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What is that weird building on Market Street with the cannons on the roof?

Ben Steelman

It started out as the John A. Taylor house, built around 1847 at what is now 409 Market St., Wilmington [Map this]. Its marble veneer facade over pressed brick provided a conversation piece/residence for a local shipping executive. (Taylor operated a ferry across the Cape Fear River and owned a steamer called the Calhoun.)

In 1892, the house was bought by the Wilmington Light Infantry, a local militia unit, which used it as an armory until at least 1951. (It certainly looked like a fort, even without the cannons.)

Chartered in 1849, with many veterans of the Mexican War on its original rolls, the WLI (as it was universally known) was perhaps the most stylish military unit in the Cape Fear area. Young men from socially prominent families clambered for the chance to wear its snappy uniforms. In 1861, the WLI joined other militia units under Capt. John Cantwell to seize Forts Johnston and Caswell at the mouth of the Cape Fear River — even before North Carolina seceded from the Union. The unit saw service in the Civil War (as Company G of the 18th North Carolina Infantry), in World War I (first manning Fort Caswell as part of the Coast Artillery, then in France as part of the American Expeditionary Force) and in World War II (when it was deployed to the Caribbean island of Aruba as an anti-aircraft unit).

On Nov. 10, 1898, a white mob — many of whose members were apparently WLI members in mufti — used the WLI armory as a staging area, gathering there before marching to the offices of the black-owned Wilmington Record, which it proceeded to burn. That attack was the first round the “Wilmington Riot” or insurrection of 1898 that toppled the city’s elected, biracial government.

And the cannons? Those were installed in 1902. The guns on the lawn are Spanish ordnance, with cannonballs, captured during the Spanish-American War. (The WLI was activated for that conflict, which ended before it could be deployed — much to the disappointment, apparently, of many of the members.) The four cannons on the roof have been identified as lifesaving guns, used by coastal lifesaving crews to fire lifelines to grounded or stranded vessels in storms.

In 1951, the WLI deeded its armory to the City of Wilmington for use as a public library, in return for $500 and the right to use a basement room as their meeting hall. The New Hanover County Public Library occupied the building from 1952 until 1981, when it moved to its present headquarters in the former Belk-Beery building at Third and Chestnut streets. The building then housed the city’s planning offices for a number of years.

In 1996, Wilmington deeded the building to the adjoining First Baptist Church, in exchange for two vacant suburban lots that the city planned to use for fire stations. The surviving members of the WLI, now mostly elderly, retained their meeting hall. The church now uses the building for Sunday school classes.

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One Response to “ What is that weird building on Market Street with the cannons on the roof?”

  1. On July 25, 2010 at 6:56 pm Bill Mathias wrote:

    Before moving to the WLI Building on Market St., the public library was located on an upper floor in the Wilmington City Hall on Third St. Two NHHS students were hired for several weeks after the school year to help with the packing and moving of library holdings to WLI. I was one of the students, and the other was Ray Gumb (now deceased). Your article indicated that the public library occupied WLI in 1952. However, Ray and I did not meet until we both began NHHS in Fall 1953. This would have meant that the earliest that he and I could have participated in the move would have been the summer of 1954.

    This date is not critical, but for the record, the above facts should be noted.

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