A half century ago, a small group of forward-thinking Wilmington residents banded together to protect the downtown landscape against the threat of suburban sprawl.
Now, the organization that has worked to preserve and repurpose the area’s architectural history has itself reached the historic mark.
Historic Wilmington Foundation is (HWF) celebrating its 50th year of concentrated preservation efforts through the Cape Fear region. To kick off its anniversary commemoration, the local non-profit will host Stephanie Meeks, National Trust for Historic Preservation President and CEO, who will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 8 in Room B at the Coastline Conference and Event Center, 501 Nutt St. She’ll also lead a breakfast discussion on preservation at 7:15 a.m. on Wednesday, March 9, at UNC-Wilmington’s Kenan-Wise House, 1713 Market St.
One of the oldest local preservation groups in the state, just after Beaufort’s, HWF was borne in 1966 as an offshoot of sorts to the city’s architecture review board, created in 1962.
The need for preservation was, at that time, coming more clearly into focus, HWF executive director George Edwards said, after the post-World War II era had ushered in new homes and neighborhoods outside the city’s downtown hub.
“During that early ’60s period there is a realization…that our downtown was spiraling downhill,” Edwards noted.
That spiral, not “uncommon across the U.S.,” he added, happened in part because of the postwar economic boom from enhanced industry, G.I. bills and affordable mortgages for servicemen.
The impact of that boom, however, was a crushing one for Wilmington’s “urban core.”
“People are looking around and seeing these empty houses…and seeing all this surging suburban development…so they think, we’ve got to arrest this and spur our downtown back to life,” Edwards said.
With the foundation of HWF came an original mission to protect and stabilize downtown’s historic neighborhoods from demolition or deterioration, creating instead “viable structures” in which people could live.
Following the cue from the fledgling preservation group, Residents of Old Wilmington was formed a few years later, then the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE)—now Wilmington Downtown Inc.—in the early ’70s.
Across the nation, Edwards said, the ’70s really highlighted the damage progress had done to history. He saw this firsthand as a former historical society director in Atlanta, where, by that decade, the city had torn down warehouses, train stations and some of the country’s earliest skyscrapers to make room for new construction.
“By ’76 everybody left downtown except Belk,” Edwards said of Wilmington’s own downtown exodus. “Then Belk leaves in the early ’80s to go the mall.”
The federal government was taking notice of such movement and enacted the first tax credit for historic commercial buildings in 1976, a decision that helped usher in a new wave of people invested in preservation.
But Edwards said, in many ways, HWF was ahead of the curve, coming into existence concurrent with the state’s preservation office and the national historic registry.
“Here is a local preservation organization that is very visionary and optimistic about what they could do,” he said.
And unlike Beaufort—which came into being in the late 50s—HWF went beyond efforts to establish and maintain historic sites as museums or attractions.
“They of course contribute greatly to the conversation,” Edwards said of Beaufort. “They run a great site museum the way a historic society does.”
But HWF was the first preservation organization in the state to utilize a revolving fund, a pot of money for buying up threatened structures and making short-term loans, among other purposes, that ARE recouped from either the resale or loan reimbursement. Running in conjunction with that longstanding fund, created in 1967, is the organization’s program to acquire preservation easements on those properties before they are sold or the loan is repaid.
“Between the revolving fund and our preservation easements program, we have directly saved over 100 buildings,” Edwards noted.
HWF has also helped put eight districts in Wilmington on the National Register of Historic Places and add 6,000 buildings to the list. Its historic plaque program, created in the late ’60s, routinely recognizes preserved properties and educates the public on their history and significance to the area. There are now around 550 buildings in HWF’s tri-county coverage area that have been awarded such plaques.
Looking ahead, that kind of education is essential to the future of the local preservation movement, Edwards said.
“One of the big challenges is drawing in new and younger populations,” he said.
The preservation movement, he added, has benefited in large part from the baby boomers, who watched a changing landscape in their hometowns at an age where they could still recall the way it used to be.
“But the baby boom generation will gradually pass out of leadership roles in the next 20 years and there have to be people to fill those spots,” Edwards said.
To that end, HWF put in place its “Tar Heels Go Walking” initiative, a partnership with New Hanover County Schools to give local third-graders a guided tour on foot from the downtown fire station to the waterfront. Since its inception in 2009, the program has served upwards of 17,000 students, 1,000 parent chaperones and 300 teachers, Edwards said.
Remaining relevant to all age groups and ethnicities is crucial, too, he said, whether it is by reaching out to minority groups like the growing Hispanic population or by offering DIY classes and unique finds at HWF’s thriving salvage store. The store, which reopened in a new location last year, is already undergoing an expansion due to demand and, Edwards said, in its six months of operations it has surpassed the highest annual revenue – $12,000 – the former resale business brought in.
“Moving forward, we are going to making sure legislation and incentives remain viable,” he said. “We have to continue to educate people. You know, I think we all get guilty sometimes of saying, ‘It’s always been this way.’ We’ve got to tell people that you can’t take things for granted.”
Because, Edwards said the fruits of labors undertaken 50 years ago can be seen across the city today, from the now swanky City Club at de Rosset in the Second Street home the HWF rehabilitated to the burgeoning North Fourth area that is anchored by the Brooklyn Arts Center. The center was once St. Andrew’s Church, which HWF, too, bought up after a storm a couple decades ago caused the building’s entire front wall to collapse.
“That starts a ripple that’s still going on,” Edwards said. “When you have stabilized neighborhoods nearby, too, it shows investors there is a strong residential and commercial presence…Wilmington should really stop and see what all this has done.”
And “all this” didn’t just come about through HWF, he added. Organizations like Residents of Old Wilmington and local government buy-in have helped, decades later, return downtown to a bustling city center.
“Nobody works in a vacuum…If you look across the country, preservation has made huge strides…but it’s a young movement; it’s still evolving,” he said. “Nobody does something by themselves. We do have to create those associations and connections with people.”
In addition to Stephanie Weeks’ visit next week, HWF will host a 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday, May 7. It runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Hannah Block Historic USO and Community Arts Center, 120 S. Second St. There, self-guided, interpreted walking tour maps of the historic district will be given out and artwork from Cape Fear Camera Club and New Hanover County students will be on display. There will also be a scavenger hunt for adults and children (accompanied by an adult).
A variety of hands-on activities will be available at the nearby Children’s Museum of Wilmington, 116 Orange St., from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m
The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society will give landmark house tours starting from the corner of Third and Orange streets, with admittance to the Latimer House, the Bellamy Mansion and the Burgwin-Wright House, trolley rides and a catered boxed lunch.
And the celebration wraps up with an en plein air art auction and cocktail reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at New Elements Gallery, 201 Princess St.
Ticket prices for the gallery reception and home tours have yet to be determined; all other activities are free. Visit HWF’s website for updates.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.