Every Building Tells a Story
BY Simon Gonzalez
Upper North Fourth is a street with a story. It’s a tale of rebirth through redevelopment of a transformation from neglect to newness and of a district still in transition where trendy condos sit not far from public housing where new buildings coexist with decades-old African-American barber and beauty shops and where vacant lots wait to be developed.
The north side of downtown once was a vibrant residential and commercial area full of immigrant business owners historian Beverly Tetterton says in her book “Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten.” It thrived until 1960 when suburban flight and unemployment after the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad left town caused the area to decline.
“It wasn’t ornate and amazing but it was a streetscape ” says developer Dave Spetrino owner of Plantation Building Corporation. “Then all those buildings came down. There was all this vacant land that had been empty for decades.”
Where others saw obsolescence on the long-forgotten street and district he and partner Dave Nathans owner of Urban Building Corporation saw opportunity.
“Imagine that area without the community college without the performing arts center without PPD ” he says. “There was not a lot of demand for residential downtown at the time. We didn’t know if it would work. A lot of our approach some of it came from ignorance. We were on the outskirts and the fringe but we saw the possibility.”
Nathans puts it a little more colorfully. He recalls the reaction after the two men acquired the junkyard between Third and Fourth streets in 1999 and announced their plans to develop it.
“I actually used to have people drive by and point and laugh ” Nathans says. “It’s funny because some of those people were locals whose families had been here hundreds of years. It was a neighborhood that was kind of abandoned. It wasn’t an area that was ripe for development. They thought we were crazy.”
Abandoned is one way of saying it. Tilghman Herring who renovated the abandoned Nabisco factory and moved the Wilmington branch of Hood-Herring architecture onto the street in 2002 has a different word.
“Seedy ” he says. “When we moved in there weren’t any streetlights. As soon as it got dark the prostitutes started walking the street.”
Reclamation began through a combination of renovating existing buildings and urban infill developing vacant or underused parcels with an eye toward the future without forgetting the past.
“I had looked at historical photos of North Fourth ” Nathans says. “The street 100 years ago was a very thriving commercial district. There were a lot of old nice brick buildings. We tried to match that old architecture.”
It started with the junkyard that took up most of the block between North Third and North Fourth bounded by Brunswick and Hanover streets.
“The turning point of the redevelopment of North Fourth took place in 1999 when we bought the junkyard ” Nathans says. “As a catalyst that was the biggest thing that took place to begin the momentum.”
Architect Clark Hipp who designed several of the buildings on the street recalls it as a blot on the landscape.
“It was full of old cars stacked on top of each other with a chain-link fence ” Hipp says. “It was a true eyesore. We sat down and did a redevelopment plan for that block.”
If buying a junkyard in a blighted area didn’t make sense neither did the plan that involved keeping a pair of beautiful laurel oaks that somehow had survived in the middle of the rusted-out cars. Spetrino and Nathans wouldn’t tear them down even though it drastically reduced the footprint of the lot.
“The assessor said ‘Are you keeping the trees? Then the land around them is worthless.’ You can’t build on it ” Spetrino says.
They made it work constructing an office building that fronts North Third and then Laurel Oaks a 15-unit residential building perpendicular to North Third and North Fourth with a warm red brick exterior and wrought-iron balconies nestled on a verdant space with significant tree canopy.
“That area of downtown is not governed by the Historic Preservation Commission but we wanted to incorporate historic materials in the design and use them in an up-to-date fashion ” Hipp says.
The trees remained a vital part of the property.
“We developed an interior pedestrian sidewalk that ran midblock from Third to Fourth that engaged those two trees ” Hipp says. “Those trees just create a wonderful outdoor space. It’s a place where you sit and read a book.”
Before starting the projects Spetrino gave each new building a mini manufactured history.
“I would write a one- to two-page story about each building ” he says. “Who would have gone there who would have lived there what it would have been used for. I was trying to create nostalgia.”
The story became the template for the design for Laurel Oaks and Brooklyn House a square mixed-use building constructed with coal-fired brick in homage to the days when steam locomotives transported goods to and from the port.
The inspiration for Brooklyn House came from Daniel Reitchen whose family owned a furniture store on the corner of Red Cross and North Fourth.
“He told me that everything in that area was always covered in soot ” Spetrino says. “Until he visited a cousin in the country he assumed everyone had soot on everything. He was talking about how the soot would stain the brick and that’s where the idea came from to see if we could find a manufacturer that used coal to fire the brick.”
Spetrino hired architect Michael Kersting and told him the inspiration for the design.
“He wanted it to take on the classic urban brick building that looked like it had survived from a past time ” Kersting says.
Laurel Oaks was ready for occupancy in the spring of 2003 followed by Brooklyn House in the fall of 2004. The residential properties quickly attracted tenants. With the gamble of investing in a neglected area paying off more buildings followed. Modern Baking Co. was finished in 2006 followed by The Weldon in 2007.
