Lumina Part 1

BY Susan Taylor Block

On June 3 1905 Hugh MacRae (1865-1951) owner of the local power company flipped a switch that lit thousands of dazzling lights. Lumina both a building and an experience was born. It wasn’t The Lumina or Lumina Pavilion — just Lumina. The six-letter word said it all and no matter how many thousands of bright lights burned at Lumina generations of dance floor patrons learned that there is nothing more electrifying than the heat of human touch.

Lumina was MacRae’s brainchild and the grandest of his many efforts to promote the use of electricity and commerce on the necklace island of Wrightsville Beach. Electricity had first come to Wilmington in 1886. In 1899 13 years later Thomas Edison himself showed up to both promote the new power tool and to personally introduce his new invention the phonograph. Edison visited Wrightsville Beach during his short stay at the Orton Hotel in downtown Wilmington.

In 1905 many Wilmingtonians still relied on candles for light and coal or wood fireplaces for heat. MacRae wanted to sell them on the new product but was even more interested in extending his power business to other municipalities. Even with MacRae’s promotions some towns like Kenansville wouldn’t accept the newfangled idea of power poles until the mid-1920s.

MacRae also owned the streetcar system and valuable real estate and improvements at Wrightsville Beach — such as the Oceanic Hotel and the Harbor Island Pavilion — all of which promised to increase in value if Lumina succeeded. He offered discounts to anyone who patronized multiple power system localities at the beach.

The power company had just extended the streetcar system to Wrightsville Beach in 1905 and the new oversized orange-yellow beach cars needed riders. In addition constructing the pavilion was going to cost around $7 000 — a whopping sum at the time. Further construction costs would raise the overall cost of Lumina to $35 000 by 1919. Though the idea and general plan for Lumina came from the ever-fertile mind of Hugh MacRae it was his bookish teenage daughter Agnes MacRae (Morton) who named it. “Lumina ” she said simply. “It’s the Latin word for light.”

Though MacRae paid a token fee of $10 for the property members of the Nathan Marx and Schloss families actually donated the land on which Lumina was built. The three interrelated families owned the south end of Wrightsville Beach and were looking for ways to promote land sales. Nevertheless it was a tremendous gift. Realtor/Broker Vance Young of Intracoastal Realty estimates the value of their gift in relative money today to be an estimated $32 million.

Henry Emil Bonitz (1872-1921) a local architect designed the structure as an architectural work of art that was capable of providing both casual and elegant accommodations. The second-story 50- by 70-foot dance hall featured a masterful natural sound amplification system and an ample spectators’ gallery. Both Bonitz’s original plans and those he drew for numerous alterations of the burgeoning destination business would be valuable documents today. Unfortunately Bonitz documented his designs on linen napkins. His wife Kate Burnett Bonitz obviously a very practical woman washed the napkins after his death in 1921 to free them up for everyday use.

The lights of Lumina quickly became a beacon and a fascination. Natives who lived a slight distance away got the best view of the incredible display of glowing bulbs. Wilmingtonian Margaret Banck 90 remembers when her grandfather John Geischen owned Turtle Hall on Greenville Sound. Geischen lived in an old house now razed at 6267 Turtle Hall Drive. “Granddaddy always kept the trees cut so that we could read the letters L-U-M-I-N-A ” said Banck. “The lights were dazzling.”

The years 1905 until 1929 represented the height of Lumina’s elegance. In those days jewels and haute couture gowns reigned on Saturday nights. Though not prone to spend much time in the sweltering South during summer society’s notables still visited Lumina back in the days when Wilmington’s own society was at its high-fashioned peak. The Pembroke Joneses Henry Walters the Kenan and Wise families and MacRae himself were grand ambassadors for Wilmington within their extensive national spheres of influence.

But even then Lumina was also a surprisingly democratic place where folks who owned no beach property or private beach club membership could feel as if they owned the whole place — if only for a few hours. One of Lumina’s many nicknames was “The People’s Pleasure Palace.” A reasonable admission fee and good activities directors made the moniker stick for years to come. Swimmers could rent bathing suits get a good shower participate in an abundance of competitions and contests bowl or just sit on the deck and revel in the sights scents and sounds of the Atlantic Ocean.

At night the famous open-air silent movie “theatre” held hundreds captive as they watched motion pictures on a screen that sat out in the surf. Some of the movies shown that first summer were Just Like a Girl Surprise Kiss and Suburbanites. For a time Marx Nathan one of the former owners of the Lumina tract worked as manager for the theater described as being “Just East of Lumina.” Rounding all that out were amazing new electronic activities such as a baseball arcade and a 100-feet in-the-round “automobile course ” complete with “animals” that crossed the paths of cars.

One of Lumina’s early attractions was an aquarium and for many visitors it was their first sight of such a thing. Ads promoted the “large concrete and glass tank aquarium containing seawater animals and queer fish. The visitors are able to look through the glass and see the fish both from the side and above and thus learn how they actually look when living in the sea.” Lumina’s aquarium held several compartments. An octopus and a small shark were two of the most popular attractions.

Meanwhile on Saturday night Lumina’s dance floor became known as “The South Atlantic’s Finest.” It was the place to see and to be seen. The much-polished floor was filled with couples who experienced what Wrightsville Beach visitors and residents still feel today: A summer night’s breeze the background sound of the waves great music salty air and the right partner create a new dimension. Add to that the enhanced beauty a little solar-powered blush reaped earlier in the day brings to a young girl’s face and you can see how a building made merely of wood and nails became a matchmaking institution.

Lumina kept drawing large crowds of people to the last streetcar stop on the beach car line. Ticket sales often swelled to record numbers during the Fourth of July holiday when tourists tasted the treasures of Wrightsville Beach for the first time.

Many came by rail. Folks from up and down the East Coast could hop aboard an Atlantic Coast Line train for the trip to Wilmington’s Union Station. From the depot located on North Front and Red Cross streets they could make a connection to the beach car. Their trip along Wilmington’s streetcar paths was hot and noisy but not without a bit of aesthetic pleasure: Hugh MacRae had Dorothy Perkins roses planted in the right-of-way for the pleasure of his passengers.

From the beginning music styles stayed much the same at Lumina through 1918. Claude Elam a crowd favorite who also played at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond Virginia served up numbers similar to the dressy tunes played in the movie Titanic. In 1919 a new dance known as the “Shimmy Shivers” slithered its way onto the Lumina dance floor — but not for long. Notices soon went out that “none of the new muscular or shivering contortionist dances would be tolerated at Lumina.”

Beach mayor Thomas H. Wright issued an edict banning the tabooed dance and new rules were posted. At the first offense the orchestra music would cease and an alarm would sound. A second offense would engage the full attention and actions of the pavilion’s bouncer. But policing wiggles had only just begun for the Roaring Twenties were just around the corner.

To be continued in the August 2008 issue of WBM.

Acknowledgments: William M. Reaves Collection New Hanover County Public Library Beverly Tetterton Joe Sheppard Cape Fear Museum Catherine M. Cameron and Ann H. Hutteman.