After years as a parking lot, historic Ice House property could become apartments, retail

For nearly two decades after a fight to save it, the Ice House property lived on as one of downtown’s many paid parking lots. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON — The Ice House was both an icon and a history trove. Originally an 1800s portside venue to store and distribute ice, it went on to become one of downtown’s most beloved bars in the ‘90s and a Hollywood set for one of the most celebrated TV shows to film in Wilmington. It was no surprise that when plans for demolition were revealed in the early 2000s, there was a fight to save it.

But the preservation battle was lost, and though the building was razed, the construction of planned upscale condominiums never came to be. For nearly two decades, what was once the Ice House instead lived on as one of downtown’s many paid parking lots.

That could soon change.

Plans were submitted to the city to construct a 60-foot-tall apartment building with ground-floor commercial space on the 0.37-acre property. Hipp Architecture and Development is seeking approval from the City of Wilmington Historic Preservation Commission for the mixed-use, six-story development at 115 and 117 South Water St., according to early planning documents obtained by Port City Daily.

It is located next door to City Market, stripped of its contributing historic status last year to open up its eligibility for reconstruction as a new and taller building, possibly with condos.

RELATED: Old Wilmington City Market stripped of contributing historic status. Is demolition next?

Architect Clark Hipp, a longtime Wilmingtonian, said he was in town when the original Ice House was alive. Since then, he called it a “hole” downtown.

“It’s a shame that it’s been used as a surface parking lot, which the city has tried to minimize,” he said. “This is an opportunity to bring what would really be a Class A, residential structure to the south side of downtown.”

115 and 117 S. Water Street around 1970. (City of Wilmington archives)

From ice cold blocks to ice cold beers

Before refrigeration, ice was cut in New England and shipped to the house on Wilmington’s Water street, historian and former New Hanover County librarian Beverly Tetterton explained. City documents suggest the original building — a three-story masonry — existed as early as 1845 and was perhaps built by a Baptist minister.

For decades, ice was hauled from vessels into the ice house. These buildings were insulated using sawdust, rice shaft or another material between the exterior wall and another interior wooden barrier. The boats delivering the product featured the same design. Customers could retrieve the ice from the ice house or order a routine delivery.

“It changed the whole way people lived, particularly in the south,” Tetterton said. “Because once you had refrigeration, once you had ice — if somebody had a fever, you could ice them down. It also brought on things like saloons.”

Through the years the original building was altered and the ice industry changed. In the late 1800s, it became a seafood market. By the 1990s, it consisted of a one-story building parallel to the riverfront and a two-story structure along Muters Alley, and the Ice House Pub had moved in.

The indoor, outdoor live music venue — known for promoting the blues — brought in various artists who performed on the iconic tugboat stage. It was a community affair.

“It was a really wonderful gathering place,” Tetterton said.

The bar appeared in “Dawson’s Creek” during the first season. After it was destroyed, the teen show penned a storyline about the establishment burning down and rolled cameras over to Dockside Restaurant as the new shooting location.

Tetterton was one of the preservationists fighting to save it. She said she contacted multiple ports — Savannah, Charleston, Pensacola — and could not pinpoint another structure comparable to the Ice House.

“So when they tore it down, we lost one of the most unusual, precious buildings in the country,” she said.

115 and 117 South Water Street in 2004 (City of Wilmington archives)

The sound of a front loader moving in on the building in 2004 drew a crowd of around 50 protesters, StarNews reported at the time. Some called the structure a hazard, others said it was architecturally sound. Developers vocalized the demand for more residences, opponents questioned the real needs of the city.

Many attempts to build

It wasn’t the first time a new use was envisioned for the waterfront property. Since the turn of the century, on multiple occasions, plans were drawn up and approved for projects that never saw the light of day.

Architect Hipp explained the property is challenging to build on for a variety of reasons, including the flood zone and soil.

“Properties west of Front Street, quite often, the soil conditions are very poor because of the river,” Hipp said. “The foundation work is very expensive.”

Between 1990 and 2000, several certificates of appropriateness were issued by the Historic Preservation Commission to alter the building. In 1989 there were plans for a three-story brick masonry building with balconies. In 2002, after New Hanover County condemned the structure, designs were presented for a five-story, mix-use building. In 2004 it was sold to new ownership with plans for the condos.

In 2005, Myrtle Grove Enterprises LLC acquired the land for $2.1 million. The new owners proposed a mix of retail and residential units, StarNews reported, but, like all former plans for the property, there was no movement.

Port Properties is now the prospective buyer of the vacant lot, Hipp confirmed. Their plans for the site include 61 for-rent apartments from the third floor up.

Plans for the site include 61 for-rent apartments from the third floor up.

On the ground floor, it’s likely retail and a management office will fill 2,240 square feet of planned commercial space. The first and second stories will also make room for 49 cars in an approximate 13,361-square-foot deck.

Some units will feature enchanting Juliette balconies, rails by the full-length windows. Those along Water Street will have full, dark bronze balconies, and top units will have roof terraces.

Harmony in mind

When the Historic Preservation Commission considers a certificate of appropriateness for the project in June, it will mainly look at whether designs are harmonious with the surroundings. Jessica Baldwin is leading the conversation as the city’s recently appointed historic preservation planner. This is the first new construction she has brought before the members.

Designs incorporate similar styles to the rest of the neighborhood, such as masonry that matches details of nearby buildings, Hipp said. Fiber cement board siding is meant to replicate lap siding, he said.

Sixty feet is the tallest that one can build on the property, located in the historic overlay of the commercial business district, meaning this project is taking full advantage of its allowance. Hipp said the designs set back the upper level of residences from the front elevation.

“So it will only feel like a roughly a 50-foot-tall building instead of a 60-foot tall building,” Hipp said.

Construction could start on the project late this year or early 2023 if all goes as intended with the commission. While it’s still early on, Hipp said its name will likely give a nod to the original Ice House.

Construction on a new building at 115 and 117 S. Water St. could start this year or in 2023 if the Historic Preservation Commission approves an application of appropriateness. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands)

Reach journalist Alexandria Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or @alexsands_

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After years as a parking lot, historic Ice House property could become apartments, retail