River City: Where Form and Function Meet History

BY Lisa Hill

The Wilmington Convention Center offers a beautiful tribute to the city’s maritime past both in its sweeping clean architecture and its emphasis on local riverfront history.

The 107 000-square-foot facility stands poised overlooking the Cape Fear River at the north end of historic downtown the former site of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad’s fuel depot. Since its opening in 2011 the center has spurred a resurgence of growth to this redeveloping part of the city.

New Hanover County room occupancy tax collections in the convention center district from Fourth Street to the Cape Fear River and from the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to the Isabel Holmes Bridge are up by more than 40 percent since the facility opened and began attracting out-of-state visitors. This momentum from the center’s use is prompting the city and developers to use existing infill riverfront property to add amenities lodging restaurants and attractions to the downtown area.

Bridging Styles

First-time visitors attending events at the center receive a history lesson both overtly and subtly.

Laura Miller a vice president and principal at LS3P the Wilmington architectural firm of record for the convention center’s exterior and interior says the building’s design was meant to symbolize all the area has to offer. The firm incorporated architectural references to the area’s proximity to ocean and river shipbuilding and sailing ships. Miller was also inspired by the rail history of the site.

Insulating white metal panels and masts were used in the exterior design process “creating the imagery of the old sailing ships that were along the docks ” LS3P studio leader Charles H. Boney Jr. says. “That was a guiding principle to us.”

Boney a third-generation architect is also a vice president and principal at LS3P. Boney Architecture merged with LS3P in 2005 the year Charles Boney Sr. retired.

Other exterior details contribute to the connection of sea and river: a metal sidewalk railing incorporates the shape of billowing sails and street lighting fixtures mimic seagulls. The red brick used for the exterior harkens back to the buildings once prevalent throughout Wilmington’s waterfront area.

“The red brick is reminiscent of the old brick warehouses that are down there along the waterfront the old railroad warehouse that is now the Coastline Conference and Event Center that’s good ol’ red North Carolina brick that’s why we used that brick ” Boney says. “We were bringing that forward into a modern design language that we could feel good about and then turn that language into a convention center that could attract people and be an asset to Wilmington.”

LS3P visualized the Wilmington Convention Center as a transition between those historic century-old brick buildings and the more modern architecture of the burgeoning north end.

“The brick is a reference to the older more historic part of downtown. The white metal panels offer crisp clean lines. They are a stitch between the old and new as downtown Wilmington continues to grow and redevelop the northern end of town ” Miller says.

Inside the facility the concourse is framed by floor-to-ceiling windows to provide river views that Boney says “have long been missing.” The windows welcome natural light and contain sweeping views of the river the Riverwalk and to the north the Port City Marina where two restaurants are under construction and apartments further on.

The concourse rafters mimic the ribs of a ship’s hull.

“They were designed deliberately to reflect the appearance of a ship’s ribs that you might see if you were looking underneath it as it was being built. Looking up you’d see those ribs in place ” Boney says. “Remember that Wilmington was also a shipbuilding center that’s a part of our history. Reflecting on our history and being able to put those ribs — it lets the public’s mind wander a little bit and it is a great opportunity to evoke those kind of images.”

The facility features regionally sourced wood wainscoting throughout muted fabric-covered walls and thoughtfully placed rocking chairs instead of traditional commercial seating. In the exhibit hall canvas-like material used as awnings over the doors recalls the sailing tradition along the East Coast.

“We were thinking about the sailing ships that used to bring cargo up and down the coast ” Boney says. “We were looking for that imagery in the same way that we have it in the main ballroom with the lighting.”

A standout design element in the grand and junior ballrooms and meeting spaces is the lighting. LS3P worked with Lighting Design Collaborative in Philadelphia to produce one-of-a-kind chandeliers with a nautical look. Visitors see a variety of shapes in the dangling glass design including coral fish bones and boat propellers. The concourse is gracefully lit with chandeliers that give the impression of 18th-century lighted candelabras.

Natural-colored terrazzo flooring in the main concourse resembles undulating glassy water and is a subtle allusion to the Cape Fear Riverwalk.

“It has a free-flowing wave pattern but it also has horizontal slats ” Miller says. “It was inspired by a walk along the Riverwalk on planks of wood where you see water flowing back and forth beneath you.”

