Saturday, July 13, 2024

Masonboro Sound Historic District: An ‘oasis of extraordinary beauty’ threatened by clear-cutting development

Part 3 in a three-part series that takes a closer look at historic preservation of neighborhoods across New Hanover County

A large oak tree sits at the entrance of the Live Oaks mansion, built in 1913 of coquina – tons of sea shells were mixed and pressed into concrete for its walls. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Between the mouth of Hewletts and Parsley creeks along the Intracoastal Waterway is a cluster of 19th and early-20th century resort cottages, Colonial Revival homes, and several antebellum mansions — including an Italian Renaissance home built in 1913, aptly named “Live Oaks.”

The mansion was designed by famed architect Henry Bacon, who designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. and the Confederate Memorial in downtown Wilmington. It is distinct for its coquina limestone exterior walls — tons of sea shells were mixed and pressed into concrete — and its two-story octagonal form. The house is encircled by porches and crowned by a glazed cupola, topped by a finial in the shape of a pineapple, as it was described in an application sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1992. 

PART 1: ‘Not a hallowed threat’: HWF aims to protect Northside’s historic value from development

The area consists of 10 historic homes and 13 other dwellings, including old servants’ quarters and boathouses. After submission of an application by officials at the N.C. Office of Archives and History (OAH), the lush soundside neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October 1992.

In addition to the historical and architectural significance of the 23 surviving historic structures, the OAH called the Masonboro Sound Historic District an “oasis of extraordinary physical beauty.”

“[I]t also is important for the natural beauty and lushness of the landscape, itself historic, which exercises a powerful hold on the visitor and residents. . . . Views eastward, across Masonboro Sound and up and down the marshy shoreline, punctuated only by the docks, lend the district a vital cohesiveness, effectively linking all of the district’s properties with a sense of timeless beauty that has persisted since [the first home was built here prior to the Revolutionary War],” according to the application.

The marsh at the Intracoastal’s edge “gradually dries out as the land rises to a narrow knoll, the spine of the district,” on which most of the historic homes were built facing the sound along sprawling lots of Masonboro Sound Road. 

But the area will soon be home to a 170-home development called “East & Mason,” where a large swath of magnolia and coastal pine trees covering a 64-acre tract were recently cut down by Robuck Homes, Inc. The firm, based in Raleigh, has developed over 58 properties in Raleigh and the North Carolina coast for nearly a century, according to its website. These have included WyndWater in Hampstead, and soon, the Winding Marsh development further north along the Intracoastal in Ogden, in northern New Hanover County. 

On the eastern end of the partially cleared land sits an old cottage once used as a servants’ quarters for the Hill-Anderson Cottage, which also abuts the Robuck tract 450 feet south, on the development’s southeastern corner. Built in 1835 and moved across Masonboro Sound Road to its current location in 1986, the wood-shingled cottage was one of the state’s first coastal vacation homes, according to Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF).

The Hill-Anderson Cottage, built in 1835, is the district’s oldest surviving home. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

The Hill and Anderson families came to the small cottage to escape the city, about 6 miles to the west on the Cape Fear River. In 1906, the home was purchased by Admiral Edwin Anderson, a Navy officer who received the Medal of Honor for his bravery at the 1914 American intervention at Veracruz. Gilbert said the historic charm of the homes and old coastal trees, including centuries-old live oaks, is threatened by modern development. 

The HWF is pushing for the city to include federally protected historic districts like Masonboro Sound — and, similarly, Carolina Place, Ardmore, Brookwood and Northside — under the more stringent protections of Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“The development pressure out here is cannibalism. History repeats itself. . . . Out here they are clear-cutting entire swaths of this national registered historic district in order to build, once again, single-family homes so people can enjoy Masonboro Sound. This is an antithesis to preserving the character of Masonboro Sound.”

East & Mason Developers LLC, a subsidiary of Robuck Homes, purchased the property for $6.6 million last November, according to the Wilmington Business Journal. 

Gilbert said last summer the HWF placed an easement on a servants’ quarters cottage, nicknamed the “Doll House,” as part of negotiations with Robuck to conserve the exterior of the home and nearby trees. An easement placed on the homely Hill-Anderson Cottage in 1991, five years after it was moved across the street, was the HWF’s first easement to protect both the outside and inside architecture of a historic home, according to Gilbert.

The back side of the “Doll House” looks out onto a sprawling, open area cleared of its trees for the future East & Mason development. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

PART 2: Should the city protect Carolina Place as a local historic district?

The Hill-Anderson Cottage is the district’s oldest surviving structure, and “one of very few antebellum resort buildings remaining on North Carolina’s coast,” according to the HWF. 

Many antebellum and colonial summer homes were built in the district centuries ago but were either destroyed by fires or from neglect, Gilbert said. According to the OAH, before a second phase of construction from the 1830s to the 1870s, it was a “significant summer resort area since the late colonial period.”

William Hooper, a Wilmington attorney and one of three North Carolinians to sign the Declaration of Independence, built a large resort home on the sound prior to the Revolutionary War. On March 14, 1931, it was destroyed by a fire. Its new owners, a son of a German diplomat and his wife, replaced the home with a large Colonial Revival house in 1933, which still exists today.

“The structures that are here today are pretty much a second generation of sound cottages, built not only on the remains of the antebellum and colonial houses, but sometimes salvaged,” Gilbert said. “And the older remains were used to build what exists today.”

Gilbert called the Live Oaks mansion “a pretty unusual design by a pretty unusual guy,” Henry Bacon, buried at Oakdale Cemetery near the Northside District. He pointed to the irony that the man who designed the Lincoln Memorial also designed the Confederate Monument in downtown Wilmington. He should also be remembered for this antebellum mansion on Masonboro Sound, Gilbert said.

There is not as much awareness of the Masonboro Sound Historic District as other districts closer to downtown because fewer people know about these old sound homes, according to Gilbert. But its preservation is important, not only to protect the homes but to compliment environmental conservation.

“Historic preservation affects so many other causes,” Gilbert said. “Out here at Masonboro Sound, you see the marriage of historic preservation and protecting the environment — being sensitive to clear-cutting, being sensitive to [stormwater] drainage into the Intracoastal, the sound, and the ocean. By protecting these historic structures, we’re not only protecting the architectural, historical significance of those structures, we’re also protecting these lots from being clear-cut.”

View more photos of the Masonboro Sound Historic District below:

A stone monument recognizes a home built by William Hooper, a Wilmington attorney who signed the Declaration of Independence. His home was destroyed by a fire in 1931. Two years later, a Colonial Revival home was built in its place; the servants quarters for the home is seen behind the monument. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
The front entrance to the Live Oaks mansion as a rainstorm passes over Masonboro Sound. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
A sign at the eastern edge of the Robuck property showcases the future East & Mason development. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
Most homes in the district are modern. When the OAH submitted an application to the federal government in 1992 to place the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, there were 10 contributing homes and 10 noncontributing homes (those that were not recognized as historic structures). More noncontributing homes have been built since that time, and developer Robuck Homes has cleared numerous trees for the future 170-home subdivision called East & Mason. (Port City Daily/Port City Daily)

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