Masonboro Sound Historic District
The Masonboro Sound Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Masonboro Sound Historic District, on the coast near Wilmington, is of statewide historical significance as the oldest known coastal resort in North Carolina. Furthermore, it is the only surviving nineteenth century soundside summer colony, an antebellum phenomenon that gave way to oceanfront resorts in the later nineteenth century. Masonboro Sound was the site of substantial summer cottages before the Revolution, but the oldest concentration of cottages located there now dates from the 1870s to the mid-twentieth century. In addition, the Hill-Anderson Cottage (7424 Masonboro Sound Road), a tiny shingled building from 1830s, is the Masonboro Sound Historic District's oldest surviving resource and one of very few antebellum resort buildings remaining on North Carolina's coast. Other historic houses in the Masonboro Sound Historic District range from simply detailed two-story frame T- or L-plan dwellings to stylish examples of the Colonial Revival style. The major landmark in the district is Live Oaks (7527 Masonboro Sound Road), an Italian Renaissance Revival style crosshall plan mansion of coquina, built in 1913 by nationally renowned architect Henry Bacon for Walter Linton Parsley. Ten historic houses as well as associated outbuildings, structures, and sites are included in the Masonboro Sound Historic District. Despite the introduction of numerous houses during the last half-century, the natural beauty of the historic landscape, characterized by a marshy soundfront with docks rising to a bluff covered with ancient live oak trees, provides a remarkable continuity to the district. The area is important in the areas of entertainment, recreation and architecture. The Masonboro Sound Historic District is important for the information likely to be yielded by the fourteen-acre tract known as Cedar Grove, once occupied by a large, ca.1870 residential complex modified prior to 1939 and now containing numerous archaeological features including foundations and wells. Preliminary testing indicates that excavation of the site should be informative about spatial patterning and the economy of upper middle class development on Masonboro Sound during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Hill-Anderson Cottage was moved in 1986 in order to preserve it. The cottage is immediately across the road from its original location, retains its historic setting, and has been carefully rehabilitated.
Context: Entertainment and Recreation
Masonboro Sound slowly developed throughout the early nineteenth century as an exclusive summer resort of private cottages. The development of Masonboro Sound has been characterized by two distinct features. Virtually all of its summer residents have come from Wilmington or the countryside nearby Wilmington. Indeed, most of the Masonboro Sound residents have known each other through business, social, and civic circles in and around Wilmington, and several of the families have become related by marriage. Secondly, Masonboro Sound developed in a resolutely non-commercial vein, without the hotels, pavilions, and arcades that have characterized much of North Carolina's coastal development.
From the early part of the nineteenth century well-to-do North Carolinians came to the ocean to escape the summer heat, breathe the salt air, and bathe in the ocean. It was widely believed that the supposedly healthy beach environment protected residents and visitors from the ravages of such diseases as malaria. Coastal towns such as Portsmouth and Beaufort attracted visitors but, except for Masonboro Sound, the only other known sound side resort in nineteenth century North Carolina was at Nags Head, a summer community that developed on the sound in Dare County, in the northeastern part of North Carolina. Nags Head was first developed between 1830 and 1860 and was visited by planter and merchant families from the Albemarle region of North Carolina, including the cities of Elizabeth City and Edenton. After the construction of a fashionable hotel in 1838, Nags Head became increasingly attractive to visitors not only from North Carolina but also from nearby Virginia. After the Civil War, a slow shift to the ocean side of the Outer Banks began, and by the early twentieth century the summer community at Nags Head had reconstituted itself in the cottages overlooking the ocean. The earlier sound side community does not survive as a cohesive district.
Improvements in transportation after the Civil War increasingly linked the coastline with major inland metropolitan centers. These improvements helped make the sounds and beaches accessible not only to those relatively well-to-do visitors who could afford a substantial cottage for the summer, but also to visitors more interested in a briefer visit at a commercial hotel or temporary rental facility. Likewise, the growth of the middle class and an increase in leisure time in the late nineteenth century expanded resort opportunities.
