property renovations could be out of the question since hiring an outside contractor knowledgable of the process could go beyond a repair budget.
“If you want people to save things, then you should help them out…It costs a lot more money to preserve a home than to build a brand new one,” said Pancoe.
Five months into the renovation with another four to go, Pancoe expects the entire project to cost about $300,000. While restoring a house such as this one isn’t easy or cheap, she believes preserving history is priceless, and the reinstated Historic Preservation Tax Credits to the state’s budget this past September are important for other historic homes in the area see a similar transformation.
While the statewide credits were unavailable to the home owner during the majority of the construction to this particular home, according to Pancoe about $80,000 could be knocked off of the price of the renovation if the homeowner applied for the state preservation tax credits.
According to the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, historical rehabilitations for commercial, industrial, agricultural or rental residential purposes are titled as income-producing historic properties. These historic rehab projects can qualify for 15 percent credit from the state along with the 20 percent in federal tax credits. In effect, this means if someone where to renovate a historic home and make income off it as a rental property, the combined federal-state credits reduce the cost of a certified rehabilitation by 35 percent.
If the property is also a non-income-producing historic structure (owner occupied) the owner could apply for a state tax credit of 15 percent for qualifying rehabilitations.
For a property to be certified as a historic structure it must first register with the State Historic Preservation Office, and submit a formal application.
“I tell my clients the money is out there to help you with this, why not apply?” said Pancoe. “I just ask them that before you do anything you really should do the research on your property… the city offices here in Wilmington and the state offices are very helpful for providing the information you need for you to get started.
For Pencoe, the bottom line on preserving historical buildings and homes is simple.
“If we don’t decide to save it, then who will? What happens to all that knowledge we find within these buildings and homes? It will be gone,” said Pancoe.
For now, Pancoe and her SDI construction crews are still hard at work with renovations on the Dubois Boatwright house, but a local real-estate agent has approached her to work on what could be her potential next project—restoration for the oldest house in Wilmington, the Anderson House on 102 Orange Street.
When asked how it would feel to have the first and second oldest homes in Wilmington under her belt, Pancoe cracks a giant smile.
“I’m excited about the possibility of working on that home as well, it’s a really cool project,” says Pancoe. “But for now I’m focused on this, one thing at a time you know?”
James Mieczkowski is a news reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @mieczkowskiPCD