WILMINGTON — Carolina Place is the sort of neighborhood where, at around 5 p.m. on a Friday evening, a resident can look through a tunnel of covered porches and see a handful of neighbors drinking cocktails and talking freely from porch to porch, each only yards apart from the next.
The neighborhood is bounded by Market Street on the north, Wallace Park on the east, Gibson Avenue on the south, and the diagonal one-way Wrightsville Avenue on the southwest. Its 46 acres of land encompass most of Wilmington’s first streetcar suburb, built by the American Suburban Corporation beginning in 1906.
The tightly clustered homes were constructed for blue-collared workers looking to escape downtown on the city’s new trolley line to the coast. Most of its early residents worked on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, which entered downtown from the northeast, near the company’s headquarters at the Wilmington Union Station on Front and Red Cross streets.
According to an application submitted to the National Parks Service in 1992 — Carolina Place was included on the National Register of Historic Places a month later — other original residents consisted of realtors, insurance agents, carpenters, plumbers, engineers, several owners of retail shops, a minister, and the owner of a candy factory. Many also worked as electricians at the Tidewater Power Company.
Travis Gilbert, a 27-year-old historian and executive director of the Wilmington Historic Foundation, said the historic charm of the neighborhood comes from its modest bungalows and Late Victorian cottages.
“These middle-class workers — this is where they came to live,” Gilbert said. “And I also see a wonderful palette for the ‘City Beautiful’ movement [in the late 19th and early 20th centuries]. These nice tree-lined boulevards, the front-porch culture, the close-knit homes that create that neighborly feel: How can you not be friends with your neighbors when you’re in a setting like this?”
Most homes are Craftsman bungalows built between 1906 and World War II. There are also four Classical Revival and Queen Anne-style mansions on both sides of Market Street, between 17th and 18th streets, appropriately named the “Mansion District.”
The federal application describes a major reason why there exists a certain pride in the neighborhood: Many homes had remained in the same families’ ownership since construction, and many of those families have had other relatives living in the neighborhood. Although the American Suburban Corporation initially banned Black residents during the Jim Crow era, a more diverse population later emerged.
“These factors have contributed to a strong sense of continuity and pride in Carolina Place, even as socio-economic changes in Wilmington have altered the neighborhood’s population mix,” according to the application. “Abolition of the racially motivated restrictive covenants has made possible a multicultural flavor.”
Because of its strong historical roots, Gilbert and the WHF are pushing for the neighborhood — along with Brookwood to the east and Westbrook-Ardmore to the southwest — to become a locally protected historic district. It is a federally recognized historic district, but as such it faces far fewer regulations than its local counterparts, which are under the jurisdiction of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).
The HPC consists of nine council-appointed members who hear and decide requests for Certificates of Appropriateness, which allow for exterior changes to a property, in accordance with the adopted Wilmington Design Guidelines for historic districts and landmarks. (There are only six landmarks in the city, including the old Fire Station No. 5 in Carolina Place, which is now a residential home.)
Nonetheless, many residents prefer the neighborhood to remain as it is today, without city regulators dictating how they modify their homes. There is a sense, shared by many residents, that homeowners in Carolina Place already preserve the homes’ architectural integrity without regulation, both to enhance the area’s real-estate value and to protect the neighborhood’s historical charm.
“While a number of the houses in the district have undergone minor alterations and some are in need of rehabilitation, overall the district’s buildings retain their historical character and are well preserved,” according to the federal application. “A dense canopy of mature hardwood trees and large numbers of small dogwoods also help knit together the built fabric. . . . Running along the east side of the district is the grassy strip of Wallace Park, through which runs Burnt Mill Creek, a meandering stream lined with mature cypresses.”
To protect, through restrictions, or leave it to the homeowners?
A small poll conducted last week on a popular Facebook group, used by homeowners and renters in the district, found that 70 people were against such regulations and 13 were in favor of them.
“Historical designation has been widely acclaimed as a gentrification tool,” one member said.
Another urged residents to be careful of what they wish for; if Carolina Place ever became a local historic district, any altercations, like the installation of modern windows or paint jobs, would need to be approved by government appointees.
“I would have hated it if, during our recent restoration, an agenda-driven commission was constantly looking over our shoulders,” one member said. “We knew what had to be done to properly represent the neighborhood without micro-management.”
The group’s administrator attempted to assuage any concerns.
“[T]his would prevent new builds that don’t fit in. New remodels would need to keep architectural charm. It ain’t all that bad,” he said.
When Carolina Place became a federally registered historical district in 1992, there were a total of 337 contributing buildings — those with architectural qualities that make the historic district significant — and 71 non-contributing buildings.