The result was an increase in commercial beaches. A good example is Wrightsville Beach, also located in New Hanover County, only a few miles from Masonboro Sound. Prior to the 1880s Wrightsville was known only as the home of the antebellum Carolina Yacht Club. In 1887 the Wilmington and Sea Coast Railroad Company was formed. Within a few months that firm had run rail lines from Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach and opened an impressive resort hotel and pavilion. In the early twentieth century trolley cars replaced the locomotives, adding to Wrightsville's growing importance as a commercial resort property. The subsequent boom in cottage construction and commercial resort development on Wrightsville island provides a counterpart to the move from the sound to the beach side of Nags Head peninsula. At Nags Head new hotel construction also characterized the late nineteenth century. An 1886 newspaper advertisement demonstrates the type of development that awaited visitors: "This long established and favorite seaside summer resort...will be open...with several new attractions (including) a railroad from the pier to Ocean Beach, with a comfortable pavilion on the "Sea Beach"...(and) three restaurants on the Sound Side." The remote Outer Banks community of Ocracoke also boasted a hotel, the Ocracoke Hotel, which was built in 1885. The development of the automobile and good roads in the early decades of the twentieth century spurred development of such previously undeveloped beach properties as New Hanover County's Carolina Beach and Carteret County's Atlantic Beach. Masonboro Sound, away from the more popular oceanfront, was left out of this commercial boom.
The houses comprising the principal buildings in the Masonboro Sound Historic District are a unique group of twenty-two dwellings reflecting the origins of the district as a summer resort colony, its transition during the interwar years to a year-round community, and the accommodation of house design to the coastal climate. The Masonboro houses, mostly frame and covered with weatherboards or wood shingles, form one of the most cohesive nineteenth and early twentieth century sound side summer colonies in North Carolina. They are set on lawns shaded by deciduous and evergreen trees — principally magnolia and live oaks — and feature extensive plantings of camellias, azaleas, hollies, and other blooming shrubs and plants. There has been a development of place here, enriched from generation to generation. While there are other isolated historic summer cottages on the sounds in New Hanover County — the Bradley-Latimer Summer House being the principal one and the only one listed in the National Register of Historic Places — the summer houses at Masonboro are the only historic cluster of sound cottages in the county. The four oldest surviving houses in the Masonboro Sound Historic District date from the 1830s (the Hill-Anderson Cottage, 7424 Masonboro Sound Road) and the 1870s (the Cazaux-Williams-Crow House (7413 Masonboro Sound Road), Savage-Meditz-Dobbins House (7601 Masonboro Sound Road) and Peck-Owen House). Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth century Wilmingtonians built other summer houses as lots were subdivided and sold. Many of these remain largely as built whereas others have been remodelled from generation to generation.
From the beginning the summer cottages were built to accommodate the climate. In every instance the house is sited most often on the highest point of land on an individual tract and in a position that takes advantage of the best views and breezes. There is a shallow ridge of varying width and height which extends parallel to the sound banks some 200 to 300 feet inland on which most houses stand.
There is no dominant architectural idiom in Masonboro, yet when compared with the early twentieth century resort housing built at Wrightsville Beach, the earliest oceanfront resort in New Hanover County, significant differences emerge. The Masonboro houses are predominantly two-story, rectangular, single pile houses, with one- or two-story porches facing the sound. They are more traditional and vernacular in character than the frankly beachy ocean cottages at Wrightsville Beach. In the early years of the twentieth century Wrightsville cottages were generally one-story late Victorian style dwellings, and in the 1920s and 1930s were one- and two-story variants on the Craftsman style. The Masonboro cottages are more rural in character, almost as if they were disparate farmhouses that just happened to be built in a row. Many of these architectural differences are probably explained by their history: each Masonboro cottage was custom-built by a private family, while many of the Wrightsville cottages were built by developers, for speculation.
