ROW History

A History of Residents of Old Wilmington, Inc. (ROW)
Last Updated:  January 2022 by Mary-Grace Denton
Compiled by Alan Smith with help from Mary Bellamy, Sue Boney Ives, Langdon Anderson, Larry Hovis and Robert Warren. Revised and updated in 2009 and 2011 by  Kevin O'Grady. Edited 2017 by Beverly Grasley.

Origins and Legacy
Helping to Shape Some Wilmington Traditions
Early Involvement in Preservation and Development Issues
Money for Downtown Improvements
Continuing Financial Support
Policy Initiatives in the 21st Century
Further Policy-Related Activities of the Decade
Social Events
Support for the Arts
Support for Nature
Origins and Legacy
A group of approximately 40 activists established the Residents of Old Wilmington in 1973 to focus on the problems and opportunities facing downtown residents. This group was determined to bring about a downtown renaissance, despite the then-current blights of commercial decline, a decaying housing stock and the aftermath of a misguided program of urban renewal. Many long-term residents had fled to Forest Hills and beyond.  The central business district was full of bars and "adult" establishments.
Although the first historic district had been created in 1962, serious preservation efforts did not follow. The only civic organizations for downtown residents were the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, which began work in 1956 and resided in the Latimer House, and the Historic Wilmington Foundation, which was created in 1966 and at the time was meeting in the Governor Dudley Mansion. 
By 1973, residents found that, while they shared a passion for history and preservation with both earlier organizations, other pressing issues needed to be monitored:  economic development, safe neighborhoods, zoning and beautification. Residents wanted to promote a sense of neighborhood that would encourage young families to settle here.  The initial 40 or so ROW founders wrote and adopted a charter and began meeting in the Governor Dudley Mansion independently of the HWF.  The new organization gave the members a way to voice their concerns and empower people to act on them.  Almost immediately they began to support several new Wilmington community-building efforts and to affect City policy.

Helping to Shape Some Wilmington Traditions
Candlelight Tour - In 1974 ROW members offered their homes in support of the first "Old Wilmington by Candlelight" tour.  The tour was organized by ROW mayor Robert Warren under the auspices of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society as a fund raiser for that organization.  1800 people participated.  Money collected initially funded restoration of the slave quarters behind the Latimer House.  The Historical Society has continued to sponsor the candlelight tour.
Riverfest - In 1979 ROW joined with Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE) - now Wilmington Downtown Inc. (“WDI”). organizers Gene Merritt and Mary Gornto in holding the City's first Riverfest.  It was complete with balloon rides over the river and well-attended home-built, self-powered boat races.  Riverfest evolved through the eighties, with vendor booths and a special Riverfest T-shirt concession run by ROW. ROW's treasury soared to around $50,000.  In 1992, the City decreed that Riverfest would become a "public" event. The city took over management and licensing of the effort, and banned use of the Riverfest trademark by anyone else - ending ROW's active involvement in this fall festival.
Azalea Pride Cleanup - ROW and HWF co-sponsor a spring cleanup and preservation program that began in the early 1980s as Mayfair and now called Azalea Pride.  Volunteers spread throughout the downtown streets to pick up trash and debris to make ready for the Azalea Festival. An awards ceremony and reception is help afterwards.  
Early Involvement in Preservation and Development Issues
ROW's most prominent role in the Wilmington community has been to provide a focal point for citizens' concerns about problems in the broad downtown area.  In the Seventies, ROW opposed a plan to remove the medians and monuments from the 300-500 blocks of downtown Market Street and to move the Kenan Fountain.  The City Council rejected these proposals. 
Preservation of Bellamy Mansion - In 1975 ROW joined with the HWF and the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society in sponsoring the first statewide Convention of Preservation North Carolina, held in Wilmington.  Attention was focused on the decrepted condition of the Bellamy mansion.  Subsequently, the Bellamy Foundation was established to preserve the mansion.  Later the Bellamy Foundation joined forces with Preservation North Carolina (headed by Robert Warren) to become the organization that today administers the Bellamy Mansion museum.
Bicentennial celebration in 1976 - A reenactment of Wilmington's call for the first Provincial Congress was held in the garden of the Governor Dudley Mansion (courtesy of the HWF) and featured a reenactment of William Hooper - Wilmington's signer of the Declaration of Independence - by professional actor, William Whitehead.

