Wilmington: Faded Glory to Fresh Achievement

This essay was composed for the Worth 1,000 Words project by SUSAN TAYLOR BLOCK. Block is an independent writer and historian, a native of Wilmington, NC, and author of several books and articles on the history and culture of the Wilmington area, including a trilogy of photographic histories: Along the Cape Fear (1998), Cape Fear Lost (1999), and Cape Fear Beaches (2000). See the References section for links to more of Block’s work.

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Being a native with an absorbing mind and a privileged background, it was easy for Hugh MacRae Morton to recognize Wilmington’s cultural and architectural gems. With steady aim, over six decades, he arrested scene after scene that celebrates life along the Lower Cape Fear. Some of his Port City photos tell a simple story, but others speak poetry about an old Southern city embedded with natural beauty, blessed with visionaries, and riddled with a few quirks.

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Hugh Morton took the last known series of landscape photographs and the only known interior shot of the “Bungalow,” a treasure-filled secret retreat of powerful men from 1907 until 1919. U. S. Presidents, railroad magnates, John D. Rockefeller, world famous opera stars, and numerous dignitaries from Italy are just a small number of notables who enjoyed the lavish hospitality inside, and the surrounding 2,200-acre hunting preserve outside.

The land and Italianate mansion were owned by industrialist Pembroke Jones, but envisioned and controlled somewhat by Henry Walters, the famously reticent art collector and railroad president. Architect J. Stewart Barney designed the Bungalow to contain secret passageways and a plethora of servants’ bells. A hidden underground tunnel was added later that led guests from the Wrightsville Sound waterfront to the basement of the lodge.

After the Joneses’ son, Pembroke III, inherited Pembroke Park in 1919, the parties dwindled, then ceased. Henry Walters had furnished the mansion with treasures he bought in Italy, the finer pieces of which became the core of the Walters Art Museum collection in Baltimore.

Image courtesy the Cape Fear Museum. Click to view a similar image from the Morton collection.

Image courtesy the Cape Fear Museum. Click to view a similar image from the Morton collection.

Thieves stole most of what Walters placed there after the house was abandoned. Arsonists completed the Bungalow’s destruction not long after Hugh Morton took these photographs. Hugh Morton’s grandfather, Hugh MacRae (1865-1951), would have been a regular guest at The Bungalow, and he frequented parties that took place at Mrs. Pembroke Jones’s neighboring 155-acre garden estate, Airlie.

Hugh Morton’s photo of Azalea Festival Queen Jacqueline White under the Airlie Oak serves as a reminder of the celebration’s age, and is a nature study in itself. The Azalea Festival originated as the dream of Dr. Houston Moore, but illness forced the physician to take a back seat. Morton, elected in absentia to be its first president, added muscle, energy, and connections to the fledgling organization.

Morton also led the campaign to name Jacqueline White “Queen Azalea I.” Selection of the velvet-skinned actress was meant to set an event precedent: choosing a leading lady with good looks, grace, and some genuine celebrity. White signed contracts with MGM and RKO before 1948 when this photo was taken, but her greatest work would come in 1952 when she starred in the film noir, The Narrow Margin.

The annual festival endures, but White’s dewy youth and post-war-era style is frozen. She continues to “reign” in this well-distributed photograph, sitting there permanently at the starting point of the festival timeline. The juxtaposition of the twenty-five year old human beauty and the gnarled 400-year old Airlie Oak accentuates the properties of both.

Though there was and is plenty of fluff to the Azalea Festival, two extraordinary things developed as a result of the annual event. One is the “Azalea Garden Tour,” conducted during the festival by Cape Fear Garden Club. All proceeds from the tour go to two scholarships and numerous local beautification and conservation projects. In 2009, during a recession, proceeds from the Azalea Garden Tour totaled $82,000. The other success is “Cottage Lane,” a jaunty grassroots Azalea Festival art show that jump-started a campaign to establish St. John’s Art Gallery, a clean-lined volunteer-powered organization that has evolved to be the sophisticated 40,000 square-foot Cameron Art Museum today.

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In 1953, Wilmingtonian Jimmy McKoy came up with the idea for the Cottage Lane Art Show. Azalea Festival officials were so wary of the plan that they offered only $13 to the small committee. McKoy, artist Claude Howell, and Gar Faulkner chose Cottage Lane as the venue for its charm and because Elizabeth Chant, one of Wilmington’s greatest artists and teachers, had lived in one of the lane’s cottages. Howell and Faulkner sought to lend a Parisian flavor by engaging a violinist and hanging “filling station flags.” Spikes on an old iron fence worked well to hang the paintings. At night, the three men moved the artwork to the basement of First Presbyterian Church, located just south of the Murphy House, seen here on the right.

