Monday, December 11, 2023

Historic preservation commission OKs new design for downtown Wilmington’s Bailey Theater

The owner of the historic Bailey Theater façade plans to construct commercial space on the property, retaining the wall. (Port City Daily photo/Williams)

WILMINGTON — The Wilmington Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) gave the green light Thursday to a transformation of the historic Bailey Theater property downtown. The plans retain the landmark, but will include painting its pink-and-blue façade gray.

The HPC, which determines if projects are congruent with the special character of the historic district, unanimously approved a certificate of appropriateness for the Bailey Theater. The theater is located within the historic district overlay, on Front Street, meaning its storefront —  visible from the right of way, excluding alleys— is subject to the board’s review.

“The proposed new construction would be designed as a product of its time and incorporate the existing façade ruined wall but would not duplicate or create false history,” Christine Hughes, one of the city’s planners, said.

To keep the historical ruin intact, a new steel structure will be erected to brace the fragile walls and the future building will be constructed behind it. The proposal is for a tall one-story structure, to house commercial space, with a light gray stucco elevator tower up to a roof deck, surrounded by clear glass guardrails. Some walls of the building will be a dark, olive green.

Rob Romero of Romero Architecture indicated the goal is to achieve a restaurant as the tenant, but retail is also a possibility. Within the existing openings of the wall, glass windows and double doors will be fitted where the entrance to the theater lobby once existed.

Romero Architecture submitted these designs to the Historic Preservation Commission. (Click to enlarge)

The theater’s historic mezzanine tiles behind the wall will also be saved and incorporated into the new design. However, Romero told the commission contractors may run into construction issues along the way and need to cut the slab out and relocate the flooring.

The design for the incoming development includes an oversized vertical, black sign spelling out “BAILEY” in white letters, as a nod to the original theater’s feature. At approximately 103 square feet, the sign would require an encroachment agreement and a variance to the city’s sign regulations.

Toomers Alley, the public space alongside the property that is heavily traversed as a route from the parking deck on 2nd Street, will not be affected by the project. Renderings show added plantings and benches in the passageway, which would require city permits.

No building has existed on the site since the mid-1980s when the Art Moderne movie house was razed. Originally built in 1942, the theater accommodated up to 1,200 attendees, with 818 in the auditorium and 387 in the balcony.

“I grew up going to that theater and, of the three movie theaters … the Bailey even as an 8-, 9-. 10-year-old, it had such style inside, interior- wise,” commission member Michael Smith recalled.

After the theater closed, the site became a parking lot. The second street parking deck was built behind it.

In its earliest days, the address belonged to the Purcell House, a four-story brick building opened before 1884, according to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. The city found through its research that an independent hotel ran at the site until 1904. It was taken over as an annex of the Orton Hotel and, from 1910 through the 1930s, it served as a rooming house. Then in 1942, it was demolished and the theater went up.

This historic photo shows how the Bailey Theater was positioned behind the façade and the original vertical signage. (Courtesy City of Wilmington)

In recent years, the decaying wall, one of the last remnants of the theater, has been at risk of destruction. In March 2017 the historic preservation committee denied a request to reduce a 365-day stay of demolition, despite concerns about pedestrian safety. Due to its loss of integrity, the façade is a non-contributing site in the National Register of Historic Places.

In December 2017 Global Properties Holdings LLC purchased the property for $285,000 from GC WILMINGTON LLC, according to property records, and it has remained untouched ever since. The owner is Stamatia Saffo, Mayor Bill Saffo’s brother.

Commission members said Thursday night they were glad the demolition plans were never followed through with in light of the new proposal.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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