New roof, enduring history: Burgwin-Wright House renovated after Florence

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The 250-year-old house and staple of historic Wilmington is getting a new roof, shutters after damage from Florence in 2018

WILMINGTON – Finding a contractor to complete restorations to a 250-year-old home can be a trying process.

Joy Allen, executive director of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America’s North Carolina chapter, faced an uphill battle when she started reaching out about the necessary renovations to the Burgwin-Wright House in downtown Wilmington.

Like so many structures in the region, especially historic ones, Hurricane Florence did a number on the pre-Revolutionary War home in September 2018.

And the list of five contractors Allen was initially given to complete the work didn’t give her hope the recovery process would be a swift one.

“One had died and another had their phone disconnected,” she said. “The others just didn’t call me back.”

Luckily, an insurance company suggested The Durable Restoration Company, of Ohio, which specializes in preserving and restoring historic buildings and landmarks.

“It is increasingly difficult to find contractors who can do work authentically,” Allen said. “But this company understands that the whole house is historic and they need to be careful about the whole thing.”

The Burgwin-Wright property has a lot of history to protect.

The home was built in 1770 on top of Wilmington’s first jail, itself dating to 1744. It was used as a place of business and entertainment for prominent businessman John Burgwin, but would become best known as the place where British commander Lord Cornwallis stayed for three weeks after Wilmington was captured in 1781.

Anyone passing the corner of Third and Market streets will likely have noticed the scaffolding mounted to the entire front fa�ade of the home since November.

That is so crews can work on restoring the home’s entire roof, which is being replaced after Florence blew through the region. The roof is made of cedar shake shingles, making it impossible to simply patch.

The house’s western chimney, which has long been a thorn in the side of staff — and its budget — also got some very good news.

For years, the fireplace was one of the most consistent victims of bad weather and hurricanes, and staff couldn’t figure out why. Due to changing street levels and the house’s advanced age, the chimney was about 12 inches off the ground because the foundation was inaccessible. Plus, bricks from the top would crumble into the shaft and make more trouble for the four rooms the chimney serves.

“When I first started here, a lot of yearly budget was going toward trying to find the root of the problem, and they found it,” said Christine Lamberton, Burgwin-Wright museum director. “This is a permanent fix, and as a non-profit, that is wonderful for us because our budget is limited.”

The chimney has now been braced with a brick foundation, thanks to the restoration team, whose members crawled on their stomachs through a 24-inch space to access it.

Much of the masonry work was funded through a grant from the Isabel James Lehto Foundation.

All of the shutters for nearly 50 windows are also getting a touch-up with a fresh coat of paint and some new functionality. Originally, the shutters would have closed, but somewhere down the line, they became decorative.

“When we had hurricanes, we really had no way of protecting the windows in the house,” Lamberton said. “That was the root of a lot of our anxiety during storms.”

The east side of the house, which is vulnerable to traffic pollution, and the west side, which gets the brunt of wind damage, will also be repainted this spring.

Work on the roof and the shutters is ongoing until mid-March, when the museum is planning a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the home’s museum.

Even though the house took on its fair share of damage, Lamberton looks at Florence as a blessing in disguise, because preserving a historic home is never done.

“Florence highlighted all the work that needed to be done, so that when we close up for a hurricane, we can feel we are truly closing it up,” she said.

Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or