The 1953 show was a huge success, followed by many other annual triumphs. Entertainment grew to include forty accordion players, a zany group of women artists who sang songs of their own composing, and a dog who howled to melodies. Camaraderie among the artists and a groundswell of community enthusiasm led to frenzied cries for an art gallery. Generously, St. John’s Tavern owner Henry B. McKoy offered the 1805 building as the site of what would soon be named St. John’s Art Gallery. The organization was founded in 1962. Today, its successor, Cameron Art Museum, operates in a building designed by Gwathmey, Siegle and Associates, and has gained national recognition as an art museum of distinction.

Hugh Morton designed the photograph below to be a promotion for the Azalea Festival and the USS North Carolina. Like the festival, relocation of the big ship was someone else’s idea, but Hugh Morton shouldered the load. Jimmy Craig, a Wilmington friend Morton met in Jaycees, envisioned the project, but died when a promotional plane flight ended in a crash in 1961. Craig’s death occurred just months after Morton photographed him at the muddy tract in which they hoped to berth the 728-foot-long ship.

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Subsequently, Hugh Morton became the prime mover and shaker of the battleship effort. He engaged everyone from John F. Kennedy to thousands of North Carolina schoolchildren in the effort to bring the ship home. Finally, ushered up the Cape Fear River by a fleet of tugboats, the USS North Carolina arrived at its new berth on October 2, 1961. On April 29, 1962, she was dedicated as a memorial to United States Veterans.

Though Morton could focus on something as small as a coral bell azalea bloom, he had a knack for seeing the big picture, and for figuring out what was wrong with that picture. At some point in the 1960s, he looked at the Cape Fear River and realized no one seemed to be appreciating it for the picture it created.

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For centuries, the Cape Fear River had been regarded as merely utilitarian; liquid upon which watercraft moved. In fact, Morton’s great-great-great-great grandfather, Roderick MacRae used that path to reach Wilmington when he emigrated from Scotland in 1770. Morton was one of several businessmen who tried to present the river as a visual asset. After the Wilmington Hilton was built diagonally across the Cape Fear from the USS North Carolina, it became Morton’s favorite Wilmington place to stay following his move to Linville.

One of Morton’s most touching Wilmington photographs is of his grandfather Hugh MacRae, kneeling, dressed in a shirt and tie, and with his arm wrapped lovingly around a calf. Morton had a strong sense of modesty about family achievements, or he would probably have made more than just the handful of photos he took of his grandfather. This image exhibits MacRae’s dual career as Wilmington’s most creative and multi-talented businessman and as a trailblazing agrarian.

Morton took the photo at MacRae’s test farm, Invershiel, about 1949. It exhibits the softer side of a man who lived to outgrow much of the political incorrectness that was embroidered into Southern culture during his youth. Despite seeking anonymity, he was known to make generous gifts to those in need, whether black or white. Perhaps his bravest deed was to work publicly to rescue Jews from Nazi-occupied Germany. He worked with others to save the lives of at least ten families before all visas were disallowed.

Hugh MacRae counted Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as friends. He was conversant with Bernard Baruch and Henry Flagler. That Hugh MacRae Morton felt entirely comfortable elbow-to-elbow with men of power, talent, and achievement is no miracle.

–Susan Taylor Block


REFERENCES

Block, Susan Taylor. Airlie: The Garden of Wilmington (Wilmington, NC: Airlie Foundation, 2001).

Block, Susan Taylor. Belles and Blooms: Cape Fear Garden Club and the North Carolina Azalea Festival (Wilmington, NC: Cape Fear Garden Club, 2004).

Block, Susan Taylor. Van Eeden (Wilmington, NC: Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, Inc., 1995).

6 thoughts on “Wilmington: Faded Glory to Fresh Achievement

  1. A beautifully written essay, Susan. Thank you for sharing your Wilmington knowledge.

  2. Pingback: “Faded Glory to Fresh Achievement” – Bookmarks - Wilmington Star News - Wilmington, NC - Archive

  3. Pingback: Library news and events » Blog Archive » Hugh Morton Photographs will be Topic of Summer Programs in Wilmington and Boone

  4. A wonderful article about a very interesting life in the history of Wilmington. Although I have been away from Wilmington for the past 60 years I stayed in touch with the workings of the community and the leadership of men like Hugh Morton. I have now returned to Wilmington for the next phase of my life and, Susan, I look forward to meeting you on July 19, at your discussion of the works that Hugh left for all of us.

