Sunday, June 16, 2024

19th century sound home to be demolished and replaced, neighbors decry plan as ‘sacrilegious’

Shandy Hall, found at the end of Greenville Sound Road, was rebuilt in 1880. Its new owner intends to demolish it and replace it with a near-replica, despite the objections of the city’s historic foundation. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON –– Only a handful of sound-dwelling bygones remain, hugging the city’s crawling marshes.

Evidence of the aristocratic, 18th-to-19th-century summer homes is scarce, threatened by the elements and anthropogenic forces of modern development pressure.

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

Where Greenville Sound Road dead-ends emerges Shandy Hall, an unassuming relic tucked behind handsome moss-covered oaks. It’s squarely centered on the eponymous Shandy Lane, which hosts a lush and quiet collection of the city’s finest homes. Though clearly from another era, the quaint, pale blue home’s exact age is unknown. 

With wings added in later years, the central two-story building was constructed (or purchased, separate records describe) in 1880 for Wilmington businessman David Gatson Worth, according to an inventory of 143 of the area’s most notable historic buildings, curated by New Hanover County and the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources in 1986. 

Despite numerous alterations, “a rambling picturesque character has been created that makes it one of the most interesting and significant architectural sites in the county,” the research concluded.

Built, burnt, rebuilt

While its charm isn’t contested, its exact historical record is muddy (two historians told the StarNews in 2019 much is unknown).

A structure on the footprint is believed to have existed on the property in the mid-1700s, set ablaze in the mid-1800s and later rebuilt. The earliest record of the site dates back to a land deed to Thomas Conner from King George II in 1737.

Newspaper clippings from 1849 advertise the sprawling property for sale by Duncan Bryant; four years later, another news report stated the home was destroyed by fire.

It may have been the summer home of merchant Charles Jewkes and his associate, John Burgwin, for whom the Burgwin-Wright was built downtown in 1770. Situated on a berm, a blanket of trees shields Shandy Hall’s views of Money Island, where Capt. William Kidd allegedly buried his treasure, according to local folklore.

A place to escape the stench and bustle of city life, Shandy Hall today remains one of the last remnants of an antebellum oasis. 

“In context, it contributes to the interpretation and preservation of the birth of beach tourism as we know it today,” said Travis Gilbert, executive director of Historic Wilmington Foundation. “Going to the sounds, it was the first exercise in escaping to Wrightsville Beach. Before they went to the beach strand, they escaped to the sound properties.”

New owners

After 45 years, its longtime caretakers (who even named a dog “Shandy”) sold the four-bedroom home in March 2020 for $1.6 million. A sales listing boasted the “meticulously maintained” property’s historical significance and coastal allure.

Dr. Robert Fleury, a then-Pinehurst-based psychiatrist, purchased the home and later sought the services of Tongue & Groove, a high-end design-build firm located less than a mile up Greenville Loop Road.

With a reputation for erecting glistening waterfront mammoths, Tongue & Groove is owned by Mark Batson, a Wilmington native who earned his B.A. in history from UNCW. 

Rumors swept Shandy Lane: The neighborhood’s anchor might get torn down. 

“Surely that cannot be true,” neighbor Kimi Hemingway said she thought when she first heard the talk. “Nobody would do that –– that would be sacrilegious. It’s unfathomable that somebody would take down this historic building.”

Her husband Chip, a local architect and former member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, has lately found himself in the crossfires of uncomfortable neighborly sensitivities.

“You can buy any house and tear it down. But you’re going to tear down this one? The historic heart of our neighborhood?” he said he wondered.

Given his credentials, he’s been appointed de facto spokesman, representing a silent contingent of reticent homeowners wary of ruffling their new neighbor. 

First, he submitted a thorny question to Fleury on an email chain, including dozens of boat-slip owners, typically reserved for dock-related matters: Is Shandy Hall getting demolished? His question elicited a roundabout response that confirmed fears.

Days later, Tongue & Groove staged a photoshoot on Shandy Hall’s front lawn. Posing with a gold-plated branded shovel and hard hats, Fleury, more than a dozen family members, and the development team consecrated the partnership, shared on the firm’s Facebook page.

To quell an uprising, Fleury shared a development presentation with a neighbor the following day, who then forwarded it onto a batch of neighbors. They should be grateful –– it could have been a three-lot, three-home job, the neighbor pointed out. 

At some point, Tongue & Groove headed to the North Carolina room in the county library to determine if Shandy Hall was more myth than history. Because “there isn’t an original structure, and little of the one built in the 1880’s,” the firm concluded it was a tear-down. 

“There isn’t enough to restore, and so we will re-build,” the presentation states. “If we find items worthy of preservation, we will incorporate them into our plan.”

Gilbert, who said he doesn’t have enough structural information or surveys on hand to definitively deny it’s too damaged to save, said there are city properties with protection easements in worse shape being actively preserved. 

To the team’s credit, the planned rebuild is a near-recreation outfitted with modern enhancements. It’ll closely resemble the original from the exterior, except for a dormer window here, a new back porch and pool there. The sleek, Shandy Hall 2.0 would even reintroduce double fireplaces for the first time in at least 75 years, Fleury told his neighbors. 

“We are very sensitive to the history of Shandy Hall and our great neighborhood,” he wrote. 

In all, the project will take about 18 months to complete. A building and demolition permit has yet to be pulled, city records show, but are anticipated any day. Batson of Tongue & Groove and Fleury both did not return requests to comment. 