Money for Downtown Improvements
Tileston School - In 1981, ROW raised money through raffles and rummage sales to help restore the brick walls around Tileston School.  (The school at the time was surrounded by a hole-filled cyclone fence.)  Muriel Piver and her mother, Dolly Pearson, helped in this fund-raising effort by donating Mrs. Pearson's hand-made quilts to the effort.  The restoration of the brick wall was an attempt by ROW to keep Tileston open as a public school.  At the time, it was the oldest public school still open in North Carolina. Despite ROW's efforts lobbying the school board, the school was closed and taken over by the City, with the idea that it would become a community arts center.  Two years later this idea failed to attract supporters and the school building required $18,000 in roofing repairs.  ROW donated $8,000 and worked with St. Mary Catholic Church to assist it in taking over the school from the City.  In return, ROW was promised the use of a meeting room in Tileston School for perpetuity.
As the Nineties began, ROW continued its downtown improvement efforts by giving money to other major preservation or restoration projects:
Thalian Hall Restoration - about 1991 - ROW helped pay for new curtains. In 2010, ROW repeated contributed display cases for Thalian renovation.
Bellamy Mansion Renovation - ROW's donations helped pay for carpets.
Landscaping and improvement of the 200 block of Market Street.  ROW's donation of $37,000 in 1991 transformed an ugly, empty block with parking in the median to one with a landscaped median bordered by trees with brick cross walks and buried utilities.
The Urban Park Project by the downtown library - ROW donated nearly $2,700 in 1992 to help convert a vacant gas station into the park that fills the corner formed by the library, Chestnut Street and the new county parking deck.
Street brickwork Restoration.  Most of Wilmington's brick streets were put in 100 years ago and in the 1970s were still quite serviceable.  The City, in the 1980s, argued that it was too expensive to replace or repair brickwork, and City maintenance crews shifted to an asphalt patching or covering program when doing street repairs.  (In one episode in the late 1970s, ROW members, in an act of defiance, raked up the asphalt being laid over bricks at the corner of Fourth and Orange Streets.)  In the early 1990s, ROW members - led by Ben Jacks - personally surveyed and determined how many blocks of brick streets remained in Wilmington, what types of bricks were needed to repair them and where these brick could be obtained.  ROW teamed up with the Historic Wilmington Foundation to pay the $1,000 needed to hire a noted brick consultant, who came to the city, held a workshop for residents and city employees, and demonstrated on one block of South 2nd Street how to replace asphalt with bricks.  ROW's efforts created a turnaround in policy and the patches are slowly being replaced with bricks.  The efforts have extended into 2016 when ROW and WHF advocated that brick streets be maintained and that asphalt be removed from more downtown streets. In 2019, three downtown streets are in the process if having the asphalt removed, exposing the bricks.
Continuing Financial Support
Row has made donations to these efforts. A full list of financial contributions is displayed on the About Row page.
  • The Railroad Museum and to the Downtown Community Watch.
  • ROW members contributed or raised several thousand dollars per year for the City's Tree Program.  The City matches our donations at $75.00 per tree and we usually get about 15-20 trees planted each year.
  • In 2003, ROW Past-Mayor Catherine Ackiss organized an instantly popular bed and breakfast tour.  It was held on the second Sunday in September and raised approximately $5,000 for Wilmington beautification projects - beginning with the "adopt an alley" program then planned by the City's Parks and Recreation Division.

