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OpEd: Why The Old Places Of Wilmington Matter

By Tom Mayes, posted Nov 12, 2019
Tom Mayes

Wilmington is a city like no other, a city of distinctive old buildings and historic places on the Cape Fear, from the Bellamy Mansion, where history continues to be discovered, to Thalian Hall, which moves visitors with performance and creativity, to the riverfront historic district, which draws tourists to experience the city, to the residential districts like Carolina Heights, where people live, work, worship and play every day. 

But why do these old places matter? What difference does it make if the people of Wilmington choose to save, use and re-use these places? I am an unabashed advocate for keeping and reusing old places, but in writing Why Old Places Matter, I found to my surprise that old places are actually more important to people than I — and many preservationists — generally recognize. Here's why. 

The old places of Wilmington support a thriving economy. Tourists flock to the riverfront historic district, the Battleship North Carolina and the Latimer House, and fill hotel rooms, restaurants and tours, raising tax revenue and providing jobs. The creative economy that fills the old buildings of Wilmington fosters entrepreneurial startups. Rehabilitation generates good jobs and higher wages. Old commercial corridors like Castle Street and North Fourth Street invite revitalization. 

The old places of Wilmington foster sustainability. The architect Carl Elefante says, "The greenest building is the one that is already built." Using and re-using old buildings is one of the greenest and most sustainable actions an individual or community can take in the face of rising sea levels and more intense storms. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has found that it takes 10-80 years for a new building — no matter how green — to make up the environmental cost of the demolition of an existing building and the throwing away of the irreplaceable old wood, brick, stone, and plaster. 

The old places of Wilmington keep our history alive and meaningful. At the Bellamy House Slave Quarters, people learn about the lives of enslaved people in a way that would not be possible if this rare old place did not survive. At the Battleship North Carolina, visitors experience the reality of crewmembers’ lives aboard a WWII naval ship and appreciate the sacrifices that kept the western world free. At the 1898 Monument, people acknowledge the difficult past of the violence of 1898 and honor those who continue to strive for racial justice. 

The old places of Wilmington matter for other reasons — the sacredness of places like St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and the Temple of Israel, the living beauty of the historic districts – with porches where people actually sit, gates to hidden gardens that invite people to reflect and the timeless patina of old brick and clapboard that give people a sense of time. 

These are all important reasons. But there's something even deeper and more fundamental. 

The continued presence of old places provides the people of Wilmington — citizens and visitors alike — with a daily and ever-present sense of identity, memory and continuity that is deeply grounding. We are attached to the old places of our lives — from the places where we live, to the places where we study or work, to the places where we play. 

These old places give us a sense of continuity that contributes to our psychological and emotional health. They help us know who we are, giving us a sense of well-being and stability in this ever-changing world. Our memories are anchored in these old places. 

My much-loved late sister lived in Wilmington when she was fresh out of college, and I grew attached to Wilmington from visiting her. I can well remember touring the Burgwin-Wright House with her and my mother – I hear the creak of the wooden floors right now. I remember walking the historic district and being stunned by its charm and character. I remember staring in awe at the then-unrestored Bellamy Mansion. And I remember sitting on my sister’s porch on Wrightsville Beach, feeling the coastal air on my face. I look forward to revisiting these old places of my life. 

Thanks to the Historic Wilmington Foundation, I’ll be visiting Wilmington on Nov. 21 to talk about Why Old Places Matter, and I hope my visit will give you a moment to consider why the old places of Wilmington matter to you. 

Tom Mayes is the chief legal officer and general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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