HWF Award Nomination narrative


The preservation of a historic structure usually begins with a dramatic rescue, but it continues through constant small acts of stewardship punctuated by cycles of extreme intervention. Such is the case with the c. 1770 Burgwin-Wright House.

The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of North Carolina purchased the house in 1937. Not only was it in dire condition, but Standard Oil desired to purchase the property and would have torn the house down and replaced it with a gas station had the Dames not intervened.   

The loss of this fine Georgian mansion would have been a tragedy for Wilmington for many reasons, not the least of which is that on these grounds are four of the city’s oldest structures, and they are among only a small number that have survived from the colonial era.  The property also has an extremely unique history, having previously been the site of the original city jail constructed in 1744. John Burgwin, a wealthy merchant, planter and royal official, used the ballast stone walls of the jail as the foundation for his luxurious town home. Two outdoor jail cells also remain intact as well as the former jailor’s quarters.

The NC Dames hired architect Erling Pedersen to develop a plan for restoration, which proceeded in 1939 with stabilization of the structure and restoration of the exterior – completed in 1941.  This included restoration of the original palladium window around the front door that fortuitously had been stored in the sub-basement.  WWII interrupted the work, which finally recommenced in 1949 after the Dames had raised sufficient funds for the remainder of the project. The Burgwin-Wright House opened its doors as a museum in 1951.

In 1967, the Dames acquired the parcel of land to the west of the Burgwin-Wright House, thus reuniting all of the pieces of the 1770 property. Alden Hopkins and Donald Parker, landscape architects from colonial Williamsburg, designed and implemented the creation of colonial style gardens on the grounds.

In 1990 the front steps were rebuilt and the Ionic columns on the front porches were replaced with colonial columns that matched those on the rear porches.

Over the past six years, the Burgwin-Wright House has gone through another cycle of extreme intervention. The Dames have systematically undertaken numerous large-scale preservation projects that include, but are not limited to the following:
1.    Foundation repair
2.    Installation of drainage systems to protect the historic structures by directing groundwater away from them
3.    Restoration of historic brick walls in the gardens
4.    Repointing of the masonry vaults of the two outdoor jail cells
5.    A whole house electrical upgrade
6.    Exterior painting
7.    Repair and re-glazing of every window in the house
8.    Functionality restored to all windows
9.    Chimney repair
10.    Complete interior restoration of the original house:

•    Decades of wax were removed from the heart pine floors and clear polyurethane was applied to protect the wood
•    Plaster ceilings and walls were repaired
•    A paint analysis was performed and the walls, ceilings and woodwork of all the rooms were painted with the colors John Burgwin would have seen when he first crossed the threshold of his newly constructed town home

As a public museum interpreting colonial history, the Burgwin-Wright House has an increased burden of preservation as compared to private homes, because of the need to maintain a historically authentic interior.  The interior work completed in 2018 was the most transformative project to take place since the original restoration and therefore is worthy of recognition, as is the 82 years of stewardship provided to the Burgwin-Wright House by the NC Dames.