Whirligig Station apartments will preserve Wilson history

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The smell of cured tobacco is long gone from the old warehouse.

The auctioneer’s chant, the farm trucks hauling the season’s harvest, the anxious farmers standing by their piles of golden leaf, waiting to see if their crop would bring in enough money to pay the bills. They’re all gone from this site along Goldsboro Street.

But the tobacco heritage is not forgotten in a project that is turning this century-old structure into high-end apartments, all in the shadow of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Whirligig Station, a 90,000-square-foot project along Goldsboro Street, will include more than 90 apartment units, a restaurant and retail space. It is slated to open next summer.

And although the apartments will be finished with granite countertops and high-end appliances, there will still be a nod to the history of this former tobacco warehouse.

Lewis “Buddy” Waskey, site manager, said workers have been careful to save everything they can — old beams, lumber 4 feet and longer, Silas Lucas bricks, flooring — for reuse either here or at another project. The scale house used to weigh tobacco, the freight elevator and a number of architectural elements are also being preserved.

They’ve saved other items as well including old beer cans, a tobacco basket, lots of tobacco carts and hooks that were once used to grab the carts. Decorative downspouts were also saved.

“Anything unique, we put back,” Waskey said.

One of the more interesting finds was the remains of a carriage or buggy that would have been pulled by a mule or horse.

Abbott Hoffman, site supervisor, has an interest in history and has researched the structure’s background at the library and Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

The warehouse was built around 1896, he said, and changed ownerships several times. He said he’s tried to imagine what it was like more than 100 years ago.

“We’ve done a lot of changes,” he said, adding he’d like living in the apartments, especially after learning the history.

Dave McCormack, president of Waukeshaw Development, said that’s always a goal with the company’s projects.

He tries to get involved in projects he would like to be part of and live in himself.

“We try to build it like we would want to be there,” he said.

McCormack appreciates the history of the old warehouse here that bore the names Cooper, Watson, Gibbons, Centre Brick and Hi Dollar.

“As a developer, I am really interested in history, but even more simply, I’m interested in stories,” he said. “In all these small towns, the history is really its greatest asset.”

He said those working with Waukeshaw on this project want to uncover what they can that has been buried for so long.

“We want to pull that stuff together, clean it up and show it off and have fun with it,” he said.

Although the warehouse was in terrible shape, it is critically important to the history of Wilson, McCormack added.

The old warehouse is positioned in the very spot where Wilson’s tobacco market started. The market was long known as the world’s largest bright leaf tobacco market.

“Every time we dig out a tobacco stick or carriage parts, those are the pieces that come together to tell the story of what went on down there,” he said.

To fund this project, Waukeshaw was able to use federal tax credits and N.C. mill credits as well as historic tax credits before they expired.

“It would not work without it,” McCormack said.

Opening early summer

The $12 million redevelopment project is a little delayed, McCormack said, and opening has been moved a few months later to June of next year.

“It’s such a complex project,” he said. “We knew the building was in bad condition, but it was in way worse condition than we thought.”

Crews are now working on wiring and plumbing and making good progress on the construction that began almost a year ago.

“We’re more excited now than when we started,” McCormack said.

Part of the excitement comes from seeing Whirligig Park open across the street, he said, and thinking of what’s to come.

Whirligig Station will house the park’s museum and welcome center as well as a restaurant. McCormack said there is a restaurant partner now, but he’s not ready to announce the name. He did say it is not a chain, and is not local.

“They’re looking to expand in this area with a new concept,” he said of the restaurant.

McCormack said he has people contacting him inquiring about leasing an apartment, but that probably won’t start until April or May.