Modern Baking Co. has four levels of brick and a fifth level with metal siding designed to subtly reflect a successful growing business. The stucco fa�ade and canopy that fronts North Fourth would have been the office and administration area adjacent to the factory floor. An elevator gives access to an exposed walkway intended to give the feeling that it was added during the “conversion” of a factory into residential housing.
“I like the Modern Baking building the best ” says Kersting the architect for both buildings. “It brings some of the industrial aesthetic that would have been found in the Nabisco building.”
The Weldon a sleek art deco structure also is a tribute to the city’s past. The name comes from the 1840s when the 165-mile Wilmington to Weldon line was the longest in the world. The style is much more modern though.
“It was cued off the art deco modular building next to it ” Kersting says.
While he and Spetrino were developing residential and commercial buildings Nathans also was eyeing the historic St. Andrews Church constructed in 1888.
Over the years congregations launched capital campaigns for maintenance on the historic building but it gradually fell into disrepair. By the early ’70s holes in the roof forced worshippers out of the sanctuary and into the annex. In 1996 Hurricane Fran blew in the front wall of the church causing the roof to collapse.
The city acquired the building in 1998 and solicited development bids (RFDs) with the proviso that the any selected be used “to benefit the whole neighborhood promote the cultural history and diversity of Wilmington and support the physical and economic revitalization of the North Fourth Street area.”
Nathans’ bid for the church the adjacent manse and the nearby firehouse was selected in September 2002. The manse became an office complex. The old Station 3 firehouse built in 1907 became a training center for new recruits and space for the investigative division of the police department while the new headquarters was being built — a factor in attracting other developers and businesses back to the area.
“Having the fire department and police running around the neighborhood helped ” Nathans says.
From the beginning he intended to use the church for a nonprofit arts and entertainment center but couldn’t secure public financing. It was returned to the city and put up for private sale.
Nathans purchased the building and stuck to the original plan.
“My mission was to turn it into an arts and entertainment facility ” Nathans says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
The church was restored to its original appearance as much as possible and the Brooklyn Arts Center opened in March 2011. It became the centerpiece for the Brooklyn Arts District the area of North Fourth above Red Cross Street.
With everything from historic red brick to art deco to gray concrete to modern the street is eclectic to say the least.
“North Fourth is a blank slate ” Herring says. “It’s open to different criteria and different interpretations. It became a very vibrant urban texture. I don’t want it to look like a warehouse district with all the red brick. I’d rather err on the side of too much freedom than not enough.”
Rob Romero took full advantage of the freedom when he designed Rogue Modern Townhomes in 2015. Even on the eclectic street the purple building stands out.
“It’s not subtle is it?” he says. “I try to push the edge. It’s the definition of rogue. It’s got some interesting quirks to it. The color. The bold shape. When I’m working on Third Street that’s a serious street in my mind. It’s a classic important street more black and white. Fourth Street allows for a more artistic look.”
The purple fa�ade moves in and out above the doorways.
“The purple zigzag is supposed to be the building morphing into the city ” Romero says. “It started out as rain screen over the front door and I thought ‘I can do more with that.’ It’s fun.”
Romero dialed back the color choice for the residential building at the corner of North Fourth and Davis. The three-level building is gray concrete but there’s visual interest in the tinted reflective glass and window frames facing the street.
“There’s lots of interesting windows some cool balconies out the back with a zig-zaggy railing ” he says.
The name “Brooklyn” has been associated with upper North Fourth for as long as anyone can remember possibly since just after the Civil War but no one really knows why. Speculation is the first residents came from Brooklyn New York.
Nathans is from Brooklyn himself. He doesn’t know the origin of the name but thinks it’s appropriate. The vibe on the street is now similar to where he grew up. Once again it’s a neighborhood with residences starting with the public housing project at the top of the street completed in 2008 and continuing down to Red Cross Street through the buildings developed and designed since Spetrino and Nathans acquired the junkyard in 1999.
Tenants can shop at places like Pete Mairs’ Fathom and Farm a wholesale and retail fish and meat business at the northernmost end in a renovated hair-styling shop that opened last December on the corner of Nixon Street.
“This area right here is just showing up ” Mairs says. “We do a huge walkup business.”
There are restaurants coffee shops a bakery a just-opened Boombalatti’s ice cream parlor at least one trendy new hair salon and neighborhood pubs including Edward Teach Brewing which opened in December in the old historic firehouse.
The exterior features gray brick and fire engine red doors. The interior was designed to resemble the Queen Anne’s Revenge Blackbeard’s ship.
Visitors see the past not just in old buildings and historical-themed architecture but also in the barber and beauty shops and other businesses that survived year after year.
North Fourth’s story isn’t complete. Development continues with Hipp and Herring both working on residential projects. “For sale” signs populate lots that remain vacant waiting to be developed. The city just approved designs for the riverside 6.6-acre North Waterfront Park between PPD and Sawmill Point Apartments to the south of the Isabel Holmes Bridge.
“North Fourth isn’t there yet to being the dynamic streetscape it could be but it’s on the way ” Spetrino says.