Annual tours are the main funding sources for the nonprofit Historical Society of Lower Cape Fear and its sibling—or make that offspring— Historic Wilmington Foundation. HSLCF runs a Secret Garden Tour in early September and a Candlelight Tour during the holidays. HWF puts together a historic homes tour in connection with the Azalea Festival in April.
No tour is the same from one year to the next, which keeps it interesting for fans coming back year after year.
A group of preservationists gave the historical society its start in 1956 and its first official act was to compile an inventory of 26 buildings in the historic district. Today Wilmington has one of the largest historic districts in the south, with over 300 square blocks on the National Register.
Ten years later the historical society mustered its forces to form the Historic Wilmington Foundation, the business and political arm of the movement, charged with lobbying at the legislature, maintaining a fund for the purchase of endangered properties, and making loans to prospective homeowners.
"They bought early houses and sold them to somebody who refurbished them," said HSLCF executive director Candace McGreavy. "They put the plaques on the houses."
The historic homes tour in April not only raises money for the cause but furthers the cause. The foundation wants people to see works in progress, houses that have been or are being rehabbed, and if the same house is on the tour for several consecutive years it is there to serve as a progress report.
Some of these grand old mansions had to be gutted, stripped and rebuilt from the inside out. During the tour homeowners are always on hand to describe every excruciating step of the process, often to a rapt group of admirers seriously contemplating the same rash actions. Usually about a dozen homes are on this tour, and that number roughly stays the same for the other two annual tours.
"We have a group of gardeners who do our gardens," McGreavy said, referring to the manicured areas surrounding Latimer House where the historical society is headquartered. "In the '70s they started the Wilmington By Candlelight Tour and that's been going on ever since. It's been a major fundraiser for the historical society for almost 40 years."
Halls are decked and punch is served in a festive spirit that resembles progressive parties that start at one house with mulled cider, moves to the next with gingerbread cookies, and then on to the next for chocolate cheesecake.
Once the gardeners got their feet in these various historic doors, they could not resist inspecting the grounds. "When they started getting some of the private homes to let people come in on the tour, the gardeners started saying these houses have wonderful old gardens with old plantings. So they started the Secret Garden Tour and we do that every year."
The "secret" aspect refers to the walls, fences and gates that often shield private gardens from public view, and also to the protection of homeowners' privacy. Contact the historical society at 910/762-2976