More on the Duncan House and its Significance

1937 photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston
I received permission to post this email from architectural historian Tony P. Wrenn— author of Beaufort’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places:

11 April 2012

“Thanks for sending along the [News-Times] article on what is happening with the Duncan House.
 
“I don't really understand those who say that if the house should not be demolished, that should have been decided years ago, and applied to the house. IT WAS, as it was for every house in the historic district marked as having historical/architectural importance.  In most cases when there is no threat—i.e., owners and the community are aware of the importance, historically, architecturally, culturally, of the building, there is no reason to single it out in that way. The listing as important to the historic district, to the state and to the nation, as the National Register Nomination in 1974 noted in a listing which marked this house as one to watch closely and care about.
 
“Any owner buying property should investigate all codes, ordinances, restrictions, etc., which might curtail what can be done to a property before buying, and most, especially a preservationist, would know how important the Duncan House is to community state and nation—they can read the nomination and see the property—and move elsewhere, or, if they have sufficient funds to restore or maintain the house, if it needs restoration, go ahead and buy, and restore.  It is in doing that that the heroes who have given us a saved and restored Mount Vernon and other such buildings have earned our admiration and our appreciation for their dedication to our cultural resources.
 
“It has not been pointed out by anyone yet that the house was identified at the highest level of importance by the original Beaufort Report in 1970, and has been well maintained since then.
 
“Just seeing a picture of the house makes me proud and appreciative to those who have brought it through time safe so far. As an architectural historian I have worked on or been part of a team that has worked on buildings as varied as an early 19th century drovers’ rest in Fairfax County Virginia, where Washington would not have overnighted had he been alive, to Cass Gilbert's City Hall in Waterbury Connecticut—recently saved after having been declared by the city as beyond saving—West Virginia's first State Capitol in Wheeling, Iolani Pacade in Honolulu, and others during a career that stretched from about 1960 when I was released from the Army, to today. The difference in importance of any of these, and of the hundreds of others that I have worked with is nothing more than location. The Custom House in Wheeling—the first West Virginia State Capitol—is important because of where it is and what it is, and that importance is that building's alone. It is not shared by any of the other buildings on which I have worked. Each gave something to its location that is important to all. In Waterbury I want to see what is important to Waterbury and not a replica of something there or elsewhere. 
 
“My belief in the importance of the Duncan House goes beyond my knowledge of the Duncan House, and my belief that this is an important and diverse country, with important buildings that I feel are important to all of us whether located in Old Salem or in Beaufort.
 
“There are fewer each day, even each hour, as one can see if one travels even a bit in ones own area. Demolition is the end. In the case of the Duncan House it is the end of that house, and its loss will be a beginning in the lessening of the importance of Beaufort, not only to Beauforters, but to North Carolinians, to those who live far away as I do—in Fredericksburg, Virginia—and to anyone who may visit Beaufort in the future.  Memories can be savored, but not touched, and one can never learn from the memory what one can learn from the original.

“I may be the only person who has walked through, looked at each building or structure in the historic districts of Beaufort, New Bern, and Wilmington from street level, and from all sites viewable from the public right of way.  At the same time I photographed, insured location data and mapping, and made notes on each house considered of architectural, historical or cultural value. This was done from street level and involved several months of on-site work, and research, in each case with local research assistance and attention, and assistance from the Department in Raleigh. The surveys were later checked by the appropriate persons in the State Historic Preservation Office in Raleigh.  
 
“It is good that these surveys were accomplished when they were, in the 1970s, for at the time change was, with the exception of urban renewal in Wilmington, not the obliterating factor it later became in many such cities. One could then see the towns/cities as they had existed, without the pressures for change that have gathered speed on the last 30 or so years. The Beaufort of today is not the Beaufort of 1970, though thankfully the area of the Duncan House on Front Street survives.

“Files on individual buildings from the surveys, photographs, negatives and notes, both mine and those of others involved in either research or surveying, were filed with the Department in Raleigh and became a permanent part of the state collection of material on the three cities. The photographs alone number in the thousands, and include images of all viewable elevations and of detail important to the individual building.
 
“I also was involved with writing of Register nominations in all three of the towns:  Beaufort, New Bern and Wilmington, and in Wilmington wrote Wilmington North Carolina, An Historical and Architectural Portrait,  published by the University Press of Virginia in 1984.
 
“The report I presented in 1970 Beaufort, North Carolina, recommends, in discussing Historic District Legislation, p. 37, that the historic district then in place be enlarged, "so as to give additional protection to the land boundaries," and I am surprised to learn that the area of the district has since been diminished, rather than enlarged.
 
“The Duncan House and the few other buildings of its type in Beaufort are the only collection of such buildings that survive, if indeed there ever was another such collection in the state. The Duncan House is obviously the most noticeable and memorable since it literally is the cornerstone of the collection, with its style and its location giving it enormous importance.

“Please do continue to keep me informed, and if there is anything I can do to help, let me know.”

Tony