If you have spent any time in the downtown Wilmington area, you have noticed wood plaques affixed to homes and buildings all around. The white, hand painted lettering reveals the building’s original owners and people of significance associated with it over time. Those plaques are part of a longstanding program of Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF), a nonprofit organization which works to protect and preserve historic sites in New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick counties. This organization has long featured a plaque program where homeowners and business owners in historic buildings can apply and pay for a plaque detailing the brief history of that building. The plaque program in Wilmington is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the United States and helps fund the important preservation work done by HWF.
The plaque program committee--a group of volunteer historians, librarians, archivists, and lifelong Wilmingtonians--has recently expanded the program to include new plaque colors that will designate older buildings and homes. This year, the Bellamy Mansion Museum’s slave quarters and mansion will receive new golden yellow plaques, which designate them as at least 150 years old. The unveiling ceremony for the Museum’s new plaques will be on October 29th at 5 pm.
The Historic Wilmington Foundation was created in 1966 by a small group of local citizens who valued local built history and became determined to save it. The plaque program is just one of the ways that this organization helps to preserve local history. Currently, the HWF has given out over 670 plaques to commemorate the history of cottages, mansions, alleyways, beach bungalows, storefronts, and more throughout three Lower Cape Fear Region counties.
For decades, HWF has offered two different colored plaques to adorn historic buildings. A maroon plaque indicates that a building or structure is 75-99 years old, and a black plaque indicates that a structure is 100+ years old. The program also includes green plaques for historic alleyways and beige plaques for historic buildings at the local beaches. In the fall of 2019, the HWF added two more color designations: a golden yellow plaque to indicate a structure is 150-199 years old, and a blue plaque to indicate that a structure is 200+ years old. The Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens will unveil a blue plaque soon as it celebrates its 250th anniversary in 2020.
Plaques and the Bellamy Mansion Museum
The Bellamy mansion applied for its first plaque--a 100-year plaque--just a few months after officially opening as the Bellamy Mansion Museum in 1994. A draft of the original plaque, as well as the application submitted to the HWF’s plaque program committee can be found on the New Hanover County Public Library website in the Port City Architecture section. The Bellamy slave quarters received its first plaque in 2004. Both of these structures were originally adorned with black plaques, which indicated the buildings as over 100 years old. Since the Bellamy Mansion was built between 1859-1861, and its slave quarters built in 1859, the plaques have now been updated to a golden yellow color, which indicates them to be between 150-199 years old.
When asked about the significance of Historic Wilmington Foundation’s plaque program, Bellamy Mansion Museum’s Executive Director, Gareth Evans said, “It’s great value is the presentation of researched history, in context, right on the front of historic buildings. You can’t get much more direct in teaching history to the public than giving them the story right by the front door.”
Other Bellamy Plaques Around Wilmington
There are many other Bellamy related buildings around Wilmington that also have plaques such as the Grant-Thompson house right next door to the Bellamy Mansion Museum at 513 Market Street. Built in 1847 by James Thompson for local merchant James Grant. Robert R. Bellamy purchased, remodeled and enlarged the house in a Queen Anne style in 1890, and it remained in the family for fifty-six years. Today it houses the law firm of Kohut & Adams. At 121 S. 2nd Street stands the Ballard-Potter-Bellamy House built for Jethro Ballard in 1844 and acquired by Mary Bellamy, wife of William J.H. Bellamy, in 1884. This house remained in the Bellamy family for 80 years and remains a private residence.
A commercial building associated with the Bellamy family that boasts a plaque is the Robert R. Bellamy Building at 7 N. Front Street. Built as a rental property for Robert, it originally housed a boot and shoe store. The building remained in the Bellamy family until 1988 and today is the downtown location of Slainte Irish Pub. To find out more about the plaques around Wilmington, you can visit the Historic Wilmington Foundation’s interactive plaque map.
Interested in a Plaque for Your Home or Business?
To be eligible for a hand painted plaque from HWF, a property must first be 75 years of age or older. However, at Kure Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Carolina Beach buildings more than 50 years old do qualify. If a building or property is of an age to qualify for a plaque, the application process can then begin. The plaque application on HWF’s website leads property owners through the process of researching the property and they have information on local researchers if the owner prefers to hire a professional to carry out their research. The cost for members of Historic Wilmington Foundation is $345 and non-members pay $395, but the plaque includes a family membership! Already have a plaque but need it repainted? HWF extends the member rate of $345 for anyone needing repainting or multiple copies of a plaque. If you have any questions, email Blair Middleton at HWF.
By Elizabeth Sutton, UNCW English intern
Historic Wilmington Foundation's website
Port City Architecture collection at New Hanover County Library
"Historic Wilmington Foundation to debut new markers for oldest structures," Star News, December 3, 2019.
COVID-19 has affected everyone in 2020. Most businesses shut down, and while some--such as restaurants--reopened within a few weeks, others--like salons, breweries, and libraries--had to wait for months. The Bellamy Mansion Museum closed down on March 17; the beginning of Phase 1 for North Carolina, and was not able to reopen for almost six months.
Due to the six-month closure, the Bellamy Mansion Museum lost between $25,000 and $40,000 a month, which is almost ⅔ earned income for the entire year. Other local museums and historic sites suffered from the closure too including the Cameron Art Museum, the Railroad Museum, the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, Poplar Grove Plantation, the Latimer House, the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens and even state sites like Fort Fisher and Brunswick-Town/Fort Anderson.
The spring and summer months are always the busiest season for local historic sites and museums, and those tourism dollars help sustain the non-profits through the fall and winter months. Rentals were cancelled. Planned events were postponed. And even now that the museums and historic sites are reopened, area tourism will likely not rebound fully for at least another year.
During the six-month closure, the four full time staff members at the Bellamy Mansion Museum worked from home, on maintenance at the museum, and on projects with their parent organization--Preservation North Carolina . The staff created a Distance Learning page at bellamymansion.org that includes a 3-dimensional virtual tour of the site along with relaunching the museum’s website with a brand new look. The staff also assisted Preservation North Carolina with its virtual “Shelter Series” of free webinars.
On September 11th the museum finally reopened to the public. While we are excited to be able to welcome visitors in person, there are some new COVID-19 procedures and protocols required for the museum to remain open. The new rules include:
The Bellamy Mansion Museum tour hours are Mondays-Saturdays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and Sundays from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. We are located at 503 Market Street, Wilmington, NC 28401.
Written by Carolyn Harris (UNCW student; Bellamy intern) and Leslie Randle-Morton.