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.