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Castle In The Air: Change A Constant In History Of Wilmington's Castle Street Corridor

By Cece Nunn, posted Apr 21, 2023
Andres Solise works on the building at 1220 Castle St. in Wilmington on April 12. The former gas station was built in 1920 and the current owner is restoring and remodeling it. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
Tommy Barron’s childhood best friend lived at Third and Castle streets when the pair were growing up in Wilmington in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

These days, the street is still part of Barron’s life. His business, Register’s Auto Glass, is around the corner from Castle Street, and he works out at Port City Boxing & Fitness at 13th and Castle. During his trips to the boxing gym, he noticed a for sale sign on the vacant property at 1220 Castle St., which holds a structure built around 1920 and was formerly a gas station and convenience store.

“I just kept seeing it over there,” Barron said. “Nobody would bite on it.”

Such has been the case with other properties on Castle, a street that has seen transformations and attempts to fill in the gaps throughout its history, from smaller aspirations like Barron’s to a planned redevelopment of derelict city-owned property. 

Barron and his wife, Linda, bought 1220 Castle St. for $260,000 in December, according to tax records. On a recent Friday, a worker was cleaning some of the former convenience store’s 100-year-old bricks with a chipping hammer to rebuild an outside wall.

“I told my wife we’re going to call it 4-Speed Bar and Grill. That was an idea I had,” Barron said with a chuckle. “I’ll probably just sell it. Maybe.” 

He added, “Really I just kind of like history. I’m from here. … I grew up in Sunset Park. And I’d just like to see the area nice.”

Changes on a larger scale are expected along the thoroughfare, including an infill plan not far from Barron’s restoration project.

On April 3, the Wilmington City Council voted unanimously to accept the highest bid for 1110 Castle St., a 1.5-acre city-owned lot that previously held a bus maintenance facility. City officials had weighed different ideas for what could be built on the site, but after other projects failed to come to fruition, the council voted to put the property up for bid.

The highest offer for the site, $867,500, came from PBW Development, a Wilmington-based development firm with plans to build housing and commercial space.

“While we have a broad range of expertise in the construction industry, our focus will be on ‘places for people to live.’ We’ve successfully delivered several hundred homes around downtown with an emphasis on ‘clean, safe, affordable’ but also using our resources to include thoughtful design within those spaces (i.e. oversized windows, high ceilings, soundproofed spaces and curated interior finishes that feel more like a custom home),” said Dave Spetrino, partner in PBW Development LLC, in an email. “We’ll certainly want to energize (and celebrate) the street level of Castle Street. Commercial or ground-level work spaces with housing above.… There is a lot of history along that corridor and we hope to create a space that, while starkly different from past uses, still feels familiar to future residents but also the community as a whole.”

The only other bid the city received this year for 1110 Castle St. was $10,000 offered by Genesis Block, a company that works with minority- and women-owned small businesses as they aim to grow.

Genesis Block officials said they had hoped the site could help Castle Street serve as an innovation corridor for such businesses and startups. While affordable housing is a critical need, the broader problem lies in another need: economic development, said Girard Newkirk, CEO of Genesis Block.

“But our vision still lives on,” Newkirk said. “We’re looking at other sites here in New Hanover County and Brunswick County. The town of Jacksonville is going to meet with us in April. There’s several other communities that are interested in deploying this model, and we just felt like the city of Wilmington had an opportunity to be at the forefront of that with this Castle Street property.”

Castle Street might have been named for a street in Liverpool, England, or a property owner’s “castle” in 1773, according to the book Wilmington: Lost but Not Forgotten by local historian Beverly Tetterton. Either way, its history includes multiple transformations. In 1994, efforts to revitalize Castle Street’s business district culminated in the formation of the Castle Street Association, Tetterton wrote.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Tonye Gray’s father, Samuel James Gray, owned property and businesses on Castle Street, one of several Black residents involved with what was once a bustling street. He was a physician, an entrepreneur and a civil rights activist, his daughter said. 

In 1956, Dr. Gray and two other physicians, Hubert Eaton and Daniel Roan, filed and won a lawsuit against James Walker Memorial Hospital challenging its racial discrimination policies. 

A small commercial center Dr. Gray owned on Castle Street between Ninth and 10th streets included a cab company, a barber shop and a laundromat, Tonye Gray said.

“Castle Street was thriving back then,” she said.

Later on, in the early 1980s, Tonye Gray reopened the laundromat, laundromat, which was permanently closed in 1990. Tonye Gray said she’d like to see a revitalization of Castle Street that doesn’t push out or preclude Black residents and businesses.

In the case of 1110 Castle St., which the city bought in 1974, the property stopped being used for Wave Transit bus maintenance as of 2015 and hasn’t been used for anything since then.   

Tonye Gray said if she could wish for anything for Castle Street, an educational program tops her list.

“I would like to see a technology program where all young people are taught a skill that automatically puts them in a well-paying job,” she said.

Recently, James Goodnight bought 555 Castle St. for $800,000 from the Davis family, according to property tax records. 
The purchase adds to what Goodnight refers to as an assemblage of properties on Castle, which also includes 539, 545 and 551 Castle St. as well as 515 Price’s Alley.

Goodnight is leasing back 539 Castle St. to its seller Michael Moore and Michael Moore Antiques for the time being, he said in March.
A plaque associated with 555 Castle indicates it was built as Alex Kosch Furniture in 1922, Goodnight said.

“Though the building’s facade has been altered over the years with stucco and a newer storefront, there is some great historic masonry, an original cornice and tin ceiling visible,” he said in an email. “The team is excited to dig in and see what else is hiding ready to be brought back to light.”

Some parts of Castle Street are in danger of losing their historic designation because of buildings that have been lost in the 20 years since Wilmington performed its last historical property survey, which is set to be updated this year. 

For buildings that have been demolished, such as those in the 600 and 700 blocks of Castle Street that had to be torn down because of hurricane damage or neglect, it’s too late to do anything.

“Once they’re gone, there’s no coming back,” said Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation.

But in the case of 555 Castle, which still stands, Goodnight said he’s hoping to have an impact on its status. 

“While we won’t be creating a new historic building,” he said, “we’ll hopefully be bringing one back to contributing status, which is great in light of recent news of some older buildings being lost to progress.” 

In recent years, Spetrino’s firm completed apartments on the corridor – The Crown complex at 919 Castle St., where residents began moving in during the spring of 2021. 

Of 1110 Castle St., Spetrino wrote in an email, “Logically, even though the site is a bit of a mess, it’s the type of development we’ve been doing for almost 25 years – it didn’t require a rezoning [it’s already zoned urban mixed-use] and we could likely restart the much-needed momentum within 12 to 18 months. Note, we would not have been an interested party had we not already made a $3M+ investment just one block away (and only two years prior …).”

Spetrino wants to start the new project quickly.

He said, “Fingers crossed that we can welcome our first residents in 2024. That may be a long shot but that’s our initial goal. It’s hard to know what the future holds or if demand is sustainable, but I feel like this is a 4- to 5-year project."
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