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What is the history of the Murchison Building in downtown Wilmington?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

What we usually call the Murchison Building towered over other buildings on Wilmington’s Front Street in this photo taken sometime between 1914 and 1932. Photo courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library.

Technically, there are two Murchison buildings downtown.

The Murchison National Bank Building at 200 N. Front St. – sometimes called the “Acme Building” – was built in 1902 to house the Murchison National Bank, founded in 1899. Designed by Charles McMillen, with John H. Brunjes as contractor, the three-story Neo-Renaissance structure is notable for its blond brick with stone quoining.

Over the years, the building, on the northeast corner of Front and Chestnut streets, has housed the Acme Investment and Realty Co., the Home Savings Bank (1925) and the Morris Plan Bank (1934). Bob DeYoung bought and renovated the building in the 1990s.

The other Murchison building, and the better known one, is across the street at 201 N. Front St. For a generation of Wilmingtonians, it was the “First Union Building,” since First Union National Bank occupied most of the first floor from 1974 until 2002. (Before 1974, First Union – which merged with Wachovia in 2001 – had its Wilmington offices in the Acme building across the street.)

It was built between 1913 and 1914 on the former site of the Cape Fear Club, as a new home for the Murchison National Bank (which had expanded).

The architect was Kenneth M. Murchison (1872-1938), a New Yorker with family ties to Wilmington. (Among his other works in the area were expansions on the Gov. Dudley Mansion, the 1910 wings added to Orton Plantation and Luola’s Chapel at Orton. Luola Murchison Sprunt, for whom the chapel is named, was his sister.)

Murchison worked in what historian Tony Wrenn calls a Neoclassical Revival style, with an elaborate corniced roof, Ionic pilasters and decorative panels and a Greek key relief. Freestanding Doric columns mark the main entrance.

When the building opened in the fall of 1914, the Murchison Bank occupied the ground floor, the Chamber of Commerce took offices on the seventh floor and the rest was leased as office space. The second and third floors had special gas and electrical  fixtures for medical and dental offices; the ninth floor was tailored especially to lawyers.

Early advertisements emphasized the availability of a ladies’ restroom on the fourth floor for female employees and clients. The “colored” restroom was in the basement. Ad copy from the 1910s also carefully pointed out that, except for hall porters, all the building employees were white, including the elevator operators, who in the early days wore gray uniforms. (The Murchison building, as of 2013 retains the only manually operated elevator in Wilmington, and an operator still works regular hours.)

Wilmingtonians were proud of the view. In May 1915, the North Carolina Sorosis held a rooftop tea party at the building. In 1918, U.S. Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, on an official visit to Wilmington, was guided to the top of the Murchison building for a view of the city’s port facilities.

In the 1920s, the building was home to North Carolina Bank & Trust, the largest bank in the state until its failure in the Great Depression.

From 1935 to 1970, one of its noisiest tenants was the Wilmington Morning Star and Sunday Star-News (now the StarNews) which kept its newsroom, business offices and printing plant in the structure.

In 1984, after several changes of ownership, the Murchison building was acquired by Liberty Kuester Associates, a partnership of Kuester Development Corp. of Charlotte and Liberty Real Estate of Boston. The partners embarked on a yearlong, $2 million renovation and restoration, which included the installation of central air conditioning, a thorough remodeling of the upper four floors, an upgrading of the elevator and restoration of exterior brickwork. Liberty later bought out Kuester’s interest.

The building is now owned by Charleston, S.C.-based Ziff Properties, which in February 2013 announced another $2 million renovation, including façade work, window upgrades, common corridor improvements and bathroom renovations.  Team Silivanch of Coldwell Banker Commercial Sun Coast Partners is the primary leasing agent.

As of early 2013, tenants in the building include a number of law firms (including that of former New Hanover District Attorney Jerry Spivey), AH Environmental Engineering, Cape Fear Brewing Co., Hedgehog Healthcare Associates, Legal Aid of North Carolina Inc., local offices of Eaton Corp., Old North State Trust LLC. and Wieland Electric, as well as the Wilmington office of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. The oldest tenant, on the ground floor for more than half a century, is Pender’s Cafe, a breakfast and lunch establishment.

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One Response to “ What is the history of the Murchison Building in downtown Wilmington?”

  1. On April 18, 2013 at 7:52 am Gary W Padgett wrote:

    My dad Winford W Padgett started his career with the Star News as a “printer” (Linotype operator & machinist), he was working in that bldg when “Hurricane Hazel” hit Wilmington! My dad has since passed but thee Murchinson Bldg & thee Star News has a special place in my memories of my dad!



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