Built in 1852, the Latimer House is now headquarters of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. "Zebulon Latimer moved down here from Connecticut," said McGreevy. "He was a commissioned merchant and he dealt with the naval stores that were being shipped out of Wilmington."
The house stayed in Latimer hands for three generations until it was sold to the Historical Society in 1963, and the descendants passed along the original plans and associated bills, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars.
"Zebulon had bought slaves and there were five other members of the family that he didn't buy. And his wife asked him to go buy the rest of them and he said they were building this house so they couldn't spend the money. They decided not to do the decorative work like the crown molding, and they bought the family members."
Now that's a great story, but it certainly doesn't look like any expense was spared in the construction of this elaborate residence. The crystal "gaseliers" ran on a type of piped-in coal gas—another source of all those Wilmington fires—that shed their brilliant light on tastefully appointed parlors with imported Italian marble fireplaces. The house was built for hot weather in the Italianate style, with high ceilings, huge doors and big windows.
Because the house stayed in family hands for more than a century, its memorabilia is more recent than most tourist attractions of its era. One ghostly presence still keenly felt is that of Elizabeth Chant, an artist from England who arrived in the 1930s and stayed seven years, all the while packed for immediate departure when her cousin Cedric was expected to come to pick her up. As it turns out, she had no cousin Cedric.
Her oil painting, "The Conversation," depicts the interior scene about five steps from where it hangs in a downstairs parlor. She made her own flowing robes, did up her hair like a Star Wars Princess Lea, thought she was a Druid and conversed regularly with King Arthur.
The wallpaper is courtesy of Oprah Winfrey, who shot the movie "The Wedding" here in 1997 starring Hallie Berry. If you thought Oprah was too intelligent and sensitive to deface historically authentic wall coverings, think again.
Upstairs is a drawing that H.D. Latimer made of "The Dram Tree," an ancient cypress that stood in the middle of the Cape Fear River for centuries as a distinctive Wilmington landmark. "As early as 1700 sailors knew when they got to this tree it was only two miles more to the port," said McGreevy. "It was like a milemarker, so they could start taking down the sails. But they did have to pay attention so when they passed this tree they got their last dram of rum for the voyage. No more drinking until they got to port. And by the same token when they shipped out it was the first dram of rum for the voyage."
By other accounts, the sailors finished off the rum at the dram tree because they were well within range of replenishing their supplies. Superstitions evolved that clearly mandated raising some sort of toast to the tree in passing, whether coming or going. The dram tree was taken down by a shipbuilding enterprise in the 1990s, which was clearly bad luck at least for the tree.
Downstairs more drawings by H.D. Latimer hang in a dining room, renderings of houses that no longer stand. Also a framed letter from the Antislavery Society of New York City advises Zebulon Latimer to send along the clothing of a slave girl who had been forwarded to Canada.
In the downstairs warming kitchen stands a heart pine table, and the ghost tour likes to tell people that five Latimer children died in the house and were laid out on that table. Which is ridiculous, according to McGreevy. "They would never lay out a corpse on a table where they ate." She added that the Latimers are all buried in a "wonderful tomb" at Oakdale Cemetery.
The Latimer House is located at 120 South Third Street, phone 910/762-0492. Guided tours are available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 12 to 5 p.m. Admission is charged.