  5. EARLY ON, someone was wondering about the name Inver-Shiel which both the grandfather of Hugh Morton and Hugh’s mother were to use during their lifetimes in naming some of their properties. Invershiel was the name of one of the several farms developed by Hugh MacRae…St Helena was another, but Castle Hayne was the best known–a 6,000 acre developent widely heralded for the hortiuural achievements of its 75 familiesl, 40 of whom were from the Netherlands. Inver-shiel was also chosen as name for a projected Highland village on the slope of Dunvegan, a Blue Ridge peak just off the road between Linville and Banner-Ellk. Mrs Morton’s son, Julian, brought his mother over to Scotland and visited my wife and me; and we took them to various places….our home village of Dunlop, Ayrshire, associaged with Robert Burns, where Julian copied a former Monks’ refectory and from its floor plans built his own mansion in the Inver-shiel development, now called Tynecastle. We also took them to the 17th century village of Culross in Fife, wnere Julian copied the Tolbooth and from it fashioned a building which is now at the heart of Tynecastle and was at one time a Scottish imports shop operated by our mutual friend from Charlotte, Pipe Major Harvey Ritch. A photograpph of it, taken by Hugh Morton, is in my book, AMERICA’S BRAEMAR. Mrs Morton and her father first saw the original Inver-shiel in the Kintail district of the County of Ross-shire, usuallly denoted as Wester Ross, in Scotland. There , as a child of 11 in the year 1908, Agnes MacRae was taken by her father, Hugh MacRae pf Wilmington, on her first-ever visit to Scotland. She saw Inver-shiel but did NOT see Highland Games; for when I asked her to abandon her ideas of a Clan MacRae reunion at Grandfather and to stage a Highland Gams instead, she did not know what Highland Games were. So Celeste Ray’s essay is in error when my friend, Celeste, quotes someone as saying that Mrs Morton CONCEIVED the idea of Highland Games on the slope of Grandfather Mountain.(Please inform others of your essayists that MacRae Meadows are NOT located (and not at the BASE of Grandfather Mountain but are on the western slope of “The Old Man of the Blue Ridge”. Inver is a Gaelic word meaning “at the confluence of” one body of water, river, burn or loch, with another body of water, usually another loch, or the sea or at least a bay of the sea. As the Gaelic language has only 18 letters in its alphabet and as there happens to be no “v”, the sound of “v” ,must be made by the combination of two consonants…sometimes m and h; other times b and h. In the case of Inver, the original is spelt Imbher but is sometimes rendered in place names as “Inner”, which is more easily pronounced. In the case of Shiel, the word in this case is the River Sheil or Shiel, which flows through Glen Shiel (also spelt Sheil) and into Loch Duich, (say DOO-eek) near the MacRae/MacKenzie castle of Eilean Donan. Therefore, Inver-Shiel means at the confluence of the River Shiel and Loch Duich. The word Sheil itself means a pasture. (Mrs Morton, and thus Hugh Morton, and I, had a common ancestor, the Rev. Farquhar MacRae, who was born in Eilean Donan Castle in 1580 and lived until 1662. We are also related to a descendant, Iain MacMhiuraich ‘ic Fhearchar, (John, the son of Murdoch, the son of Farquhar). otherwise John MacRae, who is North Carolina’s best-known Gaelic poet. His songs, still sung in his home district of Kintail, are also sung at my Gaelic tent on MacRae Meadows at the Grandfather Mtn.Highland Games. Unfortunately, when Julian Mortion’s wonderful plans for a Scottish Highlands-style village failed, those who took over the property on the slope of Dunvgan changed the name to the very, very English ” Tyneastle.”…which, to people of Scottish ancestry, is very sad indeed. I would hope that some effort would be made by the powers-that-be to have at least a brief look at the copy of my book (AMERiCA’S BRAEMA) with its many photos by Hugh Moton as there are chapters about the Morton family of Wilmington, Carbonton, Little Rockfish and Barium Springs which concern Mrs Morton’s father and their important ancestors, beginning with Ruairidh Donn (brown-haired Rory or Roderick). their immigrant ancestor and my kinsman.( My grandmother was the former Mary Roderick MacRae, who became the wife of Col. Donald MacQueen (the man whose name I bear), from a prominent immigrant family from the Isle of Skye and Kintail, who had a plantation called “Queesdale” in Robeson County, just south of Maxton, the town of many Macs. Leis gach deagh dhurachd….With every good wish….Donald MacDonald. (Hope this is not blocked as were my other two efforts)./

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