The architectural landmark of the district is Live Oaks, built in 1913, the same year its eminent architect Henry Bacon won the commission for the design of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bacon became known chiefly as a designer of monuments, particularly in collaboration with Daniel Chester French, and in 1923 he received the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects for his Lincoln Memorial design. Bacon executed many public, commercial, and institutional buildings, as well as a number of residential commissions. Except for Chesterwood, Daniel Chester French's house, relatively little has been published about the latter aspect of his work, most of which was for relatives and close friends. It is somewhat ironic that Henry Bacon's close association with North Carolina is barely recognized by scholars, yet his North Carolina houses are those about which considerable information has been gathered.
Bacon was born in Illinois in 1866 but he grew up in Wilmington where he became a close friend of the MacRae family. In 1885 he began to pursue an architectural career as a draftsman with Chamberlin & Whidden of Boston and then joined the New York firm of McKim, Mead & White where he was occupied primarily with pen-and-ink drawings of houses and the study of American Colonial architecture. In the late 1880s Bacon won the Rotch Traveling Scholarship, which afforded him two years of travel and study in Europe, after which he returned to McKim, Mead & White for six years. In 1897 he entered into his own private practice. Although he remained based in New York, Bacon maintained his childhood ties with Wilmington and the MacRaes. Over the years he executed designs for houses in Wilmington and the vicinity for prominent local businessman Donald MacRae's three children, Hugh, Donald, and Agnes, as well as at least three vacation houses between the early 1890s and 1910 for Donald MacRae's mountain resort development of Linville in Avery County.
All of Bacon's house plans are straightforward, with the arrangement of rooms reflected in exterior forms, perhaps a result of his serious study of Greek architecture. In eulogies delivered at Bacon's funeral in 1924, it was noted that "...even on the smallest problem he felt an obligation patiently to search for the inevitable perfect solution," and that he should be called "a classicist, but he has made the classic idiom absolutely his own and gives to his designs a superb individuality." As an architect who individualized the classic idiom, Bacon incorporated materials indigenous to the settings for his design. In Linville, he set the style for all future building in that community when he specified chestnut bark shingles for both the exterior and interior of his three designs. A similar approach characterizes his design for Live Oaks, commissioned by Walter and Agnes MacRae Parsley. Here, the octagonal form and atrium topped by a glazed cupola clearly derive their inspiration from ancient and Renaissance motifs, while the plan and functional cupola are thoughtful responses to the coastal climate and local shells in the exterior mortar firmly root the building in its setting and enhance Live Oak's uniqueness.
Although the oldest remaining houses in the Masonboro Sound Historic District date from the 1830s and the 1870s, it has been a significant summer resort area since the late colonial period. In the 1760s Wilmington poet Thomas Godfrey (1736-1763), author of the The Prince of Parthia, the first American drama written and professionally produced in the American colonies, wrote a poem entitled Masonborough, which celebrated "Masonborough's grove.... Where blooming Innocence and Love And Pleasure Crown the day."
Several prominent Wilmington area residents agreed with Godfrey sufficiently enough to build substantial summer resort houses overlooking Masonboro Sound. One of the largest of these was Finian, built just prior to the Revolution by William Hooper (1742-1790), a Wilmington attorney and one of the three North Carolinians to sign the Declaration of Independence. The largest and most impressive home on the sound prior to the Civil War was built for planter William Campbell in the 1790s at the mouth of Hewlett's Creek. When the Campbell house was for sale in the 1830s it was advertised in a local newspaper as "well planned for comfort and elegance, containing a parlor, and drawing room, six bedrooms, pantries, cellar with double piazzas, front and rear.... The Sound is within 100 yards of the house, affords an abundant supply and variety of fish, oysters, and with a beautiful sheet of water for fishing, sailing, and boating." This illustrates the gracious living possible on the sound during the antebellum period.