Policy Initiatives in the 21st Century
Revision of the Wilmington Design Guidelines - ROW members participated in the complete revision of the Wilmington Design guidelines in 1999-00, volunteering hundreds of hours of time in the community coordination, review and rewriting of this critically important document.  The results were vetted through a series of membership meetings in 1999 and incorporated in the final product, printed and approved by City council in 2000.
Parking in Residential Neighborhoods - In 1996, a parking problem came about when downtown bar patrons were parking in and disrupting adjoining residential neighborhoods.  After a year of lobbying, researching statutes, ROW persuaded the City into creating the current restricted parking zone over 15 blocks adjacent to the CBD.  Non-residents are not allowed to park in these blocks between midnight and three AM.  This system was complaint-driven, but seemed to be a satisfactory deterrent.
Another problem, however, arose because city workers and minimum wage downtown workers needed free or affordable parking. When parking meters were installed downtown, workers started parking on residential streets, completely jamming the close-in blocks.
After two years of intense work with the Downtown Parking Advisory Commission (DPAC), the Mayor and three different City Managers, ROW was successful in April 2003 in gaining approval of a Residential Parking Program - despite the opposition of many merchants, some residents and many City officials.  The resulting program meant residents could purchase parking stickers for $25 per car per year and restricts non-residents to three hours of free parking between 9 AM and 5:30 PM daily.  In order to qualify for the program, a block must be, on average, 70 percent occupied, have 25 percent of those cars be owned by non-residents and show that a majority of the residents in the affected block support the program.  As soon as the measure was adopted, the residents of the 200 block of S. Second Street, and the 200 block of Ann Street approved the program for their blocks. The area is monitored during the restricted times and tickets are issued to illegally parked cars. 
City's Noise Ordinance - During the summer of 2001, ROW initiated a successful revision of the City's noise ordinance - which was first enacted in 1996.  Initially, only decibel levels were specified as criteria for noise ordinance violations and they only applied inside the originating buildings.  Offenses were criminal misdemeanors - which usually meant no fines or court appearances.  Battles of the bands had begun to ensue downtown among businesses competing for crowds with loud, amplified outdoor music.  The residents, bar owners and police were at odds with each other.  ROW joined with DARE, met with the Wilmington Police Department and city staff, had focus group meetings with bar owners, and by August 2000, a revised ordinance was approved by Council.  The revisions included new time limitations for amplified outdoor music, a "reasonable person" test for noise levels, the coverage of public areas outside the entertainment centers, and treatment of violations as civil offenses with fines.  Despite the downtown protests that the ordinance limiting the freedom of expression, it was approved by City Council.
Central Business District Development - In December 2001, ROW persuaded Wilmington's Mayor to promise that there would be a public review of downtown city construction proposals.  The promise provided some assurance that the projects in the CBD - an area not part of any historic district and hence, not overseen by the Historic Preservation Commission - would not be approved in secret or without public comment.  This promise came after the City spent over $300,000 to expand the city office annex at Third and Chestnut Street - across from Thalian Hall, without a public hearing. They added an aluminum and stucco "shoe box on stilts" structure at Third Street.  The uproar when the project became public knowledge - fueled by a special meeting of ROW and a near-unanimous decision to oppose the project - caused Mayor David Jones to promise that future city projects of this sort would be subject to public review.
Expansion of the Historic District - In 1999 ROW supported a northward expansion of the historic district to a perimeter running to roughly Walnut and 6th Street.  ROW supported this expansion because its membership believed that intelligent oversight of change by the HPC is to the common benefit of residents, developers, and downtown businesses.  Since the approval of the northward expansion of the HD in 2001, ROW supported the creation of new historic districts on the south side of the city.  This resulted in the extension of the HD to Castle Street.
Candidates' Forums - In September 2001 and 2003 ROW partnered with the Downtown Wilmington Association to sponsor candidates' forums at Level Five of the City Stage.  Each forum highlighted downtown policy issues and forced all candidates for city council and mayoral positions to respond to specific questions about each one. ROW's Forum for municipal election candidates continues today, the most recent being held at the Hannah Block Community Center in 2018. Candidates for mayor and City Council are given questionnaires to complete prior to the forum and they submit to questions during the two-hour period.
Speed Limits - In November 2002, after two years of lobbying and petitioning, ROW persuaded the City Staff and City Council to lower the speed limit to 25 MPH (versus 35 MPH) on city streets within the downtown historic districts.  ROW's reasons for this change were preservation of historic buildings and monuments, pedestrian safety, protection of horse-drawn vehicles, and preservation of our urban quality of life.  During the approval process, ROW met with astonishing resistance.  ROW continues to push for a similar speed limit reduction on downtown segments on Market and Third Streets, both State controlled roads.

