History of 217 Middle St., New Bern – Facade Gets a Paint-Lift

Swiss Bear revitalizing the 200 block of Middle St.

We discovered New Bern back in 1991. In those days many of the downtown buildings were boarded up and their windows had been replaced with cinder blocks and many were used as storage spaces by their owners. Antiquated electrical wires were strung everywhere, the sidewalks were cracked and uneven, and Union Point Park had deteriorated to a point where it became a place most people did not want to visit. 

This little walkable southern town with all its grand architecture was similar to so many others you see when one travels through old, forgotten small towns.

We pulled into the Sheraton Hotel Marina with our 42-foot Grand Banks Trawler and began exploring Downtown New Bern. When “live-aboard” boaters such as ourselves arrive in a new town, the only mode of transportation can be fold-up bicycles and walking. As we explored New Bern by foot we discovered this town had a few restaurants, a diner, a five & dime, a hardware store, grocery store, and a post office. Well, from a boater’s point of view, all the necessities were present. 

Then we met the Executive Director of Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corp., Susan Moffat-Thomas. This nonprofit organization was established in 1979 to spearhead and coordinate the revitalization of New Bern’s downtown and redevelopment of its waterfront in partnership with the local government. It was a 40-year revitalization plan that set things in motion anticipated by the private sector. There was also a campaign: Plant Your Roots in Downtown New Bern. 

Talk about being in the right place at the right time – we purchased 217 Middle St. in 1992 and became part of this community’s vision and redevelopment.

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This post is a tiny part of Swiss Bear’s vision and how it impacted us on the 200 block of Middle St.  As you can see, the streets and buildings were not very inviting the day construction began on our street. The first thing they did was remove all the trees.

Yellow tree uprooter machine

Who knew the city had a machine that specifically uprooted large trees? These trees were replanted in surrounding parks and spaces in our community.

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Now the real work began as the city closed our street and began ripping up the road and sidewalks to install underground plumbing, electric, water, sewer, and cable.

The City of New Bern built temporary sidewalks for businesses that were open so shopping could continue during the upheaval. People did come during this construction stage to witness the transformation and support the small businesses that did their best to remain open during this time.

We were so surprised to discover trolley tracks on Middle St. Oh how I wish we had restored those tracks. We could have been a mini San Francisco. 

There were large gaping holes under our street. This was a concern as buildings could collapse as many of these buildings still have dirt basements. No one really knew what to expect and everyone hoped for the best.

While Swiss Bear construction completed the streets, we were working on our facade. John was busy chiseling away at the cinder blocks to begin restoring the second-floor windows.

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Finally the day came and the City of New Bern began repaving, adding curbs and pavers to our sidewalks and, yes, TREES. We went to sleep that night ready to walk our new sidewalks the next morning.

A big thank-you to Susan Moffat-Thomas and Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corp. We witnessed 20 years of beautification of a sleepy, quiet, ugly town that is now beautiful and vibrant.  There are no words to express the feelings of transformation happening before one’s eyes.

THE NEXT DAY

We walked up the side walk from the boat, as we were still living aboard during our reconstruction phase of 217 only to discover a little vandalism, not unusual in those early days.

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In the middle of the night, someone had poured a bucket of tar from our rooftop, and it was still dripping tar, all down 217 to the brand-new pavers when we arrived that morning. 

Roof hopping was a very popular activity when we moved here back in the late ’90s. People would scale the buildings in the middle of the night as most of them were empty. Roof walking was extremely popular along with throwing objects left behind by workers who worked on roofs such as roofing tools, 50# bags of dried-up cement, and mostly opened buckets of leftover tar. 

Why bring back down those leftover materials when no one is going to see them anyway? So, lots of dried-up old things just remained on most of the buildings rooftops. It was a perfect opportunity and enjoyed by many to throw these objects off rooftops and listen to the sound of them crashing to the ground. We would like to believe they enjoyed the view as well.

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Thank goodness we had insurance as all of this was covered under our policy and they offered to paint the building. The City of New Bern replaced all the pavers that were damaged by the tar.

And I painted the building pink. Just had to have a little bright happy color relief from all the construction. The tourist loved the pink and said so every day, the locals in their best southern hospitality way replied, “What an interesting color.” History of 217 Middle St. next blog will be images of restoring the second floor of this lovely 1910 building. Hope you stay tuned.

Michaele Lee Rose

About Michaelé Rose Watson

Michaelé Rose is an innovative, modern artist creating conceptual art in mixed media and a custom stained glass expert, specializing in Architectural Stained Glass Restoration.

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Michaelé Rose Watson
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New Bern, NC 28560

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