At the north end of the center’s large event lawn a striking sculpture by native son artist Dumay Gorham III depicts the famed Wilmington Dram Tree. The moss-covered cypress stood a few yards into the Cape Fear River to the south of the city and served as a landmark to sailors during Colonial times. When ships coming and going would pass it sailors would take a dram of watered-down rum to drink to a safe passage or toast a safe return through the Frying Pan Shoals at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

John Thompson the project’s general contractor and president of J.M. Thompson from Cary North Carolina says the design elements accomplish the goal of emphasizing the river.

“Just the way the building is situated so that a lot of the lobby that surrounds the ballrooms is facing out toward the water it’s beautiful ” he says. “I have been to a couple of events there since it opened and I just listen to what other people say and they are overwhelmed with how beautiful it is to be able to look out and see the water right there. The architecture captured all of that in the design. When it all came together at the end it was beautiful.”

Sustainable practices are becoming standard in architectural design and it was LS3P’s goal to incorporate “green” design features throughout. As construction progressed the entire team aimed at achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification which is the national standard for measuring sustainability in a building.

“When the project was bid and started it was not a LEED project ” Thompson says.

“During construction it was converted to a LEED project which is very unusual. But the team was able to achieve it by working together studying the plans and coming up with what we could to make it happen.”

Susan Eaton general manager and director of sales and marketing for the Wilmington Convention Center says meeting planners often look for LEED certification when choosing a facility. The convention center project eventually attained LEED-silver certification and won an Engineering Excellence Grand Award.

Many LEED items such as water and energy efficiency reduce operational costs. The center contains efficient plumbing fixtures that use 40 percent less water than standard fixtures and a white roof to reflect the sun. Other LEED items like erosion control or recycling programs benefit the community.

“There were a lot of skeptics about the project before it was completed ” Miller says “but I’ve heard that a lot of those same people who didn’t think it was a good idea have changed their minds. They’ve seen all of the effects and the folks it has brought into downtown. They’ve seen the building and visited it for themselves for a meeting or another event. It is great when a project can change someone’s mind when they see all it is doing for our city.”

RESOURCES Creating this Business of Distinction


LS3P Associates Ltd.


J. M. Thompson Co.


WK Dickson


Stewart Engineering


Jordan & Skala Engineers


Catlin Engineers and Scientists


ColeJenest & Stone


Freeman Landscape Inc.


Bat Masonry


Advanced Exterior Systems

EXTERIOR Glass and Storefront

Brinn Glass Inc.


Fred Adams Paving Co.


Baker Roofing Co.


Cape Fear Paving Co.


Strategic Technologies


Elevator Specialists of Carolina Inc


Casework Etc.


T. A. Woods Co.


Trimark Foodcraft


Simplex Grinnell LP


David Allen Co. Terrazzo; Carolina Commercial Floorcovering Resilient Flooring Carpet Tile Base


Sunland Fire Protection Inc.

History in Images

The Wilmington Convention Center houses a remarkable exhibition of images from Wilmington’s past and present. A collection of photographs postcards and maps adorns the interior walls inside the sprawling U-shaped center capturing the history of the Port of Wilmington.

The exhibition featuring mostly black-and-white photographs spans the city’s role in historical battles to scenes of contemporary beach goers reminding visitors of the rich culture of the area.

The walls of the center are lined with images of the port in its heyday shipyard workers and other skilled laborers through the years fishermen and native Wilmingtonians and tourists enjoying nearby beaches and the natural beauty of the Cape Fear River.

The collection is largely due to the work of Beverly Tetterton former special collections librarian and chief of the local history room at the New Hanover County Public Library. Tetterton spearheaded the committee that surveyed thousands of images housed at the New Hanover Public Library the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society Cape Fear Museum and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s photo archives.

Partnering with Port City Signs to create high-quality reproductions and receiving invaluable curatorial assistance from Big Sky Design Tetterton finalized the exhibition that follows the maritime theme of the building.

The reuse of old images rather than the commissioning of new works parallels both the convention center’s mission of sustainable practice and an emphasis on historical preservation that has become increasingly important in Wilmington and surrounding areas.

