Cape Fear Building Company (ca. 1869-1875)
Abbott Building Company; Joseph C. Abbott; Alexander Strausz
Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
- Wilmington, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Italianate; Moorish Revival
The Cape Fear Building Company (sometimes known as the Abbott Building Company) was established in Wilmington shortly after the Civil War by Union veterans Joseph Carter Abbott (July 15, 1825-October 8, 1881), a “carpetbagger” from New Hampshire and Alexander Strausz (1829-1905), a Hungarian-born engineer, entrepreneur, and self-described architect, along with other associates. Amid the bustle and possibilities of postwar Wilmington, the two entrepreneurial newcomers embarked on an ambitious partnership. The company owned extensive timberlands and operated a large sawmill and woodworking plant as well as a construction business. Although the company was short-lived, the firm and its principals well represent the diversity and dynamic character of the southern port city in the years following the Civil War. The best-known building erected by the company is Temple Israel, designed by Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, a project in which Strausz also had a role.
The president of the company, Joseph Carter Abbott, as related by William McKee Evans, was born in Concord, New Hampshire, where he became an attorney, editor of two newspapers, and a participant in politics. With the onset of the Civil War, he organized a regiment of New Hampshire volunteers and was eventually promoted to colonel and in January 1865 elevated to brigadier general for gallantry. He took part in the capture of Fort Fisher and Wilmington, N. C., and was commander of the port at Wilmington during Union occupation.
While in Wilmington Abbott made many friends and explored business opportunities in the region, which had abundant natural resources—especially timber—and available labor but little cash. After mustering out of the army, he wound up his affairs in New England and at age forty, used his skills and funds to begin a new life in Wilmington. Along with other Union men, Abbott became active in the Radical (later Republican) Party with strong support from black voters, serving as a member of the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868, the state legislature, and the United States Senate. Also in the late 1860s, he formed a partnership with another ambitious and talented newcomer, Alexander Strausz.
Alexander Strausz, according to Wikipedia, was a well-educated, Hungarian-born engineer, cartographer, and entrepreneur. Born in Budapest, he participated in the Hungarian Revolution in 1848 and after imprisonment and military service in Europe, he sought refuge in London in 1850 and then took ship for the United States, arriving in Boston in 1851. After working briefly in an architectural office in Boston, he was employed by the United States Coast Survey as a draftsman and served in that role during the Civil War.
After a bout with malaria, by 1867 Strausz moved with his family to Wilmington. In that year, Strausz and Lawson E. Rice advertised their new North Carolina Barrel Works in the Wilmington Daily Dispatch. In 1868, Strausz and Rice were producing 100 barrels per day for northern markets (Wilmington Post, May 17, 1868). In 1869 their establishment burned, but they soon rebuilt and were back in business (Wilmington Post, August 29, 1869 and December 19, 1869).
Meanwhile, the Wilmington Morning Star of September 19, 1869, reported on the formation of a co-partnership entitled the Cape Fear Building Company, “for the purpose of erecting Buildings” and other purposes; the incorporators were Joseph C. Abbott, Alexander Strausz, Henry S. Servoss, and Lawson E. Rice—all Union veterans who settled in Wilmington. Servoss [Survis/Service] (1837-1901), a native of New York, worked for various lumber companies in eastern North Carolina and elsewhere. Rice was a native of Massachusetts.
The Cape Fear Building Company purchased 3,000 acres of pine timberlands near the railroad 50 miles west of Wilmington. Offering employment to the many black and white men looking for work after the war, the company expanded to a work force of 150 men and encompassed a sawmill and woodworking operation that produced items from railroad cars to broom handles and elements of prefabricated houses, marketed far and wide including to Cuba. The town of Abbottsburg soon grew up around the woodworking operation.
The firm also advertised their work in construction. The Wilmington Morning Star of December 15, 1869 carried a notice for the “Cape Fear Building Company, Contractors and Builders,” which could give estimates and plans and make contracts for erecting and completing dwelling houses, public buildings, warehouses, offices, bridges, etc., as well as manufacturing “all kinds of mouldings, brackets, scroll work, newel posts, railings and balusters, doors and window frames.” Abbott, Strausz, Servoss, and Rice were the officers, with their office on the north side of Princess Street between Front and Second streets. The company also placed a prominent full page advertisement on the inside cover of Haddock’s Wilmington, N. C. Directory of 1871, touting the same products, services, and officers, and directing readers’ attention to the advertisement of the Bladen Lumber Company at Abbottsburg and Wilmington, of which Joseph C. Abbott was president and treasurer and George Z. French the clerk. These operations doubtless supplied construction materials and ornate decorations for many Wilmington buildings as well as those farther afield.
