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Whatever happened to the cannons that used to be on top of the old WLI Armory?

Ben Steelman

The cannons recently damaged by vandals at the WLI Armory are visible in this World War I-era photo. (Courtesy of the New Hanover County Public Library)

The cannons apparently fell victim to vandals some years ago, according to folks at Wilmington’s First Baptist Church, which now owns the building — also known as the John A. Taylor House — at 409-411 Market St., Wilmington [Map this].

Someone apparently climbed a fire escape to the roof of the building and pushed the small cannons — which used to be perched at the corners of the parapet-like roof — over the side, said the Rev. Mike Queen of First Baptist. One of the cannons was broken, but one survived the fall.

The cannons were restored and are now in storage, said the Rev. Daryl Trexler, First Baptist’s minister for administration. The church has not yet decided whether to reinstall them on the roof or whether to place them somewhere else for security reasons.

The cannons — like the larger field pieces still on the lawn in front of the property — are relics of the days when the building was the armory for the Wilmington Light Infantry, a local militia unit, which occupied the building from 1892 until 1950. The cannons were reportedly installed in 1902.

The WLI, as it was known, saw action in the Civil War (as Company G of the 18th North Carolina), World War I (first at Fort Caswell, then as part of the American Expeditionary Force) and in World War II (as Battery A of the 252nd Coast Artillery Regiment, when it saw service on the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Trinidad).

The unit was activated for the Spanish American War, but the conflict ended before it could ship out. Ironically, the cannons on the grounds were Spanish trophies reportedly seized in the Spanish-American War. The cannons on the roof, however, were lifesaving guns, used by shore crews to fire lifelines to grounded or stranded vessels in storms.

The building was constructed around 1847 as a residence for John Allan Taylor, a businessman who operated a ferry and the steamboat Calhoun on the Cape Fear River. Originally built in the Classical Revival style, it was described in an 1891 auction advertisement as “that truly superb and costly Residence in Marble and Pressed Philadelphia Brick, containing 12 rooms ….”

The WLI bought it in 1891. On the morning of Nov. 10, 1898, a white mob formed up in front of the building before marching, in military order, to attack and burn the offices of the black-owned Wilmington Record, launching the events of what became known as “the Wilmington Race Riot,” which ended in the overthrow of the city’s elected, biracial Republican government.

On Sept, 17, 1951, the WLI formally deeded the Armory building to New Hanover County. From 1956 to 1981, it was the home of the New Hanover County Public Library. (For decades afterward, a club room in the basement was reserved for WLI veterans.)

After the library moved into the old Belk Beery building at 201 Chestnut St., Wilmington [Map this], the Armory building held Wilmington city planning offices.

In 1996, First Baptist swapped some suburban lots the city planned to use for fire stations in return for the Taylor House/Armory. The church now uses the building for Sunday school classes and administrative offices.

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One Response to “ Whatever happened to the cannons that used to be on top of the old WLI Armory?”

  1. On June 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm Steve Lee wrote:

    When I moved to Wilmington in 1968, the building was the NHCo. main library. My father thought it was rather intimidating to have cannons on top of the library! “Don’t mess with our books! screamed the cannons. NOt very welcoming for readers, regardless of the history of the building!

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