WILMINGTON — Footsteps from the riverfront, the Old Wilmington City Market once resembled the architecture of the 19th century, with triple spires reaching 50 or so feet in the air. It has since lived many lives: as a market, an auditorium, offices, and a tourist destination of shops and galleries recognized today. Although it has been renovated throughout the years, the 1880-structure has been touted and considered as contributing to the history of downtown, until recently.
Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) stripped the building of its contributing historic status in a unanimous October decision at the request of the newest property owner. The reason for doing so was to grant the owner the eligibility to rebuild to 50 feet instead of 32. Members were made aware to build up, the developer would likely need to demolish the frail one-story building.
The future of the site, with its existing building stretching from Front to Water street, is now unclear.
Within the form packet for removal of the contributing status, the applicant wrote about intentions to transform the market into a multi-story residential project with commercial space. However, on a call Tuesday, property owner Erik Hemingway denied any immediate plans to change the building. He indicated he only went through the commission to withdraw the historic status for the purpose of touch-ups, such as exterior paint and light fixtures.
“We have no future plans for any change to the building at this time,” Hemingway, who also owns City Storage, wrote in a follow-up text.
Under the entity ER Quiver Family Limited Partnership, Hemingway acquired the building at 124 South Front St. with his wife in March 2020 for $1.47 million from City Market of Wilmington LLC.
“It’s a great property and we want to keep it as a destination for tourism,” he said, speaking of his interest in the building. “I think it’s a great location.”
It’s not the first time the commission has given, essentially, a thumbs up to raze the aging structure. In 1983, the commission endorsed the demolition for a 13-story condo project, but it never came to fruition because of the real estate market at the time, according to the applicant-penned narrative for the project:
“Times have changed, and we believe the market is ready for a project of this scope. We are proposing a new project on this site, a multi story residential project with commercial space on both Front Street and Water Streets, returning the property once again to an attractive addition to downtown Wilmington.”
Rumors of impending redevelopment have been circulating the market in recent months. Multiple tenants at City Market reported hearing rumblings of reconstruction, but haven’t received any direct information from the management or made any plans to relocate.
During a July HPC meeting, where they discussed the proposal more in-depth, Hemingway repeatedly stated he was seeking the removal of the contributing status to explore their options, but he also acknowledged that the only way to expand upward was to tear down. Architect David Lisle, working on Hemingway’s behalf, said the cost to stabilize and maintain the building is “substantial.”
Historic or not?
The City Market was erected between 1879 and 1880, but it’s been renovated so many times that it no longer is historic, according to experts.
“This building doesn’t hold anything other than its memory of what it was,” architect Lisle told the commission in July.
It underwent renovations in 1912, 1919, 1930, 1944 and 1960.
“It was a beautiful façade at one point,” Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, said in an interview. “But over the years, it has been chipped away and chipped away until you see the façade that it is today.”
It’s unknown when the building was reduced from three stories with spires to a flat roof. In addition to its height reduction, windows were rearranged, the building form was modified, and exterior materials were swapped out.
“Today’s building is unrecognizable compared to the original design,” according to the city’s findings of facts. “These changes have impacted the historical significance of the building.”
The city took ownership of the building not long after its opening, from October 1882 through the early 20th century, according to a January 1989 article in the StarNews (née Wilmington Star). It once served as a meeting space for church and civic groups and at another time it sat vacant, according to the project narrative.
Circa 1919, the building was converted into an auditorium, then it was used as a farmers market for female entrepreneurs in 1920.
In 1960, under new ownership by a former city councilman James Batuyios, it was remodeled furthermore into five separate offices. In the early 1970s, it was modified with new brick veneer and stucco covering the original brick on two sides.
Today, the masonry building houses a coffee shop and wine bar, specialty shops and galleries. And it’s reportedly deteriorating.
Professional structural engineer Tim Hines, who inspected the building for the owner, told the preservation committee every part of it is “structurally inadequate.” In a letter, he reported the masonry walls were weathered and prone to water absorption, requiring significant repairs. He suggested the roof was at the end of its life and water-stained, the skylight systems were in poor condition, and the concrete slab was cracking, held together by numerous patches.
“Overall, the structure will require much work to repair it to a safe and structural adequate condition,” Hines wrote. “The costs to repair this building properly would be significant compared to its value.”
