The Harper House in Downtown Wilmington
Excitement builds as a downtown Wilmington favorite, The Harper House, will be featured on this year’s Azalea Festival Historic Home Tour.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Megan Deitz
Tom Moore fell in love when he moved to Wilmington in 1996. His was a dreamy love affair full of yearning — for a house.
Moore, a Florida transplant, walked by 311 S. Front Street (The Harper House) for nearly 20 years, wistfully looked at the home, dreaming. He could feel, without even entering, that the house had everything he wanted: old, new, luxury and character. Unbeknownst to him, fate would intervene on his behalf. In a strange twist of events, he moved into The Harper House in 2015.
“After years of walking by that house, daydreaming about it, I never thought I would actually live in it,” Moore says. “I walked by the house all the time and never imagined things would turn out as they did.”
Destiny certainly had a say in the matter. Last year Moore had a contract on another house in Wilmington and was prepared to invest significant time and resources performing a full renovation on the home. When negotiations fell through, he was disappointed. To boost his spirits, he decided to take a walk through his dream home. At that time, The Harper House had been on the market for three years, originally listed at $1.85 million.
As Moore ambled through the home, he saw the original windows, claw-foot tubs and many other unique features. The house is the only downtown dwelling that sits on two lots (.28 acres). Its front yard boasts spectacular magnolia trees that the house was constructed around, and the backyard has a three-car garage. The property is surrounded by an impressive wrought-iron fence. Everything about the home is eye-catching. What was even more surprising to Moore was that the 112-year-old house didn’t need much work.
The name of the home alone elicits commentary. Over the years, it has been bequeathed numerous titles, the longest of which was an ultimately ridiculous attempt to please everyone: The Schonwald-Berry-Harper-Leonard House.
Back in 1847 it was just a lot under the ownership of Dr. J. T. Schonwald from Hungary. Schonwald was a published physician (his work “The Child: A Treatise on the Diagnosis and Treatment of the Disease of Children, According to the Simple Laws of Nature, without Medicaments,” arrived at the UNC-Chapel Hill Library in 1955). While no one knows why the youngest son of noble Hungarian roots immigrated to America, the most popular story tells of Schonwald killing a companion in a duel over a lady, causing him to flee. Regardless of how he arrived, he purchased the property that year for $1,200.
In 1863 Schonwald sold his home to William L. Berry, who was in the business of constructing vessels for the Confederate government, for $9,500. Not much is known about the house at this time, but historians are sure that a home was on the lot, complete with terracing and impressive landscaping. The sum seems astronomical by the standards of the day, but records confirm that Berry paid the price.
Years later, when the reputable Captain John W. Harper married Ella C. Strupe, he was on the hunt for a house for his new bride. Harper is widely credited as instrumental in the development of Carolina Beach. As the owner and captain of the steamer Wilmington, he took downtown passengers to and from Carolina Beach and Southport daily.
In 1903 Harper purchased the existing structure and lot at 311 S. Front Street for $3,280. He immediately started construction on the neoclassical masterpiece standing today. While the exact changes made to Schonwald’s existing structure are unknown, Harper’s granddaughter, Catherine Russell Stribling, told newspapers that the original home was torn down and what currently stands is a testament to the artistry and vision of Harper alone.
The Harper family resided in the house for nearly 40 years, with at least one of their children born in the house in 1904. In 1941 two sisters, Sudie E. and Mary Lou Leonard, purchased the home as their primary residence and it thence became known as The Leonard House.
It seems the Leonard sisters quietly lived in the home. When they both coincidentally died in 1968, their niece, a Mrs. Dickey, purchased the property during the settlement of the estate.
From there, the future of the house embarked on a more controversial path. In the early 1980s, Shirley Leonard (it is unknown if she was related to the sisters) purchased the house and announced plans to open it as an inn, hoping to rent the rooms for $55 a night. As neighbors protested and the Wilmington City Council voted not to grant the special use permit, Leonard made bold statements about forging ahead anyhow. Leonard had a Goldsboro developer providing money for the project and was prepared to invest $400,000 to change the interior of the house to accommodate seven guest rooms.
Despite her declarations, the plan never materialized. The house subsequently sat in sad disrepair until Lyle and Sara Strassle bought the home in 2002 for $475,000. With the help of noted North Carolina historical preservationist and architect Edwin Belk, the Strassles lovingly restored and added to the home during the course of a two-year renovation.
“I fell in love with the house and watched two years of renovations happen from the outside,” he says.
Over a decade later, when Moore walked through the home on a whim following the dissolution of the purchase contact on another house, he found a place that maintained a sense of history alongside a 48-inch Wolf gas range, a Subzero refrigerator and an elevator. After discussions with his real estate agent, he decided to make an offer he thought wouldn’t even be entertained.
In what was a pleasant shock to Moore, the owners accepted. He moved in.
“I don’t see myself as the owner of the house but as the caretaker,” he says. “It is a privilege to be able to share all the work done (by both the previous owners and the work I’ve done) when I entertain family and friends.”
Moore isn’t the only one to have an infatuation with 311 S. Front Street. The home attracts significant interest.
“This house is one of the crown jewels of downtown Wilmington, with carriage tours stopping in front and people photographing it all the time,” Moore says. “It took some time to get used to that, but it is also an honor to live in such a respected home.”
It is with great anticipation that The Harper House, in all of its 5,300-square-foot glory, will be featured on the Historic Home Tours as part of the Azalea Festival this April. Guests will be able to see the original pocket doors, inlay floors and restored fireplace mantles, among other things.
“The Historic Home Tour is the top fundraiser for the Historic Wilmington Foundation, and I am happy to do my part to help,” Moore says of his participation. “I love this house, and I can’t wait to share it with the community.”
The community seems genuinely excited to peek inside, too. When Historic Wilmington Foundation’s Executive Director George Edwards discusses having The Harper House on the tour this year, he is enthusiastic.
“This neoclassical revival style home is a visual and architectural treat and was completely restored by the previous homeowner,” Edwards says. “The current home owners have added their own mark, and we couldn’t be more thrilled that they’re sharing it with us. It should be a good opportunity for tour goers to ooh and aah.”
Christine Divoky, special events and marketing director with Historic Wilmington Foundation, states it best: “The Home Tour is a popular event during the Azalea Festival. By opening their doors, these homeowners are sharing a special part of Wilmington with the rest of us. Many of us admire these homes from afar, but during the tour we get to visit and, in a way, we get to walk through a truly beautiful piece of Wilmington’s history. It’s fun!”
Tour proceeds support Historic Wilmington Foundation in its mission to protect and preserve the irreplaceable historic resources of Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear Region. Historic Wilmington Foundation is currently celebrating its 50th year of preservation leadership in our area. Sponsorship and volunteer opportunities are available.
And, who knows, maybe the tour will be part of your fate and someday you, like Moore, will be living in that historic home you’ve always admired from afar.
Want to go?
What: Azalea Festival Historic Home Tour
When: Saturday, April 9, 1 to 6 pm; Sunday, April 10, 1 to 5 pm.
Cost: $30 in advance and $35 the weekend of the tour.
Tickets: Available at historicwilmington.org/azalea-festival-home-tour/ or the following venues: The Azalea Festival Ticket Office; The Ivy Cottage; The Transplanted Garden; participating Harris Teeter stores in New Hanover & Brunswick Counties beginning three weeks before the tour; Gravity Records; Cape Fear Antiques; Wild by Nature in Southport; and Crabby Chic.
Information: (910) 762-2511; historicwilmington.org