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What is the Hannah Block Historic USO?

Ben Steelman

Built in December 1941, the USO building at 120 S. Second St., Wilmington [Map this], was one of 14 USO facilities operating in Wilmington and New Hanover County during World War II. After the war, it was taken over by the City of Wilmington as a community recreation center. Today, it maintains its recreational and arts missions while serving as a mini-museum of the wartime Wilmington home front.

Built by the Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of $80,000 (the equivalent of $4 million in today’s money) the USO was the first of two local structures built for the United Service Organizations Inc., a non-profit volunteer agency that aided U.S serviceman. (An identical USO building, intended for African-American troops in the period’s segregated conditions, was erected at Ninth and Nixon streets.)

With an Army anti-aircraft training base at Camp Davis in nearby Holly Ridge and a new U.S. Marine Corps base, Camp Lejeune, in Jacksonville, wartime Wilmington faced an influx of some 35,000 GIs on liberty each weekend.

The clubhouse at Second and Orange streets was operated by four agencies in cooperation with the USO: The YMCA, YWCA, National Jewish Welfare Board and National Travelers Aid Association. Facilities included a first-floor canteen, a help desk that assisted in finding accommodations (a problem when Wilmington’s population, swollen by defense workers, neared 100,000) and a basement dormitory that housed 600 men on weekends.

The USO was kept open around the clock, seven days a week, with a schedule that included “big band” dances, plays, musical recitals, art exhibits and guest lectures. A number of wedding receptions were held there, and it was even the scene of weekly radio broadcasts. At the height of the war, as many as 63,000 GIs passed through the building during a typical weekend.

In 1946, the city purchased the building for its Recreation Department. Renamed the Community Center, it was used for children’s and youth programs. The Thalian Association drama group and Wilmington College (forerunner of the University of North Carolina Wilmington) also used the facility. In 1948, it was the scene of the opening ceremonies for Wilmington’s first Azalea Festival.

During the 1960s, the Arts Council of the Lower Cape Fear moved into the building, and it began to house a number of art classes and workshops. In 1973, the building was renamed the Community Arts Center, and in 1974, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1997, St. John’s Museum of Art announced plans to buy the Arts Center property, to demolish the old building and build a new facility for itself on the site. A coalition of arts groups, history buffs and historic preservationists promptly formed the Community Arts Center Accord to block the proposal and save the building. The museum canceled its plans and — after turning down an offer from the Linda Lavin Foundation to buy the building — the city decided to keep the aging structure and renovate it.

The building was closed for $2.1 million in repairs in 2006 and reopened in March 2008. Rechristened as the Hannah Block USO, it was renamed for Hannah Block, a noted philanthropist and former mayor pro tem of Wilmington, who had been a volunteer coordinator with the USO during the war. (The building’s theater had been dedicated as the “Hannah Block Second Street Stage” in 1997.) A series of displays on the building’s wartime history were installed later in the year and unveiled in time for the 2008 Independence Day celebrations.

Today the building is managed for the city by the Thalian Association.

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