As Tetteron notes in many ways “it really is about the photographers ” and the exhibition provides a beautiful artistic lens through which to view the city the port and its people. — By Kathryn Manis

Utilizing the Facility

The convention center has grown tremendously in its five-year history. The 107 000-square-foot facility played host to 73 events in 2011 the year it opened. In 2015 that number grew to 155. SMG the management company for the center estimates that 2016 will generate attendance of more than 76 000 for 145 events.

Susan Eaton general manager and director of sales and marketing for the convention center says that 13 repeat customers have used the facility on an annual basis since it opened.

“One of our largest customers that produces the most room nights on an annual basis is the PPD Beach to Battleship Triathlon ” she says. “The event has about 2 200-2 300 registered racers. The room nights are incredible: over 4 200 [hotel rooms booked in the city] Thursday through Sunday. This is becoming an Ironman competition which will now attract even more people.”

The building’s grand ballroom can be subdivided into six separate rooms. Together with a junior ballroom and smaller meeting rooms — many of which have moveable walls — the facility offers 18 000 square feet of inside meeting space.

The facility has the capacity to host conventions public shows meetings and banquets. It offers full food and beverage service from a large state-of-the-art on-site kitchen. Drive-in vehicle ramps allow for any size or type of exhibitions such as boats or cars in the vast 30 000-square-foot exhibit hall.

Beautiful outdoor spaces such as the event lawn overlooking the Cape Fear River add even more options for meeting planners. A 578-space parking deck adjacent to the facility allows visitors easy access to the convention center.

Reclaiming the Site

The land where the Wilmington Convention Center now sits had been unused for years when the City of Wilmington acquired it in 2005. The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad moved its headquarters from Wilmington to Jacksonville Florida in 1956 and the location sat vacant.

“The idea to build a convention center began back in the ’60s ” LS3P’s Charles H. Boney Jr. says. “It took a while for the public to get behind that. “There was a bond resolution in ’81 or ’82 to build a convention center but it failed. That idea lay dormant for another 20 years.”

The time was right to resurrect the idea and the land along the river was the ideal location for a convention center but there was a problem. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources designated it a Brownfield site — land previously used for industrial purposes which may have been contaminated meaning it would require extensive environmental cleanup.

The city hired Wilmington civil engineering company WK Dickson to develop the infrastructure for the site and local environment consultants CATLIN Engineers and Scientists to design a waste management plan.

“We looked at the entire site as one large ecosystem enhancement project ” says Kraig Kern vice president and director of marketing for WK Dickson. “The physical constraints of the site and proximity to the Cape Fear River coupled with the fact that this site was contaminated from years of industrial use created a potential recipe for environmental catastrophe.”

The architects and engineers installed a stormwater filtration system that was innovative and flexible enough to also serve the future convention hotel. The system captures all stormwater runoff onsite directs it to underground filtration chambers filters it through fine sand and then discharges it cleanly into the Cape Fear River. During construction this approach clearly separated surface water runoff from the project site’s existing contaminated soil and water.

General contractor J.M. Thompson then removed all contaminated soil and water by pumping loads of water into tanker trunks and hauling the soil offsite.

Future Plans

Harmony Hospitality Inc. is on schedule to open the Wilmington Convention Center Embassy Suites hotel on the site adjacent to the center in 2017. The eight-story 186-room facility is expected to be an integral piece to the growth of the convention industry in Wilmington.

Wilmington Convention Center general manager Susan Eaton estimates the city’s convention business will double with the addition of the new hotel. With the added 6 000 feet of meeting space the hotel will complement the existing convention center space. Currently the convention center experiences about 188 use days which is an industry term for the number of days that customers use the facility. Eaton hopes to see a 10-15 percent increase in use days once the hotel is open.

While the new hotel will complement the convention center it will not mirror it.

“We did think about designing the hotel as brother/sister buildings but we didn’t want to match it ” says Ernie Olds vice president of Becker Morgan Group the architectural firm for the Embassy Suites.

The new hotel will certainly add a level of convenience for convention visitors.

“Now that the hotel is coming ” says Laura Miller vice president and principal at LS3P. “All those folks will be able to stay right there and walk to their meetings explore downtown and see everything else that Wilmington has to offer.”

Like convention center visitors hotel guests will be able to enjoy ample views of the water.

“Since we are on the river we put as much glass as possible onto the north and west sides for views ” Olds says. “The first two levels are for public spaces public amenities banquet rooms on the ground floor and a riverfront restaurant on the second level.”