In the first half of the nineteenth century summer homes were erected at Masonboro by Wilmington civic and business leaders such as physician Nathaniel Hill, physician Edwin Anderson, and attorney John Lillington, several of whose descendants intermarried and owned other property on the sound. Others bought existing houses. For example, Parker Quince (1797-1867), the Collector of Customs for Wilmington, purchased the William Campbell House in 1834 and sold it to attorney Daniel Baker in 1847. Quince built a new house on the sound in 1860, which he named Hardscrabble (formerly on the site of the Parsley-Love House (Hickory Hill), 7509 Masonboro Sound Road). The Parsley family, which would become Masonboro's most important family after the Civil War, first appeared here in 1852 when lumber magnate Oscar Parsley (1806-1885) purchased Finian. Today, five Parsley family houses remain in the Masonboro Sound Historic District.
The houses constructed during the antebellum period were summer homes, designed to be used for extended vacations. As Hewlett and Smalley write: "People who came to Masonboro were seeking quiet, family-type pleasures and relaxation. They had their horses, their boats, their little fields and flower gardens." The ravages of fire and storm have taken their toll at Masonboro and the only antebellum dwelling that remains is the Anderson Cottage, a small guest cottage built on the grounds of Nathaniel Hill's place (named Eschol by his granddaughter sometime between 1847 and 1872). One antebellum pattern that held after the war was the siting of summer homes on the most scenic property on slight knolls which overlooked the sound, while permanent residents occupied property further inland.
Masonboro was near the site of considerable Civil War activity, but escaped that conflict relatively unscathed. Wilmington was the site of major blockade running and was the last Confederate port open to the outside world. Some of this blockade running did take place in the Masonboro area, and several salt works were located in the vicinity.
After the war, development resumed with the construction of several houses in the 1870s and 1880s. The oldest principal dwelling remaining in the Masonboro Sound Historic District was constructed in the 1870s by a daughter of Oscar Parsley. The Savage-Meditz-Dobbins House (7601 Masonboro Sound Road) was built in the mid-to-late 1870s for Jane Parsley Savage (1836-1916) and her husband Henry Russell Savage. The Cazaux-Williams-Crow House (Halcyon Hall) at 7413 Masonboro Sound Road was built in 1877 for Anthony D. Cazaux and sold shortly afterwards to George W. Williams (1831-1899), a Wilmington banker and businessman. The Willard-Sprunt-Woolvin House (7405 Masonboro Sound Road) was built around 1880 for businessman James Adolphus Willard (1825-1895). In 1885 Willard sold the house to Dr. James Sprunt (1846-1924), a Scottish born cotton export merchant, British vice-consul, philanthropist, local historian, and perhaps the best-known Wilmingtonian of this time. Sprunt kept the house until 1897 when he sold it to Carl F. von Kampen. Walter Linton Parsley (1856-1941), a son of Oscar Parsley, built the Parsley-Love House (Hickory Hill, 7509 Masonboro Sound Road) in 1885.
Some houses built during this period do not survive, such as an 1875 house built by Isaac Grainger, which burned in the 1890s. Others were sold such as the 1860 Parker Quince House, which was purchased by William White Harriss, a Wilmington physician, businessman, and civic leaders, in 1871 (and later destroyed), or the dilapidated antebellum Paget-Kent House, purchased by Harriss's son George Harriss in 1873 and destroyed by fire the next year. The survival of a 1876 survey of Cedar Grove renders this property one of the most interesting to modern-day scholars. The detailed rendering identifies numerous buildings and landscape features of the residential compound developed around 1870 by Virginia and Robert Henning and lost to fire and neglect over a period of several decades in the twentieth century. 