Riverfront Development - ROW consistently has spoken before the HPC and City Council in favor of Riverwalk South and North and against high rise condos and a large entertainment center under Memorial Bridge

Support of WDI - ROW members traditionally have supported efforts to sustain a vital, diverse downtown business climate and thus, have promoted Wilmington Downtown Inc. and its initiatives.  In November 2001, ROW lobbied for WDI's funding by the City and New Hanover County and applauded the award of $60,000 per year for five years.  In 2002 ROW paid for the traveling "Storefront of the Month" award, which was given by WDI, promoted by WDI's cleanup campaigns, and provided members or leaders for WDI's Economic Development and Central Business District Services Committees.
Policy-Related Activities during 2002 and 2003
In January 2002, ROW members Marge Hurd and Herman Smith were seated on the Parking Advisory Commission to represent downtown residents.  ROW delegates participated in Mayor Harper Peterson's fact-finding trip to Charleston and others supported a large, first-ever DARE luncheon that raised over $50,000.  ROW members Tom Mitchell and Mary Ann Keiser were appointed to the Historic Preservation Commission.
ROW voted to support the City's acquisition of riverfront land held by John Voet and Linda Carroll and communicated this resolution to Mayor Peterson.
1898 Memorial Park - ROW voted to support plans for an 1898 memorial park rather than a grocery store at the northern entrance to the city and communicated this position to State Senator Thomas Wright, who favored a grocery store. ROW supported a bar moratorium and made presentations to that effect to the Wilmington Planning Commission and City Council.
ROW opposed the rebuilding of the Governor's landing.  A letter was sent to the bankruptcy judge overseeing Governor's landing settlement urging its demolition and conversion to public use.
ROW opposed the rezoning of the St. John's museum property at Second and Orange streets from HD to CBD - an attempt to evade parking requirements and open it up as a guest-lodging site.  Even though ROW eventually "lost" on the St. John rezoning, it "won" a very restricted special use permit and forced an extended examination of what the HD stands for.
Movement of County employees out of the downtown area - ROW repeatedly opposed the relocation of County employees out of the downtown area.  ROW representatives made two presentations to City Council and County Commissioners on the abandonment of the county's administrative building and later, the Law Enforcement Center.
Further Policy-Related Activities of the Decade
Building Height - ROW led the drive to set reasoned standards for building height on the west shore of the Cape Fear River across from the Historic downtown. As a result, heights are restricted across from downtown but are higher near the northern waterfront.
South Third Street - ROW campaigned for improvement of the street scape on South Third Street. Members participated in the steering committee for the State designation of a scenic byway including South Third.
Ann and Third Crosswalk - ROW actively sought construction of a pedestrian crosswalk at Ann and South Third to unite the neighborhood and provide safe passage for residents and visitors. Row contributed over $5000 for the project which moved the City Council to add it to the City's capital plans. ROW's pledge was later parleyed by the City in a grant application to build a bicycle path from the river front to the sea passing through the Ann and Third corner.  That path is now named the “River to Sea Bicycle Boulevard” - a first in North Carolina.
Development Near Cape Fear Bridge - ROW opposed efforts to develop two towers of 200 feet each at the foot of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, with no consideration of traffic infrastructure or impact on the neighborhood. ROW members were energized into action from 2005 through 2008. 
Brick Street Repairs - ROW reasserted its support for the repair and expansion of brick streets. ROW members volunteered to survey all brick streets to identify areas for repair.  The ROW survey has now been relied upon by the City in their plans to repair brick streets.   
Neighborhood Organizations - ROW sought out other community organizations to gain greater leverage with City government. ROW worked closely with the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONA) and provided advice to the Carolina Place-Ardmore Neighborhood Association (CPANA).
Inform ROW Members - ROW used its member meetings to increase understanding of events and issues by inviting an array of speakers to its meetings including: City officials including the Assistant City Manager, park department, planning, historic preservation, parking and engineering staff, developers including the developers of The View, McEachern's Warehouse and Castle Walk. 
Support Wilmington Police - ROW works with the Wilmington Police Department to assist the members in remaining vigilant against crime. ROW honors all of the local law enforcement staffs with a dinner each year.
Support of Not-for-Profit Organizations - ROW supports such organizations as The Carousel Center, Meals on Wheels, DREAMS, The Azalea Festival, The Literacy Council, The Historic Wilmington Foundation, CFCC President Eric McKiethan, and Airport Director Jon Rosborough.
Support of Downtown Businesses - ROW sometimes invites new businesses to member meetings to introduce themselves to ROW members.
Social Events
ROW Picnic - The annual ROW Picnic promote a sense of neighborhood and attract new members. In the late 1990s, Doug and Margi Erickson and then Catherine Ackiss hosted the June picnics in their gardens during July or August.  In 2011 the picnic was moved to May to enjoy the cooler weather. Most recently, the picnic was held on the grounds of The Murchison House, the Lattimer House and the Burgwin-Wright House.
Membership Party - Each September ROW members are invited to a party to renew their membership or for new members to join. The party has been held at the USO building and the USS North Carolina Battleship. The 2019 Membership Meeting was held on the battleship.
Holiday Party - A winter holiday social, generally held on the second Wednesday in December, became a fixture in ROW's calendar early in its history.  These gatherings originally were held in members' homes, but as the organization grew, they were moved to larger facilities including the Greystone Inn, the Bellamy Mansion, Roudabush, the Railroad Museum, the Historic USO building and St. Thomas Hall.  The gathering has been held most recently at Events on Front and the USO Community Center building.
Back Door Kitchen Tour - In 2006, both to replenish the coffers of ROW, and to add a new social event, Alice Mitchell and Karen Behm conceived the Back Door Kitchen Tour (BDKT), a relaxed fall walking tour of the fabulous kitchens found in the historic district. From the first year, the BDKT was a social and financial success. The BDKT spun off an additional social event, the “unveiling” of the signature art work of the tour. The unveiling quickly became a social event for members to gather at in the fall.  Now in its sixth year, the BDKT has become the financial support for ROW's many civic contributions. By 2017, the BDKT no longer included art work or food in the homes, but the popularity of the tour continues. By 2019, the BDKT committee hopes to raise $15,000.
Civic Appreciation Honors - ROW has thanked the Police and Firefighters of Wilmington by holding an annual appreciation dinner for the Police and a luncheon for the Fireflighters. These events give ROW members personal contact with those who protect our lives and property.
For families, ROW has sometimes “organized” Halloween in the historic district by identifying homes of members that will be “treating” that night. The throngs of children from our neighborhood and from all around the City, show the success of this family activity.
Individual Awards - ROW also celebrates our neighborhood by honoring individuals.  The annual Good Neighbor Award,   first awarded in 1983, honors a person who has exemplified the spirit of a good neighbor by their work or actions.  ROW also has an honor roll of Honorary Lifetime Members whose long-term contribution to the neighborhood  have earned this special designation.
Financial Support
The financial success of the BDKT re-energized ROW's ability to financially support downtown projects and organizations. Between 2004 and 2009, ROW provided over $17,000 in financial support for these projects and organizations:
The Wilmington Children's Museum
St. Mary's/ Tileston
The Wilmington Railroad Museum
Wilmington Downtown Inc.
Celebrate the Arts
The Family and Neighborhood Institute
Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry
The Historic Wilmington Foundation
Pedestrian Art
Bailey Park tree planters
Bellamy Mansion Art of the Table
Bellamy Mansion Slave Quarters renovation
1898 Memorial
WPD Segway
“Peacemaker” ship sponsorship
Pedestrian Crosswalk at Ann and Third Streets

