Take a peek at the hidden history uncovered by downtown Wilmington renovationsBy Benjamin Schachtman.
WILMINGTON —The Port City has a lot of history, sometimes it’s just hidden under a little plaster and brick.
James Goodnight has more than a passing fascination with historic buildings and has been working for the last several years to renovate a number of properties in downtown Wilmington.
“It’s also more interesting to live, to work, or to eat and drink, in a building that has history,” Goodnight said. “There are so many buildings here that have been just kind of boarded up or are sitting unused. There’s a lot that can be done with them.”
Along the way to refurbishing several downtown properties, he’s discovered hidden passages, pirate feasts, buried bones and – just maybe – a booby trap.
21 South Front St.
Goodnight’s involvement with downtown property began when he bought 21 South Front St. – the former Charlie Brownz location – and turned it into the Next Glass headquarters. The place was falling apart, Goodnight said.
“The end of Jacob’s Run used to come right through here, and every time it rained, it would flood up,” Goodnight said. “The floor was, well, the floor was very sticky.”
Beneath the years of abuse, Goodnight found the building had good bones — he also found some other bones, as well.
“I got a photo in a message,” Goodnight said. “It looked like a tibia and a shoe.”
The UNCW Department of Anthropology later determined the bones were non-human, but Goodnight said the text was still a shock.
“The Wilmington Police Department came down here and everything,” Goodnight said. “I mean, imagine getting that text.”
Despite the potentially ghoulish discovery, Goodnight said he found himself taken with the building’s history. Built by Leon Todd as a furniture store in 1938, it was slowly expanded over the years, adding a second and then third floor (and a roof, which now has a deck with views of the river). Much of the building’s brick and woodwork was still intact.
“The building had great history, it just needed some love,” Goodnight said. “It worked out so well, I started looking at other properties.”
1 and 9 South Front St.
Goodnight next expanded to 1 South Front St. – and then its neighbor, 9 South Front St. The buildings, designed by Wilmington architect Henry Bonitz, were once connected, both built at the turn of the century, and Goodnight discovered the original doorways between the two spaces, bricked up over the years.
Again, the building needed some love. The former tenants, Goodfellas, had left the space in need of serious repair. As renovations went along, the virtues of the space revealed themselves, Goodnight said.
Contractors discovered original window frames and woodwork dating back to 1899. Upstairs from Platypus and Gnome, at 9 South Front Street, that original architecture shines in a finished apartment where Goodnight has stayed from time to time.
“It’s a great place to crash. The windows especially are great, they still have their original rope and pulleys,” Goodnight said.
Goodnight ventured a few blocks over to Princess Street for his next projects. There, he found the old City Electric Company, at 226 Princess St. Built in the 1930s, the building still had 55 electrical junction boxes in the ceiling.
Next store, resembling a Spanish mission, is 222 Princess St., built in 1905. The exterior made from tabby, a once concrete made from burnt oyster shells. The construction method originated in Spain, and was first brought to the colonies in the 1500s; it fell out of favor by the end of the 1800s, according to Goodnight.
The ‘Feast of the Pirates,’ was held in Wilmington between 1927 and 1929, you can see the flying Blackbeard on the left side of Princess street here, looking north. 222 Princess St. is visible on the right at the end of the road. Also: chopped suey. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY JAMES GOODNIGHT)
The Princess Street properties were part of what was once called “Robber’s Row” because, as Goodnight said with a laugh, “the street was lined with real estate agents and attorneys.”
The street was also home to a trolley that went to the beach, a major part of the Feast of the Pirates. Celebrated for just three years, from 1927-1929, including maritime pirate reenactments on the Cape Fear, a bathing suit contest – though there were no bikinis at the time – and what author and historian Susan Taylor Block called “more ribald, mindless behavior than Wilmington saw before, or has seen since.” (Block has several works on Cape Fear history, and you can read more about the Feast of the Pirates here.)
Inside the 222 Princess Street building, Goodnight found the original tin work hidden beneath a 1980s drop ceiling. And downstairs, in the basement, one more surprise — an iron safe, manufactured in the 19th century.
“We saw a similar one at a property in Raleigh,” Goodnight said. “It apparently had a teargas canister hidden in the locking mechanism, so if you tried to drill into to it, to open it, it would go off.”
Goodnight said he has no current plans to try to dig into that little piece of history.