While doing some remodeling at the former Carpet and Appliance building at the corner of East King and South Broad streets in downtown Edenton, Down East Preservation employees found a piece of history.
In fact, they discovered entire wooden beams covered in black — charred -- mostly likely because of a fire that happened over a century ago.
The current building was actually as two separate buildings, DEP owner Dawson Tyler explained during a recent tour of the building. The front half, which is more of a showroom, stands where Joseph Hewes, the late Edenton resident who signed the Declaration of Independence, ran his business. The back part was later connected around the 1910s, Tyler believes.
The charred wood throughout the entire building is believed to have came from the Cheapside fire of September 1893.
An article the September 29, 1893, edition of Elizabeth City-based The Weekly Economist noted that the fire on “Wednesday of last week, was a large and sweeping destruction of property that was wholly without insurance. It was supposed to have originated in a lamp explosion in Lipsey’s store on the corner of King and Main Streets (Main is what now is Broad Street), and destroyed almost the entire block from King to Water Street. The destruction of property was not as lamentable as the destruction of historic landmarks. History ‘Cheapside,’ antedating the Revolution, contemporary with the good old colony times when Edenton has more commercial importance than New York, named for the famed ‘Cheapside’ of London in the Elizabethan period, was swept away by the devouring element. The old Market House, close by ‘Cheapside’ and probably contemporaneous with it, shared the fate of its hoary contemporary.”
The article went on to say that the buildings destroyed in the fire were a “priceless heritage to the town in their lessons of veneration for its illustrious history, and a pyre at which the torch of patriotism could be relighted by the coming generations, but as objects of material valuation their value had greatly diminished. The buildings on ‘Cheapside’ were wooden buildings of but little architectural beauty. They were old, decayed and unsafe, and the value of the property was chiefly in their location. It will probably soon be replaced by more sightly buildings, more modern and pretentious, but the glamour of antiquity will be gone, and the aged traveler as he looks for the old landmarks will ‘shake his feeble head and say – ‘they are gone!’”
Josephine Leary, the late African American entrepreneur and Edenton resident, was one of the first property owners to begin rebuilding after the Cheapside fire. Her building at 423 S. Broad St. has been the home of the Chowan Herald since 1934.
Preliminary work by DEP suggests that during the fire, the back stairwell, which was encased in masonry, acted as a funnel.
“My guess is that it actually, so it kind of blew up the staircase that was here, and then it went up this masonry wall,” Tyler said. “It went up this masonry wall, and shot all the way through the roof. So then it kind of engulfed the whole building.”
Charred support beams still hang under the roof, and are now reinforced with beams made of a new composite material.
Before the 1960s, the building had two storefronts. A support wall was taken out of the bottom floor to make one retail space. The support beam that held the second floor in place eventually began to buckle, causing the upstairs apartments to be vacated.
“There was a little kitchenette set up,” Tyler said of what the upstairs looked like when his crew started work on the building. “The tub and the shower, they were still here. There were painted carpets on the floor. I mean it just was literally like somebody just left. It was very eerie.”
New life to old building
Tyler said they hope to have the work on the building complete later this year. The downstairs will be a retail space occupied by outdoor store, Surf, Wind and Fire. The upstairs will have two apartments.
Jennifer Harriss, executive director of Destination Downtown Edenton, said that the upstairs part of the building has always been one of her favorite spots in downtown Edenton.
“It’s like stepping back in time. A tiny clawfoot tub was still in the bathroom and an attractive mantel and beaded-board walls told the story once being an apartment home,” she said.
A few years ago, DDE partnered with University of North Carolina Greensboro-Main Street fellows to design upper-story apartments that would be eligible for historic restoration tax-credits.
“The design the UNCG students developed kept the important historic elements found on the second floor, while developing it into first-class new apartments,” she said. “Fast forward a few years and we are thrilled to be working with the building’s new owners! Stephanie and Joe Wach have been enthusiastic about the redevelopment of the building. They have hired Down East Preservation to do the rehabilitation of the building and construction of the new apartments.”
As to New Bern-based Surf, Wind and Fire, Harriss said the second location will be an amazing addition to downtown Edenton.
“This project is the epitome of what Main Street and DDE strives to accomplish,” she said. “Preserving history while adding new apartments/residents to Downtown Edenton, and increasing tax base by adding a new downtown retail business. We are grateful to the Wachs and (Surf, Wind and Fire Owner Danny) Batten for their investment in Downtown Edenton!”