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Updated: May 2, 2022

“If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for the future…I care desperately about saving old buildings.”—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Story by Kevin Ward

It was late 2003 when I first set my eyes on the tapestry of historic buildings that make up the Wilmington Downtown scene. I was a little in awe, as the town I moved from had an older building or two, but not streets full of them, nor bustling with people. Structures from a bygone era, now given new life as unique shops, bars, restaurants, and museums. As a fan of all things history, I remember thinking how lucky this city was, to have such well-preserved and cared for buildings.

Luck, however, has very little to do with it; instead, it has more to do with the eight buildings that make up what we now know as The Cotton Exchange located at 321 N. Front Street, and two men, J.R. Reaves and M.T. Murray who saved it.

Downtown Wilmington of the early 1970s was less bustling and eye appealing than today, with not too many folks going out of their way to visit the area. This sad condition was due in part to business drying up when Atlantic Coastline Railroads left Wilmington in 1961. The Railroad was somewhat of a keystone business to the downtown area, which meant that many other companies depended on them to survive and thrive. Once they were gone, foot traffic naturally dried up and with that, doors of business closed one after another.

With downtown looking more like a ghost town by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the city of Wilmington decided to take action in improving the area, hoping to bring business back. Among the abandoned and somewhat decaying structures of downtown was a group of eight buildings that now make up the Cotton Exchange. The name Cotton Exchange is from the Sprunt building, named after Alexander Sprunt who used the building for a thriving cotton export business in the early 1900s. The other buildings housed various businesses, which included a barber shop, laundry service, and wholesale grocer.

I spoke to author David A. Stallman who has written several books on Wilmington’s local history, including one called “The Cotton Exchange” (Sugarcreek, Ohio: Carlisle Publishing, $24.50). David was kind enough to explain to me what occurred in those paramount years, and how two business partners saved the Cotton Exchange.

You see the primary strategy of restoring downtown was not to preserve but to rebuild most of it anew. The logic was sound, after all, most people like shiny new things, so why not try and make downtown like that. It was at this crucial time when decisions were being reached about the future of our Historic Downtown Wilmington that Reaves and Murray became characters in this story. As David put it: “As Urban Renewal came to destroy downtown buildings Joe and his business partner Mal Murray committed to save and restore the Cotton Exchange block of buildings to their original elegance.”

The saving of these structures is made even more impressive when factoring in the number of buildings that now make up the Exchange, had already been scheduled for demolition. Almost like heroes in an old Western that shoots the rope of a noose right before someone is hanged, Reaves and Murray saved the day at the last possible moment.

David would then go on to suggest that the saving of those eight buildings inspired others to follow suit and restore the structure of downtown. This, of course, is not to say that other historic buildings would not have been spared without the last minute pardon of the Cotton Exchange, but we might have seen more recent construction in the downtown area and less historical structures had this not happened.

In 1990 John and Jean Bullock purchased the Cotton Exchange from Reaves and Murray (a full account of this sale can be found in David Stallman’s book). The Bullock’s daughter, Nancy Bullock, is now the proud owner of the Exchange. When asked what called her family to take stewardship Nancy responded with, “purchasing The Cotton Exchange was a continuance of owning and sharing a piece of history which shaped Wilmington.”

Under her family’s care, the Exchange has thrived, it has been home to a large variety of stores and restaurants in almost three decades. If you’re looking for a new pair of shoes to show off to friends you can visit Cape Fear Footwear, then pick up a fun souvenir at Olde Wilmington Toy and Candy company, and if all that shopping gets you a little hungry you can stop at The Basics for some gourmet soul food! These are of course just a few of the businesses that are currently located here, and with the potential to refurbish two floors in the Granary Building, the number of stores and restaurants can only go up.

When asked what she saw as the future of the Cotton Exchange Nancy was nothing but optimistic, and she has every reason to be. River Place Condos are scheduled to open up on N. Front Street in the next two years, which is sure to bring new residents and consumers to the downtown area. If you are currently not looking to purchase a condo but still would like to stay a few days in the historical beauty of Downtown Wilmington, talks of a Boutique Hotel opening in one of the vacant lots might peak your interest.

President Ronald Reagan on a visit to the Cotton Exchange in 1980.

Like her parents, Nancy is passionate about preserving Wilmington’s historical heritage and has no intention of ever changing the authentic feel of the Cotton Exchange. Nancy’s love of her city is best expressed in her own words: “My family is dedicated to Wilmington and downtown. It was a wonderful place to raise the family and especially contribute back to the successes downtown has allowed us to enjoy.”

Port City Downtown is a thriving place these days, which is due in no small part to the J.R. Reaves, M.T. Murray, and Bullock Family, who each helped to keep these links to our past from disappearing for the sake of building something new.

If you would like to learn more about the Cotton Exchange, David A. Stallman’s book “The Cotton Exchange” is full of more details than can fit into this article, and you can find it at Two Sisters Bookery conveniently located in The Cotton Exchange. Pick up a copy and enjoy a stroll around the stores, restaurants and discover the joy of supporting our local businesses here in Wilmington.


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