This majestic mansion and gardens transports you back to the Victorian Era.
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Built for a prominent North Carolina slaveholder and his family, the Bellamy Mansion on Market Street in Wilmington’s Historic District is slowly being restored to its former glory. Today, you can tour the mansion and nearby servant quarters, and purchase souvenirs in the former carriage house. It’s a fascinating glimpse at a bygone era.
Designed by Wilmington architect James F. Post in 1859, this 22-room Greek Revival and Italianate-style mansion took nearly two years to build. It was completed in 1861, just as North and South were embroiled in civil war. Dr. John Dillard Bellamy (1817-1896) commissioned the home for his large family and their closest servants and slaves. Dr. Bellamy was an ardent secessionist who owned over one hundred slaves throughout North Carolina.
In early 1865, the family fled Wilmington during an outbreak of yellow fever, but wouldn’t return until the fall because the Union Army had occupied the city and were using their mansion as a headquarters. Union General Joseph Roswell Hawley wasn’t keen on returning the property to an unabashed rebel. He wrote, “having for four years been making his bed, he now must lie on it for awhile.”
Dr. Bellamy and his wife had ten children, only a few of whom went on to have families of their own. Two daughters never married, and lived in the house until their deaths. A fire in 1972 damaged the home, and in 1989 its beleaguered owners donated it to the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina for restoration and use as a museum.
On my visit, I skipped the guided tour and opted to go through the house on my own. The pleasant and conversational volunteers in the carriage house gift shop provided me a laminated guide to the rooms. The house itself is practically barren, with only a few pieces of furniture on the ground floor and basement. The upstairs rooms are mainly used as galleries to display local art. You can get a commanding view of the property from the attic windows.
The restored two story, brick slave and servant quarters was more interesting than the main house. Interpretive signs tell the story of servant life in the humble dwelling, while straw beds and rough wood furniture served as a tangible illustration. It is the most intact urban slave quarters in North Carolina and one of the few surviving in the South, though the family slaves were freed by passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
During restoration, workers discovered talismans hidden in the corner wall, including a small pipe and an animal’s jaw bone. The superstitious slaves probably left them as good luck charms or to ward off bad spirits. It’s one thing to read about such curious practices, but another to see them firsthand.
The Bellamy Mansion Museum, 503 Market Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, is open Monday through Saturday, 10:00am to 5:00pm and Sunday 1:00pm to 5:00pm. Guided tours are available every hour on the hour, but you can take a self guided tour anytime. Admission is $12 for adults and $10 for seniors. Other discounts are available. Tour tickets are purchased in the gift shop. For more info, call (910) 251-3700.