Heinner Mourillo, who moved to the U.S. from Costa Rica in 1991, lives near Wrightsville Avenue and builds film sets for television shows and major motion pictures. He recently wrapped up work on the production “Black Phone,” a horror movie starring Ethan Hawke.
In fact, Carolina Place is home to several of Wilmington’s film-industry workers.
Mourillo moved to Carolina Place in 2007 and is now well-known in the neighborhood as a handyman. When he’s not on a film set, neighbors hire him for restoration work, specifically doors and windows. Like Gilbert, Mourillo believes it is only a myth that installing modern, plastic windows are the only way to enhance a home’s air efficiency.
“It seems a good majority of people like to keep the original [architecture],” Mourillo said while sitting on his front porch early Thursday evening.
According to Gilbert, many local homeowners believe replacing original, wooden window frames with vinyl frames will better insulate their homes from outdoor temperatures. But he contested that notion by pointing to an article published by Preservation North Carolina, an organization founded in 1939 to promote and protect “the buildings and landscapes of our state’s diverse heritage.”
“Homeowners can make relatively simple repairs to increase old windows’ energy efficiency, and storm-window systems can further improve energy efficiency while protecting and retaining the historic character of the home,” according to the article.
Mourillo said a process he uses to restore old windows — although it may cost more time and money than installing vinyl siding — consists of taking the windows apart and adding new weather stripping to make them airtight.
But he wasn’t surprised by the Facebook poll, which indicated many Carolina Place residents are hesitant to allow the HPC to tell them which color they can paint their homes or fences, avoid vinyl siding, or keep their original window frames intact.
Like many other areas in the region and across the country, home values in Carolina Place are booming. Mourillo believes this is due in part to the desire of most residents to maintain their homes’ architectural integrity, especially in a neighborhood that attracts buyers who appreciate its historic atmosphere. Only four or five Carolina Place homes are in need of restoration, according to his estimate.
City leaders have not yet responded to questions about potential future decisions concerning local historic districts. When asked Friday if the city is interested in including Carolina Place and Ardmore under the HPC’s purview, no council members responded. (They did not respond to similar questions sent last week concerning the Northside District.)
A spokesperson for the city said all questions should be sent to his office rather than to council, and because questions were sent early Friday afternoon, he couldn’t ensure a timely response “to receive official city comment.”
Rob Romero, chairman of the HPC, also referred to “to the city’s PR department” for official comment.
(This story will be updated with any potential responses.)
But Gilbert and the HWF plan to keep advocating for these neighborhoods to fall within “overlays” — areas like the Downtown Commercial Historic District, which is both federally registered and locally protected. They’re also looking just east of the area to Forest Hills — a wealthier neighborhood lined with large homes on spacious lots — with the hope of one day securing its spot in the National Register of Historic Places. Although the subdivision is newer than Carolina Place, the homes in Forest Hills are gradually reaching the 75-year-old benchmark to allow federal recognition as a historic district, according to Gilbert.
“We think that this entire area is ripe for a local overlay,” Gilbert said. “Historic preservation is active. Where we worry about Northside shrinking, out here in the trolley suburbs, you see the opposite. . . . We advocated for Westbrook-Ardmore to become federally designated just 10 years ago. And we want to keep moving to places like Forest Hills. Let’s keep moving that way because these homes are getting older.”
View a photo essay of Carolina Place — going back to the days and months following Hurricane Florence — below:
Carolina Place is a mecca for trick-or-treaters. Weeks after Hurricane Florence ravaged the neighborhood in September 2018, residents went all-in on Halloween decorations.
Next to giant fallen oak trees that cut off Market Street for days after the storm was the old Bass Oliver House, built for John Bass, a timekeeper and accountant for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. On the front porch sat Lydia Mincey, the great-great-granddaughter of Lucretia Ellicott Poe. According to Mincey, she was the sister of famous poet Edgar Allen Poe.
When asked if Mincey had some sort of gloomy obligation to honor the old poet, known for his tales of mystery and macabre, Lydia Mincey pointed to a pumpkin carved with the design of a bird — a reference to Poe’s famous poem “The Raven”, she said.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,” the poem goes, perhaps suitable for the weathered residents of Carolina Place during the weeks after the hurricane.
Her old brick fence that separates the front yard from Market Street was crushed by a tree, so she decorated it with a large spider web to take advantage of an authentically gloomy entrance for trick-or-treaters.
“We loved all of our trees on our section of Market Street, and we had our old brick wall crushed,” Mincey said. “So making light of a bad situation seemed like the right thing to do.”
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