Despite this modest influx of newcomers, Masonboro retained its close-knit homogeneity. In 1872 the Campbell House was purchased by Duncan Bryant, who turned it into a boarding house. However, it was destroyed by fire shortly afterwards, ending this brief attempt at commercialization of the sound. The summer visitors did have a variety of recreational activities such as a canoe club, sport fishing, baseball games, or yacht racing. In the 1930s Walter Parsley reminisced about the halcyon days of the 1880s: In those days each house had a bathhouse, built out in deep water, with dressing rooms on a platform with steps leading down into the water...every family had a sailboat. On moonlit nights the sound was full of white sails, the boats filled with ladies and men singing and chatting and sometimes a guitar or banjo playing."
An unusually important year in the community's history was 1912 when the Masonboro Loop Road was completed. It was the first macadamized road to reach Masonboro and greatly improved transportation to the Sound. Previously, entry into Masonboro was by poorly maintained dirt roads. The completion of the Loop Road spurred the establishment of Masonboro's first subdivision, property developed by F.A. Bissinger outside the Masonboro Sound Historic District.
The most important events of 1912 involved the Parsley family. Walter Parsley decided to replace his 1885 summer home with something more substantial. He opted to build this new house, which he called Live Oaks (7527 Masonboro Sound Road), on the site of the existing one. He gave the old house to his daughter Anna and her husband Dr. L.H. Love and moved it north to an adjoining tract (Parsley-Love House (Hickory Hill), 7509 Masonboro Sound Road), the site of the old Parker Quince House. Parsley commissioned noted architect Henry Bacon, a Wilmington native best known as the designer of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to design his new summer home. Live Oaks was completed in 1913. At the time of its completion, it was the most distinguished house on the sound, a status it maintains to this day. Live Oaks was important to Masonboro in another way. From the beginning it was designed not as a summer home, but as a year round residence. With the macadamization of the Masonboro Loop Road and the subsequent development of the automobile, the sound was only minutes from Wilmington. Particularly after the First World War, summer homes were converted to year round residences, while new houses were constructed with year round residence in mind.
Several new homes were built in the period between the two world wars. In 1922 the Carr-Reid House (114 Magnolia Drive) was built for James Osborn Carr (1869-1949), an influential Wilmington attorney and former Duplin County legislator, and his wife Susan Parsley Carr. Ten years later they built the more substantial Carr-Orrnand House (118 Magnolia Drive). Both houses were erected on the seventy-acre tract that had been the site of Isaac Grainger's summer house. In 1924 United States Navy Admiral Edwin A. Anderson (1860-1933) retired to the family home, Eschol, which he renovated, expanded, and modernized. Anderson, a much decorated hero, was a Masonboro native. Eschol was torn down in 1963, but the Anderson Cottage has been preserved on a new site directly across Masonboro Sound Road. Located on a part of the Eschol property is Tremont (7423 Masonboro Sound Road), built in 1949 for Helen Harriss, widow of Admiral Anderson's nephew Edwin Alexander Harriss.
On March 14, 1931 Finian was destroyed by fire. Since 1914 this former William Hooper summer house had been owned by Julia Norton Parsley (1881-1962) and her husband Henry B. Peschau (1876-1952), a son of a German diplomat assigned to Wilmington. They replaced Finian in 1933 with the impressive Colonial Revival style Henry B. Peschau House (7535 Masonboro Sound Road). In 1937 the Tayler-Bissinger House (7542 Masonboro Sound Road) was built for Amanda Sprunt Taylor (1863-1938), a granddaughter of Oscar Parsley. She sold it two years later to Richard Bissinger.
In the years since the end of the Second World War Masonboro has retained its character as a close-knit community. However, the increasing suburbanization of New Hanover County threatens the continued existence of Masonboro Sound as a distinct summer colony, and it is hoped that listing in the National Register will help protect its unique environment and historical character.
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† Davyd Foard Hood, Ruth Little, Claudia Brown, John Clauser, Dolores Hall, staff of North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Historic Preservation Section, Masonboro Sound Historic District, New Hanover County, N.C., nomination document, 1992, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.