What will become of it?
Gilbert, of HWF, said he can’t argue that the architectural integrity of the building was lost throughout the course of the various alterations. At this point, he said, he has other apprehensions.
“Our concern lies in the future of that site,” Gilbert said, “and how it affects the integrity — specifically, the integrity of the setting for the historic district and the contributing structures around that property.”
Just a block away from City Market, a prime example of Gilbert’s fear exists: a gravel parking lot, once home to the historic IceHouse Bar and Restaurant. Known as one of Wilmington’s most popular live music venues in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the indoor-outdoor space’s iconic tugboat stage featured artists frequently playing along the riverfront.
Razed in 2004, following a drawn-out preservation battle, the business also made cameos in the popular Wilmington-filmed show “Dawson’s Creek.” After it was demolished, the show made up a storyline that the restaurant burned down and made Dockside Restaurant on Airlie Road its new shooting location.
According to a 2002 StarNews article, developers were once eyeing the site for condominiums, a restaurant and retail, and planned to incorporate original material in the new building. In 2005, Myrtle Grove Enterprises, LLC purchased the land for $2.1 million and it has remained a parking lot.
“We are just proceeding with caution,” Gilbert said, “hoping that the future of the City Market site does not include years and years of being a vacant space, which is not the highest and best use of that land.”
Ideally, it would be a structure congruent with the rest of the district, he said.
Not the first time
Following the September 1983 approval to demo the market for new condos, the property owner vowed not to raze the building until he was ready to start construction. That promise likely may have prevented another IceHouse outcome.
More recently, in April 1989, a second certificate of appropriateness was issued for the demolition of the building. This time plans were put forth for a hotel by a Forsyth County developer. He planned to rehabilitate the market as a 33-room Riverwalk Inn, rebuilding the façade with the three original spires: one about 63 feet tall and the other two at 50 feet.
During that approval process, impetus for the demo spawned from a certified engineer report stating it was not possible to build on top of the existing building.
StarNews reported at the time that renting out space as a market was not seen as profitable enough to recoup the rehabilitation and construction costs. It’s not clear why plans for a hotel never panned out. At the time of the newspaper’s article, negotiations for the sale of the building to the developer were still underway and property records don’t show another transfer until 2001.
The points system
When the commission made their October decision to drop the historic title, it was based solely on the evidence of whether the building is “contributing.” The HPC wasn’t allowed to consider whether it would be demolished –– though commissioners got the hint it was a real possibility –– or base their decisions on applicant’s intentions.
Per the city’s land development code, the applicant was asked to demonstrate through a points system that the building has little or no significance in four categories: cultural importance, architectural integrity, architectural style and structural integrity.
They came up with 0.25 out of 12 possible points, only giving the one-fourth point to the structure for being “one of a group of structures that represent a stylistic type or have distinctive characteristics that are significant by their commonality during a period of history.”
In July commissioners questioned the “nebulous” points system, with numbers generated only by the applicant. Members acknowledged they didn’t have the expertise or on-the-spot knowledge to make such determinations, especially about the structural integrity of the building, and instead asked if staff or the State Historic Preservation Office could work to draw a conclusion.
But they recognized bringing in the state office could take months, and staff said they weren’t qualified to review structural engineers.
“We aren’t either, though,” vice chair Joan Keston said at the time.
HWF’s Gilbert addressed the commission to caution them against setting a precedent by basing the decision off a points system the applicants scored themselves. According to commission members, this was one of the first times they’d reviewed a decision with the scoring system.
Not wanting to “rush” into a vote, the commission tabled the issued and hosted a subsequent special meeting to reexamine the process. When the commission regrouped in July, Hemingway brought attorney Samuel Potter to break down the points system and how they came to each determination:
Hemingway testified he’d uncovered little history of the market during a two-day stint in the library. He determined no famous owners or architects and no significant events were connected to the space.
His structural engineer attested to the inadequacy of the building and confirmed he inspected it based on the North Carolina building codes.
An architect denied any style and integrity relating to the old days. He called the building basic and utilitarian. Even the windows are in new places, he pointed out.
The commission quickly moved unanimously to approve Hemingway’s request, granting him the eligibility to rebuild to 50 feet high.
However, any plans for demolition or redevelopment would still need to come before the commission again for approval, since City Market is located in the city’s historic overlay district.