WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Preserving The Future Of Wilmington's History

By Cece Nunn, posted Apr 10, 2023
Giblem Lodge Masons include Jimmy Lightfoot (from left), Earl Armstrong and Terry Jackson, who all recently expressed how important restoring the lodge is for the area. (Photo by Madeline Gray)

Terry Jackson speaks of the Giblem Lodge No. 2 as if the brick, wood and stucco building is alive.

The lodge, a Black Masonic temple built around 1871 on North Eighth Street, was a Wilmington cultural hub for decades, at one time holding the only library Black residents were allowed to use. The lodge’s current members are working to restore the three-story building to its former glory.

“It’s like breathing,” said Jackson, a Giblem Lodge member who was born in Wilmington. “It has been the oxygen to a lot of African American growth from the 1800s to today. And so if it isn’t restored, it’d be like cutting off the oxygen to a lot of the past, the present and plans for the future.”

Pieces of Wilmington’s history have disappeared over the centuries, replaced by parking lots and modern structures. But others are hanging on with the help of people who want to preserve the past, including Giblem Lodge, historic homes and other threads in the fabric of Wilmington’s many historic districts.

Giblem Lodge Masons still hold their twice-monthly meetings at the lodge at 19 N. Eighth St., where Earl Armstrong, another member, works each day to take care of the landmark. The Italianate-style building is located in the Wilmington Historic District, which includes large portions of downtown’s core and is designated by the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s the city’s oldest district, created in 1974 and expanded in 2004, and it “is witnessing an alarming number of contributing structures being destroyed,” explains Historic Wilmington Foundation’s website. “A study of the district’s northside highlights this trend, with an estimated reduction of over one-third of all contributing structures since 2004. Of the contributing structures that remain in these study areas, six have preservation easements by the HWF, including the Brooklyn Arts Center and Edward Teach Brewery.”

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, HWF has been working to save historic properties since 1966, according to its members, by using tools that include a revolving fund, preservation easements and education.

With funding from multiple sources including HWF, the Masons were able to replace the roof of Giblem Lodge last year. The money also came from the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation, N. C. Community Foundation and Residents of Old Wilmington, in addition to an in-kind donation from Patriot Roofing Co.

In May 2021, HWF announced a partnership with Giblem Lodge to rehabilitate the structure, which was built by freed slaves. A community-based task force has been applying for grant funding and organizing fundraising efforts.

Keeping a monument like the Giblem Lodge is important to Jackson not only as a Mason but as a man who grew up in the Port City. Born in 1963, Jackson lived in Wilmington’s Hillcrest community as a child and teenager.

“I would walk from my home during the summertime to my grandmother’s house (on Fifth Avenue and Queen Street),” Jackson said. “That was the place to go because my grandmother cooked every day.”

After leaving to find more opportunities, Jackson, who is currently COO of Jackson Consulting Group and has a doctorate in leadership and management, returned to Wilmington for good in 2013. He said he had to get used to how many of the places he once knew in Wilmington had changed. Giblem Lodge, with its history of fostering and hosting Black leaders, is something Jackson wants to see remain intact for a long time to come.

“When you look at what makes up a community, and what makes up neighborhoods, you’re talking about not only housing; you’re talking about businesses, and you're talking about cultural centers. This is a cultural center,” Jackson said.

Giblem Lodge isn’t the only structure undergoing a transformation in Wilmington’s historical areas, where crews can be seen working on various buildings and houses on any given day.

In a house on Third Street, gleaming modern appliances occupy space under nearly 200-year-old wooden beams.

The ceiling beams form part of a rectangular building that was likely home to slaves or servants before the Civil War. That was long before Third Street was a paved, prominent Wilmington thoroughfare.

“None of this was here,” said Chris Yermal, owner of Wilmington-based Old School Rebuilders, as he stood in the kitchen of 312 S. Third St., one of the homes he’s been renovating in recent months. He pointed to the space adjacent to the kitchen counter. “The only part of this home that was here was just this rectangle.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, property owners built additions to the structure, and the house eventually held apartments.