Support for the Arts
In 2009, ROW made a seed contribution to the Hannah Block Historic USO Community Arts Center for the purchase of chairs for its newly renovated theater.  The Center is now a cornerstone for the arts downtown.  ROW also made a second substantial advance of seed money for the Center to acquire projection equipment. 
ROW's most prominent contribution in recent years has been the acquisition of the sculpture “Southern Hospitality” from local artist Paul Hill.  ROW acquired the 15 foot depiction of the native Venus Flytrap and gifted it to the City of Wilmington in 2010.  Through ROW's leadership, the piece was located at the corner of Market and Water streets at the Riverwalk.  

Support for Nature Through Tree Replanting
Many of the type of oak trees in our beautiful community are victim to “heart rot” that requires they be cut down.  ROW recognized the need to address this long term issue by supporting tree replanting.  Initially in 2010, ROW made a contribution of $3900 to plant 39 trees throughout the community.  In 2011, the City's Tree Commission proposed a comprehensive reforestation program along the length of Fifth Avenue.  ROW has committed to financially supporting this replanting throughout its membership area – about 30% of the length of the project.  The long term result should be the creation of an allee of Live Oaks, resistant to heart rot, for future generations to enjoy.

The Future
ROW is a crucial force for life downtown. Its future is secure because of the energy and initiative of its members. This story will continue to unfold as ROW members, who care deeply about Wilmington and its future, engage the problems and opportunities that growth, time and human nature constantly create.