It appears that Abbott was the main property owner and businessman, while Strausz was principally responsible for architectural matters. Likely based on his own self-identification, the United States Census of 1870 listed Alexander Strausz, 41, as a Hungarian-born architect residing in Wilmington with his wife, Annie, 33, a native of Washington, D. C., and three children born in Virginia and North Carolina, and Wilmington newspaper articles and the 1880 census followed suit.
Amid the political tensions of Reconstruction, some Wilmingtonians, especially the Conservatives (former Confederates, later Democrats), surely resented the success of the Yankee newcomers, but others welcomed the energy and prosperity the company and its leaders generated. The officials of the Cape Fear Company, like many entrepreneurs, formed a productive relationship with local newspapers eager for any news of progress. The Wilmington Morning Star of November 7, 1871 carried a long report on the company’s plant at Abbottsburg, praising the enterprise and “vim” of the operation where “they roll in pine logs and they come out at the other end finished houses, painted and ready for occupation.” In a reference to local political tensions, the writer remarked, “if you don’t say as we do—huzza for Abbottsburg, and success to the enterprising, go-ahead gentlemen of the Cape Fear Building Company—Yankee or no Yankee! Then we’ll conclude that you are a missurble Ku Klux, and give you over to politics and Joe T.”
The year 1871 was highly productive, and Strausz and others boosted their profile by giving interviews and showing plans for proposed buildings to newspapermen. They also continued to advertise their products and services, announcing in the Wilmington Morning Star that the firm would “furnish Drawings for all ornamental and plain work done by them, free of charge.” The company started the year impressively, erecting a “new and elegant” hook and ladder house (firehouse) on Dock street in a mere nine days, using components “prepared at the Abbottsburgh Mills, by Mr. H. S. Servoss, and put together by that gentleman on the Company’s lot” (Wilmington Post, March 2, 1871). The newspaper commented, “our city may justly be proud of a company able to compete with any Northern or Western Company” for contracts to furnish Cuba with “ready made buildings, all marked and prepared to ‘go up’ with little for carpenters to do but join together the frames.”
A reporter for the Wilmington Post of March 12, 1871 noted seeing plans for a house to be built by the Cape Fear Building Company for R. P. Barry citing Strausz as the architect and commenting, “the architect’s elegant design attracts much attention, and the building will add much to the reputation of our citizens of means, who erect dwellings ornamental to the city as well as useful to the owners.” (This house is known locally as the Hasell-Parsley House [Hasell-Barry-Parsley House]). The Post of April 23 noted that the company was receiving “numerous applications” for estimates. By mid-summer, Barry’s house was complete, as was Strausz’s own residence south of it. Both were capacious, handsomely finished, and “supplied with all modern conveniences” (Wilmington Daily Journal, July 26, 1871). Meanwhile, the Wilmington Morning Star of July 15, 1871, described plans shown to the reporter by “Messrs. Strausz & Rice” for the new Tileston School; the plans were provided by Boston architect John A. Fox for an institution supported by northern donors. The August 18, 1871, Wilmington Daily Journal reported that the contract for building the school had been awarded to local contractor James Walker. The Cape Fear Building Company was also cited as builder of the William French House (Wilmington Daily Journal, October 5, 1871), another ornate rendition of the eclectic Italianate style popular in postwar Wilmington.
Other projects reported over the next few years included fitting up the First National Bank (Daily Journal, April 2, 1872); a winning bid by Alex Strausz, of $2,363, for the building of the proposed new extension “West side of Court House” (Wilmington Morning Star, October 29, 1872); and construction of a two-story frame building for the Academy of the Incarnation (Wilmington Morning Star, February 28, 1873) established by a South Carolina religious group; and a contract to build a depot for the Carolina Central Railway in Wilmington (Daily Journal, May 9, 1874). None of these still stand.
