Does the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s annual announcement of area endangered properties prevent culturally significant homes and sites from demolition or deterioration?
George Edwards says, in a word, “No.”
That’s to say the foundation’s executive director doesn’t believe preservation is an independent endeavor. Just as HWF relies on public input each year to compile the Most Threatened Historic Places, it also needs action from owners, residents and government entities to get some of those places crossed off future lists.
HWF is once again collecting that feedback in advance of its 2016 release of selections, held in May as part of National Preservation Month.
While alone it’s not enough to save old homes, hidden cemeteries, local landmarks and little rural gems, Edwards said “the beauty of the list” is that it gets the ball rolling.
“With a threatened places list, the intention is to spotlight, inform and educate,” Edwards noted.
Initiated in 2006, the Most Threatened Historic Places list highlights a variety of sites in the tri-county region that “but for the intervention…might be lost through neglect or outright public or private actions that lead to demolition,” Edwards said. HWF added a traveling exhibit component in 2010 that is set up at libraries and other locations in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties with the goal of further raising awareness.
And from what Edwards has seen firsthand, the cataloging approach often works. Most importantly, it can also eventually lead to a concerted, collaborative effort to keep properties from falling into disrepair.
Take, for example, Brunswick County, the entirety of which was listed by HWF as a “threatened place” nearly a decade ago. The reason, Edwards said, was because as one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, Brunswick was also one of five counties in the state that had never completed a comprehensive survey of its historic sites.
Placing the sprawling rural county on the list two years in a row got the attention of area media, which in turn caught the eyes of readers. Residents then put pressure on their county leaders, who responded with a $65,000 allotment for the survey, which identified some 20 important sites and allowed the planning department to prevent future progress from encroaching on valuable history.
In Pender County, the Elijah Porter Plantation, a mid-19th century farmhouse-style home much loved by locals, was once crumbling from lack of care. The owners, Edwards said, were elderly and unable to make the necessary repairs and just wanted to sell the site. Willing to work with HWF, they agreed to be included on a Most Threatened Historic Places list and on the foundation’s website.
Six months later, it sold. Edwards said the new owners rehabilitated and restored the house and continue to live in and care for it today.
And Topsail High School, an aging building once in danger of demolition, now houses Pender County government offices and, Edwards said, has become a “tremendous sense of pride” for the community.
The success stories here in New Hanover County are many and varied. There’s the DuBois Boatwright House – a 1790s structure that is the second oldest building in the city. It now stands as an impressive symbol of restoration, so much so that it is included on this year’s Azalea Festival Home Tour circuit.
More recently, there’s the county-owned Tide Water building on Chestnut Street that reopened at the start of 2016 as a modern office complex with a hip and progressive “green roof.”
That’s a major shift from eight or nine years ago, when Edwards said government officials thought tearing the building down was probably the best option.
Of course, there have also been some losses over the years: the last remaining Atlantic Coast Line Railroad building downtown and cottages and the iconic ’40s-era Glenn Hotel in Wrightsville Beach, to name a few.
“I know that we miss things every single year. I know there are people who still don’t know about the list,” Edwards said. “So, it’s an education process but I know it’s an education process that works.”
In total, HWF has listed 52 homes, buildings, churches and other sites in batches of eight to 10 annually. Some are listed more than one year in an effort to draw more attention. Submissions routinely include thematic issues like wooden windows and the Rosenwald schools, especially prevalent in Pender County. Rosenwald was the name given to educational institutions for black students in the early 20th century.
“Every year we’ve really worked hard to try to acknowledge that you need to have a balance of sites,” Edwards noted.
Recommendations for this year’s list can be made to HWF now through Friday, April 8. Click here for nomination forms and more information.
After reading and reviewing nominations, HWF committee members will conduct site visits and hold discussions before picking this year’s finalists.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.