Staff photos by Benton Sampson
This alcove in the supper room is another original-to-the-house feature. It houses a tea caddy on the top shelf and a wine cooler standing on the floor. Since there was no ice in the 17th and 18th centuries, cold water from the well would be used in the wine cooler to keep the wine cold.
As we prepare to commemorate our country’s declaration of independence from British colonial rule, one of the many historical structures in the heart of downtown Wilmington stands apart for its significance in our nation’s founding. A focal point in the events surrounding the end of the Revolutionary War, the Burgwin-Wright House predates the Declaration of Independence and offers a glimpse into life before America’s status as an independent nation.
Regally situated behind a wrought-iron fence at the intersection of Market and Third streets, the three-story mansion still bears the scars from many of the great conflicts in American history. During the Revolution, it served as a command post and prison for the occupying British Army, and the dark, heart pine floorboards have been marred in places by the axes wielded by British butchers.
The house would later be used as a holding hospital in the Civil War, with some of the woodwork supposedly stained with the blood of wounded soldiers. Later the house hosted an officer’s club in World War II, throwing lavish parties for the returning commanders.
According to Claire Garatti, head docent of the Burgwin-Wright House, the building and its innumerable links to America’s past were nearly destroyed in the late 1930s when a company made plans to demolish the building and erect a gas station in its place. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of North Carolina stepped in to save the building from its fate, purchasing the property in 1937 for the considerable price of $21,000 to secure it as the organization’s statewide headquarters and preserve its original rooms.
“The original jail dates back to 1740,” Garatti said. “And the dungeon, which mainly housed horse thieves and murderers, is still intact.”
In 1771, an English merchant named John Burgwin constructed a house for his wife upon the existing foundation. A life-sized portrait of the building’s white-wigged namesake adorns a wall at the top of the staircase, the work of famed American artist John Singleton Copely, Garatti said. In 1799, John Burgwin sold the home to Joshua Grainger Wright, a member of the family who later gave its name to Wrightsville Beach.
The back door opens to an aging courtyard, paved with handmade bricks and lined by circular outdoor jail cells and the building’s original ballast-stone walls. As with many structures from the colonial period, the stones were brought by ships returning from the West Indies to the port of Wilmington, and the ferns covering them are thought to be the descendants of seeds that made the same journey. Housed in a separate building, the kitchen contains a vast array of colonial cooking gadgets, including an ancient coffee bean roaster and an elaborate tool for portioning nips of sugar, an expensive delicacy at the time.
Inside the house, hundreds of relics dating to the late 1700s are on display amid the intricate Georgian architecture, exemplified by the hand-carved woodwork and symmetrical layouts. Caches of 18th century oyster shells and fish bones have been found around the property, suggesting a Wilmingtonian diet that in some ways remains unchanged today.
In one room rests a portrait of the pre-Revolutionary lawyer William Hooper, a North Carolina signatory to the Declaration of Independence. The next one features a mahogany fortepiano dating to 1810, a time at which the instrument had only recently replaced its predecessor, the harpsichord. The house also proudly features a document bearing the rare signature of General George Washington, who delivered one of his greatest defeats to a former resident of the Burgwin-Wright house, British General Charles Cornwallis.
Just a decade after it was built, Burgwin’s house became the temporary home for Cornwallis, who had come to rest his army in the British-occupied city of Wilmington. The enemy commander stayed in the house for nearly three weeks as he awaited supplies from Wilmington-bound British ships. When none arrived, the general took his troops north to Virginia, ultimately surrendering to Washington and French commander Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau at Yorktown and marking the end of Great Britain’s political support for the continuation of the war, bringing about the end of the war itself.
Several French maps and portraits are also prominently displayed in the house. “French tourists will often visit,” Garatti explained. “They helped us out during the [Revolutionary] War, and it’s a big part of their history too.”
In and around Wilmington, reminders of the struggles and triumphs of the country are so commonplace that they may escape notice entirely. The Burgwin-Wright house has escaped passage into obscurity, and few other places can so readily connect the country’s rich past to a modern audience.