The firm’s most prominent undertaking was the Temple of Israel, which still stands. The Wilmington Morning Star of May 20, 1875 reported that the congregation’s building committee had awarded the contract to the Cape Fear Building Company, and the ground was broken on May 20. “We were shown yesterday, at the office of the Cape Fear Building Company, a very neat and elaborate plan of the building. It is the work of Mr. Alex. Strausz, a partner in the company, and is his own original design.” The account described the design of the twin-towered edifice in detail, including its “uniquely attractive” “Oriental” and “Moorish” characteristics. Although this article, and perhaps Strausz, credited the design to Strausz, there is strong evidence that the congregation had actually obtained the design from Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan (see building entry, below). In any case, it became a key landmark of the city on its prominent corner lot beside Market Street and a complement to the handsome churches in the vicinity.
During this era, Joseph Abbott was among Wilmington’s most prominent Radical/Republican political figures and as noted above was elected to the state legislature and the United States Senate. Like many of his contemporaries in the thick of the Reconstruction era he was involved in some questionable financial dealings, including alleged bribes to benefit the WC&R railroad. In 1872, as Conservatives (Democrats) regained power, Abbott lost his seat in the Senate to Matt Ransom, a former Confederate general. Abbott eventually obtained a Federal position as inspector of ports.
The same political forces likely contributed to Abbott’s business problems. Although some Wilmingtonians appreciated the benefits Abbott brought to the city—see Wilmington Journal, July 15, 1870, commending his acquisition of federal funds for improving the Cape Fear River—others condemned him as a “carpetbagger,” such as the Wilmington Daily Journal, April 29, 1869; Wilmington Daily Journal, November 16, 1873; and the Wilmington Morning Star, November 19, 1876.
In the mid-1870s, depletion of forests coupled with the panic of 1873 and other problems added to Abbott’s problems, and in 1875, “on account of security debts and the large shrinkage in values, he failed in business” (Wilmington Post, October 9, 1881). The year 1875 had begun propitiously, as local newspapers reported the Cape Fear Building Company’s contract to make a pre-fabricated “sugar house” for shipment and assembling in Cuba, and establishment of a branch operation in Charlotte (Wilmington Daily Journal, February 9, 1875). But on January 26, 1876, the Salem People’s Press announced, “The Cape Fear Building Company has failed,” and the Wilmington Daily Review of January 20, 1876, reported that the “suspension of the Cape Fear Building Company” had thrown about 300 “hands” out of work and expressed hope that the company could resume operations. On January 21, the Daily Review noted that H. S. Servoss, manager of the works at Abbottsburg, was leaving for Florida. Although ads for the company appeared in newspapers in late January and early February, the Charlotte Observer of February 9, 1876, carried an announcement of the forthcoming sale of the business on March 3.
Following the business failure, for a time Abbott edited the Wilmington Post. In 1880, the census listed him and his wife as residing in a hotel and his occupation as “ex M. C.” (member of Congress). His obituary in the Wilmington Post of October 9, 1881 lauded his military record and noted that after the war he was “one of the very first northern men who invested in lands in this state.” Another obituary in the Wilmington Daily Review of October 8, 1881, reported that Abbott had lost $100,000, and that his losses “preyed upon his mind” and contributed indirectly to his death. His funeral was held at the First Presbyterian Church, of which he was a devoted member. He was buried in Wilmington but was later reinterred in Valley Cemetery, Manchester, N. C. In Wilmington, a local G. A. R. chapter was named for him.
Meanwhile, Alexander Strausz, who had apparently retained his financial footing, was one of the purchasers at the auction of the property of the Cape Fear Building Association at Abbottsburg (Wilmington Daily Review, March 4, 1876; Wilmington Morning Star, March 5, 1876). In 1877 the entire town of Abbottsburg including the industrial operation was advertised for sale (Salem People’s Press, May 10, 1877). In 1878 two Wilmington men bought Abbottsburg and renewed lumber manufacturing there (Wilmington Morning Star, January 5, 1879). Several years later, the mills burned, and in time Abbottsburg dwindled to a village.
By that time, Strausz and his family had left Wilmington for other opportunities. In 1878 Strausz joined his brother-in-law and fellow immigrant Felix de Nemegyei in an enterprise in West Virginia where he managed an iron furnace, and in 1885 he moved to Palatka, Florida, a railroad and resort town that was rebuilding after a fire, where he worked as an officer of a milling company. Strausz retired to Toledo, Ohio, and died in 1905. In Wilmington, where Democratic leaders shaped much of the writing of community history for years, little is remembered of the Hungarian and Yankee entrepreneurs who for a brief and busy time contributed much to the post-Civil War economy and architecture of the city.
