Museum Trail – 1894 – Josephine Leary Building

Josephine L. Leary Building

421-423-425 South Broad Street


Josephine N. Leary Building 1894

Josephine N. Leary Building 1894 – photo Kip Shaw

This impressive triple-story building was erected in 1894 as a rental property owned by Josephine Napoleon Leary. It stands today as a busy commercial property and as a testament to an impressive woman.  The name Leary and date 1894 adorn the top of the façade. A Victorian color scheme enhances the design of the façade. The interior spaces remain largely unaltered.
Josephine Napolian Leary

Mrs. Josephine Napoleon Leary

Josephine Napoleon Leary was born into slavery in Williamston, North Carolina in 1856. She and her husband, Sweety Leary, came to Edenton by the mid-1870’s. Both were barbers by trade, and Mrs. Leary was listed in various business directories from 1883 until 1912. Mr. Leary was only listed in directories in 1890.

Pressed metal façade buildings were popular throughout North Carolina during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The metal façade was manufactured by the Mesker Brothers, Front Makers, located in St. Louis, Missouri. The building has eight bays and is composed of three sections. Each unaltered storefront has recessed double-leaf doors. Victorian embellishments adorn the outside of the building along with columns framing the second story, massive bracketed frieze and cornice, and elaborate sunbursts.
Edenton DowntownLeary007

Edenton’s Broad (or Main) Street

The Learys lived at what would now be called 102 South Broad Street, but not in the existing structure. Mrs. Leary also owned other properties including the Williams-Flury-Burton House (ca. 1779) located at 108 North Granville Street. Mrs. Leary, a remarkable businesswoman, died of cancer in 1923; Mr. Leary died in 1905.
Here is a brief outline of her remarkable contributions to Edenton:
  • 1856      Josephine Napoleon Williams was born into slavery, and following the Civil War was freed when she was 9 years old.
  • 1873      Josephine Williams marries Sweety Archer Leary, both worked as barbers.
  • 1881      Mrs. Leary, skillfully maneuvering the real estate market owned 6 properties by 1881, including 421-423-425 South Broad Street in what was called “Cheapside,“ an old business district predating the revolution.
  • 1893      Fire destroys the east side of Broad St., everything from King Street to Water Street was lost.   Mrs. Leary ‘s investments were a pile of ashes.
  • 1894      For Mrs. Leary the question was: sell the land or rebuild? Optimistically she chose to build her signature building, the J. N. Leary’s building!
  • 1915      Josephine Leary’s life of success and admiration became one of despair. A battle more serious than a mortgage and notes due, she was fighting cancer. Medical care was pay “as you go” and she was forced to sell a number of properties to meet her medical expenses.
  • 1923      Mrs. Josephine Leary dies from stomach cancer. At the time of her death, she still owned 133 East Church Street, 102 South Broad Street, and 317 South Broad Street. All were mired in a tangle of debt from supporting her medical expenses.

Visit and learn more along Edenton’s Museum Trail:

(1) Barker House

(2) Old Colonial Wharf

(3) Joseph Hewes & 1778 Cannons

(4) Hugh Williamson Monument

(5) 1905 Edenton Teapot

(6) 1767 Chowan County Courthouse (no QR code on pedestal sign)

(7) Old Jail

(8) Oldest House in North Carolina

(9) Cotton Mill Village

(10) 1800/1827 James Iredell House (no QR code on pedestal sign)

(11) Kadesh Church

(12) 1736 St. Paul’s Church

(13) 1758 Cupola House 

(14) Josephine Leary Building 

(15) 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse (no QR code on pedestal sign)