A more modern addition to Shandy Hall, on its southern wing, is visible from Skystasail Drive, which leads to the community boat slip. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

No preservation safeguards

Earlier this month, Gilbert was invited to conduct a “superficial architectural observation” of the property, attended by Batson, Fleury, and Hemingway. 

Perhaps it wasn’t worth saving after all?

The historic director walked the grounds, noting double piazzas, and neoclassical revival transom lights. He observed a central floor plan with east-to-west doors, lined up to invite a marsh breeze. It was hearth-less, which told Gilbert the early dwellers were dependent on a kitchen setup somewhere else on the property –– a deliberate arrangement to prevent unwanted heat from collecting in the humid summer months. There was plenty of 19th-century hardware, with sturdy locks and doorknobs throughout.

Indeed, there were mid-century changes. But had they eroded the property’s historic value?

“I concluded that there certainly was enough material from the early 20th century, to not only be representative of a period of significance in terms of the history of the sounds of New Hanover County that was represented in the built history,” he said. “To destroy Shandy Hall would to would be to destroy a piece of this county’s history.”

Though it’s named in multiple historic catalogs, Shandy Hall has no protections. “If anything, it’s at the polarizing extreme of the spectrum,” Gilbert explained, in terms of its complete lack of preservation safeguards. 

While there are a few nearby historically significant structures (namely, Tannahill next door, built in 1891 and used as a backdrop for a “Gone With the Wind” sequel), the surrounding Greenville area isn’t ripe for its own geographic historic protection, Gilbert surmised. In these districts, either established locally or nationally, tax credits are available to incentivize tactful restoration. Some overlap, but some are outside the city’s realm (Masonboro Sound Historic District, for instance, is a nationally registered area but isn’t regulated by the local preservation commission, allowing a development pressure “cannibalism,” Gilbert previously told Port City Daily).

“We’re seeing slowly but surely our contributing resources in these national register historic districts either be demolished, or their defining features amended and altered to the point where the building the contributing resource is no longer historically and architecturally significant,” Gilbert said of the ongoing phenomenon outside locally controlled districts. 

The home is certainly eligible as an individual local landmark, Gilbert said, and it appears as though someone sought this out in 2010 when the property was surveyed by the State Historic Preservation Office. This designation is approved by a local government (in this case, it would be the City of Wilmington), granting owners a 50% property tax deferral so long as important features are intact. 

But following through on the feat can be arduous and time-consuming –– even Gilbert’s foundation has yet to submit its application for its keystone preservation property, Giblem Lodge, identified earlier this year.

Preservationists encounter “a lot of surveys that occur in that area, but never any execution,” he said of the greater Seagate area. (Surveys aren’t necessary for local landmarks but can help determine eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, he added.)

With property owner consent, HWF can negotiate preservation easements, ensuring historic properties don’t get maligned by future owners. Its first sound-adjacent easement solidified in 1991 protects the 1835 Hill-Anderson Cottage on Masonboro Sound; next door from the Hill-Anderson, HWF recently negotiated with developers to get an easement placed on a servants’ quarters cottage nicknamed “The Doll House,” bordering clear-cut land prepping for 170 single-family homes.

Preservation easements are the simplest mechanism to ensure protections for historic properties –– both in and out of established historic districts. 

Gilbert offered an easement or help ushering through a local landmark application. He even pitched long shots: HWF could help move the home (a hail mary that actually worked for the foundation in 2018) or at least stand by to collect pieces to be sold by HWF’s retail arm, Legacy Architectural Salvage. 

A legacy team recently salvaged the Pearsall House on Airlie Road, a small, neo-classical revival bungalow built in 1919 –– another property surveyed in 2010 with no further action toward securing a local landmark. The property owner opted not to preserve the home following recent hurricane damage, so HWF made the best of the situation and collected what it could. 

“We’re willing to do the least harm as possible,” Gilbert said. “And although we’ll do it with a tear on our eye, we’re ready to go in there and salvage what we can.”

Since his walkthrough at Shandy Hall, it’s not clear if even overseeing salvaging some of its elements is on the table; he has yet to hear back from either Fleury or Batson.

Hemingway, who previously oversaw choices as relatively inconsequential as paint color in protected downtown districts on the preservation commission, said Shandy Hall demonstrates a need for historic designations. “This highly illustrates the need for historic designation and why they’re so important,” he said. “Because here’s the most historic building in our neighborhood, that our whole neighborhood was built around.” 

Once, Hemingway sought historic preservation status for a barn he fixed up as his art studio on his property, which he believes may be a remnant of the Shandy Hall estate (he quickly realized plaquing a small shed would be unlikely). 

“It’s unfortunate that some of the historic properties in the outlying areas of the county aren’t protected,” he said. “And this is the reason why they should be.”

Plans for the new Shandy Hall are elegant. “On a certain level, I can kind of appreciate that kind of nod to what it was,” he said. “I don’t want to condemn them because I guess they are making a gesture, to build a replica, but it is a historic structure that is going to disappear.

“You don’t rebuild historic artifacts. In historic preservation, there is none of that. You preserve the past as the artifact.”

Hemingway recognizes the owner has the right to do what he pleases, but can’t grasp why he wouldn’t leave it to another owner who would surely keep it.

“When you buy something historic, you own it, but there’s a certain part of it that the community owns,” he said. “It’s not that you buy it to wipe away history; you should take it on that you’re a steward of this history. You’re a caretaker of the history, you’re not really free to wipe it off the face of the earth.”

Shandy Hall, found at the end of Greenville Sound Road, was rebuilt in 1880. Its new owner intends to demolish it and replace it with a near-replica, despite the objections of the city’s historic foundation. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

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