Historic America

Burgwin-Wright House in Wilmington, North Carolina

Tour this Colonial-Era home and gardens built atop Wilmington’s oldest jail.

Click to expand photos.

In its early days as a British colony, North Carolina was perceived as a backwoods territory full of crime, indentured servants, pirates, and other rough characters. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, that began to change. The Burgwin-Wright House tells the story of this transition. Today, you can tour the house and see its history firsthand.

Wilmington’s original wood, brick, and stone jail, known as a gaol, stood at the corner of Market and Third Streets from 1744 to 1768, when it burned in a fire. Sensing an opportunity, a British merchant named John Burgwin purchased the property, along with its stone foundations. He built a handsome Georgian home, where he could conduct business while in town, over one foundation.

Ingenious construction methods allowed the home to remain cool over the hot summer months, but the Burgwin family spent most of their time on their plantation outside of town. Joshua Grainger Wright and his wife Susan purchased the house from Burgwin in 1799. The Wright family lived there until 1869. Its rooms are well-furnished with eighteenth and nineteenth century antiques, reflecting how these families lived.

In 1930, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in North Carolina stepped in to prevent the house from being leveled to build a gas station. In 1951, the Burgwin-Wright House officially opened as a museum. The adjacent gardens have been restored, as has part of the old jail.

While not as stately and grand as the nearby Bellamy Mansion, I was impressed with the period furniture and artifacts at the Burgwin-Wright House. Our tour guide, a history graduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was knowledgeable and energetic, and not the least annoyed by having to answer questions posed by a curious visitor about every single object in the home. One notable artifact was an original jailer’s key, which incredibly survived over 275 years.

A few colorful stories about the former occupants would have improved our textbook tour (our guide mentioned a ghost tour, which I unfortunately missed). I would’ve liked to hear more about the old jail as well. We talked about how it represented the rough-and-tumble early days of Wilmington, and how John Burgwin’s home literally effaced this symbol of less sophisticated times. Those times give birth to great stories. Posters tell more about crime and punishment in Colonial Wilmington on the walls near the restrooms.

The Burgwin-Wright Museum and Gardens, 224 Market Street in Wilmington, North Carolina, is open Monday through Saturday (closed on Sunday), 10:00am to 3:00pm. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the gardens, but you must take a guided tour to see the mansion. Tours start every hour on the hour. 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) 762-0570.


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