- “Joseph Carter Abbott,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Carter_Abbott.
- William McKee Evans, “Abbott, Joseph Carter,” NCpedia, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/abbott-joseph-carter.
- Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).
- Contributors:Cape Fear Building Company, contractorsDates:1873Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:4th St., Wilmington, NCStatus:No longer standingType:EducationalNote:The Cape Fear Building Company built the school in 1873 for the Sisters of Mercy (Wilmington Star, February 28, 1873). This building faced 4th Street and was just around the corner from Tileston School.
- Variant Name(s):Hasell-Parsley HouseDates:1871Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:302 S. 3rd St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:Known locally as the Hasell-Parsley House for some of its prominent owners, the house was rebuilt or remodeled at intervals, including once in 1871 by the Cape Fear Building Company. The Wilmington Post of March 12, 1871 noted seeing plans for a house for R. P. Barry, to be built by the Cape Fear Building Company, with Mr. Strausz as the architect: "the architect's elegant design attracts much attention, and the building will add much to the reputation of our citizens of means, who erect dwellings ornamental to the city as well as useful to the owners." The Wilmington Morning Post of May 17 noted that R. P. Barry's 3-story house was being erected at the corner of 3rd and Ann streets, and next to it, Strauss had a fine three-story building "under construction."
- Dates:1871Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Susan Taylor Block, Cape Fear Lost (1999).Note:The Wilmington Star of February 23, 1871, reported of the new lodge at the picturesque civic cemetery "The plan was drawn at the instance of the Building Committee by Strauze and Rice." It was constructed by John Sholar and contained a chapel, 25 by 35 feet, with a handsome 45-foot tall tower and outfitted with 12 seats or benches like those on the streetcars. It resembled a "Carpenter Gothic" chapel.
- Variant Name(s):Heide-Bridgers HouseDates:1871; 1891 [altered]Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:308 S 3rd St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:According to a historical plaque, the Italianate style frame house was built by Strausz for himself and his wife Annie Young and was sold in 1876 to merchant Rudolph Heide. It is known locally by the name of the latter owner and a subsequent one.
- Dates:1875-1876Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:1 S. 4th St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).Note:The architect of Temple Israel has been described as Alex Strausz, based on the report in the May 20, 1875 Wilmington Morning Star that the contract for the symmetrical structure "of the Moorish order of architecture" was given to the Cape Fear Building Company, and was the "original design" of Alex Strausz, a partner in the company. However, other evidence suggests that it was planned by Samuel Sloan: on the 50th anniversary of the Temple, President Marcus Jacobi (whose father was founding president) said the design was obtained from Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia. James Sprunt states in his Chronicles of the Cape Fear that the building was "according to plans drawn in Philadelphia and altered and amended by our townsman, James Walker". Beverly Tetterton, Helen F. Solomon and JoAnn Fogler, History of the Temple of Israel, Wilmington, North Carolina, 1876 - 2001 (2001).
- Contributors:Dates:1871-1872; 1910 [expanded]; 1937 [expanded]Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:400 Ann St., Wilmington, NCStatus:AlteredType:EducationalImages Puslished In:Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).Note:The development of the school is somewhat complex and the roles of those involved in its 1871-1872 construction uncertain. Newspaper articles mention both Walker and Keen as builders. The original 2-story section of brick was completed in 1872 and was later expanded. One expansion was the "enlarge high school" project noted for Leitner in the Manufacturers' Record of June 30, 1910. Boney planned the third addition, the Ann Street wings. It was estimated to cost $26,000. The illustration here depicts the Tileston School in essentially its original picturesque form. The porch and most of the decorations have been removed, though the original school still stands at the core of the present complex. A more recent photograph appears in Wrenn, Wilmington.
- Dates:1871Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:107 South 4th St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The Italianate frame house is typical of Wilmington's mid to late-19th century architecture. Tony P. Wrenn cites Strausz as its builder. The Wilmington Star of June 21, 1871, noted William A. French's new dwelling begun, to be two stories with a tower, but did not cite the builder.