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The federal government wants its big, bronze lanterns back from the Cotton Exchange

The two large bronze lanterns installed in front of the Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington were originally mounted on the U.S. Customs House (now the Alton Lennon Federal Building) in 1919.
Benjamin Schachtman
The two large bronze lanterns installed in front of the Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington were originally mounted on the U.S. Customs House (now the Alton Lennon Federal Building) in 1919.

In 1977, the City of Wilmington approved the installation of the lanterns on North Front Street. But four decades later, the federal government decided it wanted the lanterns back — arguing they were never the city’s property and suggesting litigation might be necessary if they aren't returned. The City says it hopes the lanterns can stay where they are.

For almost half a century, two large bronze lanterns have sat in the public right-of-way in front of the Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington. But starting in 2015, the federal government has grown increasingly eager to get them back.

The lanterns themselves are over a century old. Back in 1919, the two bronze ‘lamp standards’ were installed on Wilmington’s Customs House, the massive neoclassical building now known as the Alton Lennon Federal Building — the federal courthouse which helps define Wilmington’s riverfront profile.

Starting in 2015, the General Services Administration (GSA) developed an interest in returning the lanterns to their original location, with the hopes of having them installed for the courthouse’s centennial in 2019. The GSA is responsible for helping to manage roughly a half-trillion dollars of federal property, and is overseeing the extensive $31-million restoration of the Alton Lennon building that began several years after it was severely damaged in Hurricane Florence.

A GSA spokesperson told WHQR, “there was a renewed interest in restoring the Courthouse to its original condition as part of the rehabilitation process, including returning the lanterns as significant historical features.” The GSA said it plans to reinstall them in their original location flanking the Water Street entrance to the courthouse.

According to the GSA, the United States government believes it is still the rightful owner of the lanterns — and it has enlisted the U.S. Department of Justice to retrieve them from the Cotton Exchange.

The DOJ gets involved

Earlier this month, the Cotton Exchange, the City of Wilmington, and New Hanover County were contacted by the office of Michael Easley, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. In a June 1 letter, acquired by WHQR, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Fesak put stakeholders on notice.

Fesak noted that only Congress or Congressionally-authorized representatives can dispose of federal property. He wrote that the GSA has found no evidence that the lanterns were ever legally divested — and that the Cotton Exchange has not provided any proof of ownership.

According to Fesak’s letter, the GSA had not been able to resolve the matter, blaming the Cotton Exchange in part for failing to “participate in any meaningful dialogue on the issue.” Then, the GSA turned to the Department of Justice to secure the return of the lanterns.

Part of a letter sent by Assistant U.S. At
Benjamin Schachtman
Part of a letter sent by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Fesak to the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, and the Cotton Exchange.

In his letter, Fesak offered both a stick and a carrot.

“My sincere hope and expectation is that this matter can be resolved without resort to litigation, which could be costly, time-consuming and disruptive for all involved,” Fesak wrote, adding later, “I am also prepared to discuss some ways the United States may be able to recognize the Cotton Exchange for its role in helping to preserve these historical artifacts for posterity.”

Fesak asked for a meeting by July 28 “in order to discuss a plan and timeline” for the return of the lanterns.

An email to Fesak generated an autoreply noting he was taking an “extended absence through June 26.” Other members of Fesak’s team said any questions would have to be answered by the regional USDOJ spokesperson — who deferred to the GSA response, saying the DOJ had “no comment on this pending issue.”

How did the lanterns get to the Cotton Exchange?

There seem to be some gaps in the historical record of the lanterns. But, according to Fesak’s letter, at some point, the lanterns were removed from the courthouse and left in a field on New Hanover County Board of Education property, where they became “overgrown with vegetation.”

There’s a similar account in Saving the Cotton Exchange, an oral history of Cotton Exchange developers Joseph R. Reaves and Malcolm T. Murray, recorded by retired Cape Fear Museum director Janet Seapker.

The book includes a few pages of conversation on the lanterns. In one passage, Reaves recalled getting a call from someone who had come across them.

“‘Joe, there’s a couple of lanterns out in the field, the Board of Education field, out on 13th Street.’ And he said that vines growing all over it. And he said, ‘I’m afraid that somebody’s going to run over those things and damage them beyond repair.’ And he said, ‘I think they’re too good to be damaged,’” Reaves said.

Reaves recalled having underestimated the size of the lanterns, which are roughly six feet tall without their current concrete bases.

“I hadn't seen the things, so I took my Pinto station wagon, I had to pick them up,” Reaves said. “Gosh that was a rude awakening right there.”

Reaves and Murray eventually got a forklift and a large truck and were able to move the lanterns.

A passage from "Saving the Cotton Exchange," an oral history of the building's redevelopment, discussing how the lanterns made their way to the Cotton Exchange.
New Hanover County Library - Local History Room
A passage from "Saving the Cotton Exchange," an oral history of the building's redevelopment, discussing how the lanterns made their way to the Cotton Exchange.

It’s not clear how the lanterns ended up covered in vines, off of South 13th Street — but city records do indicate what happened next.

According to the March 1, 1977, Wilmington City Council minutes, Murray requested permission to install the lanterns, which the record refers to as “public property,” noting “the Mayor [Ben Halterman] recalled these lanterns were given to the city,” but doesn’t provide any additional information. Halterman, who served as Wilmington’s mayor from 1975 to 1983, passed away in 2013.

According to the minutes, the motion was passed unanimously.

Now what?

In his letter to the city, county, and Cotton Exchange, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fesak asked for a response by June 16.

A spokesperson for the county said it had no involvement in the situation. A representative for the Cotton Exchange said they could not comment at this time.

The City of Wilmington issued a short statement on the matter:

The city is aware of the claims made and is hopeful that the matter can be resolved in such a way that the historic lanterns remain at the entrance to the Cotton Exchange, where they have been proudly displayed and carefully maintained for decades.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.