The current owners, Kurt and Christine Schaubach, bought the  property for $745,000 in May 2021, according to property tax records, before embarking with Yermal on a project to restore it.

The Schaubachs have found the restoration at 312 S. Third St. to be a rewarding experience, Kurt Schaubach said.

“We assumed that part of the adventure would be to learn more of the home’s history and find creative ways to showcase its history,” he said. “These homes have so much character and while our interior design tastes run more contemporary, the team we worked with on the home found a way to blend the old and the new in a tasteful way.”

According to a plaque the Schaubachs are working to have revised to include earlier components, the bulk of the Italianate-style house was built around 1879, with an 1891 addition featuring Queen Anne characteristics, for William Henry Green (1843-1914), native of New Bern, Civil War veteran and co-owner of Green & Flanner druggists, and his wife, Frances Iredell Meares, a native of Brunswick County.

The Schaubachs said saving the timber-framed structure from the pre-Civil War era within the house was a priority. “It was vitally important to us that we preserve and honor this in some way through the renovation process,” Kurt Schaubach said. “Today, in this part of the home, the rough-hewn ceiling beams are exposed; we retained the original beadboard ceiling and marked the location of the structure’s original entry door with patterning in the hardwood flooring. When you step into what is now our family room, you feel like you are entering a unique space inside the larger home.”

It can be expensive and complicated to renovate, repair and maintain an historical home, no matter where it is in the Port City. An extra layer protects parts that have an historic designation: Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Commission is made up of seven members appointed by the Wilmington City Council to “promote, enhance and preserve the character of the Wilmington historic districts,” according to the city’s website.

The HPC hears and decides requests for certificates of appropriateness (COAs) in accordance with the Wilmington Design Standards for Historic Districts and Landmarks. Design review is required for exterior alterations to properties located within the city’s local historic districts and historic overlays to ensure compatibility with the historic character of the district. COAs are required for exterior changes to properties, the city website states.

The design standards do not impose a particular architectural style, but encourage compatible design and congruity, whether traditional or contemporary, according to the website.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said he’s seen the damage losing history can do.

“A lot of people come to Wilmington for the historic fabric of the community. They like the fact that we preserved a lot of our own history,” Saffo said. “Growing up, I saw a lot of history destroyed. I saw the wharfs along Water Street totally taken out for the parking deck. I saw a lot of beautiful homes along Market Street that were taken down in the name of parking.”

He later added, “If you tear down everything and put brand new stuff in there, I don’t think it would have the same appeal.”

Saffo said those who work to save historic areas have to be up to the challenge.

“I have found that most people that get into the historic areas or buying in historic districts are doing it for the love of it,” he said.

The Schaubachs have some advice for anyone considering the prospect.

“Honestly, we did not know how much time, money and work would be required to restore and renovate an historic home. Anyone endeavoring to restore a historic home needs to be prepared for a few surprises along the way. Seeing that as part of the overall process is important,” they wrote in an email.

Yermal has seen this advice play out firsthand. A former science teacher, Yermal started renovating historic homes in Wilmington more than 20 years ago. Both his office and his home are historical structures, and Yeral serves as vice chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission. In his view, the HPC helps preserve the character of Wilmington’s historic neighborhoods, including the nationally recognized Wilmington Historic District.

“First of all, it’s a vibrant district, and people want to live in and invest in a vibrant district,” Yermal said. “Second of all, that designation, having a property in a district, allows for the pursuit of tax credits.”

The city of Wilmington is working toward an updated survey of the National Register historic district, which could affect a property’s eligibility in some cases for those tax credits.

“I think when all is said and done, the Wilmington District will be smaller, unfortunately, but at least our data will be up to date and current so that it will be a true reflection of the landscape,” said Travis Gilbert, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation. “We’re just working as hard as we can at the Historic Wilmington Foundation to educate folks on the importance of historic resources and then making sure that we’re a resource for folks when they are rehabilitating these homes.”

Wilmington’s historic areas make the city unique, Gilbert said. 

“That sense of place is extremely important,” he said,”and our historic buildings are a leading contributor to creating that sense of place.”

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