A walk around downtown Lumberton reviles many unique and interesting buildings. If you venture out of the commercial district into the nearby residential areas you will find equally wonderful homes. A desire to find out more about who designed and built these monuments for the movers and shakers of Lumberton led me on a trip to the local history room at the Robeson County Library.
Special issues of local papers provided a great deal of information but when I found Doris Burney Willard’s Burney Builders – I knew that I had hit the jackpot. Doris, daughter of Thomas Matthew Burney, in 1986 compiled all research, interviews with family members and newspaper articles on her family into a book about this family of builders. Three generations of the Burney family spent the first 50 years of the 20th century using their knowledge of carpentry and engineering shaped the city’s architectural heritage.
The family of builders began with William Burney (May 18, 1842 – November 11, 1920) born in Bladen County to Richard Burney (1806-1848) and his wife, Elizabeth Allen (1810-1900). William Burney served as a private in the Confederate army and on January 6, 1867 he married Elmira Cain (1850-1931). They made their home on a Bladen County farm west of Tar Heel.
They were the parents of seven children, namely Florence Lorena Burney (December 31, 1867 – October 20, 1911), Robert Nevins Burney (November 24, 1869 – December 17, 1955), Valeria Burney (June 12, 1872 – May 16, 1963), Anna Burney (August 23, 1874 – July 3, 1945), William Moody Burney (December 23, 1876 – August 24, 1956), Charles Randle Burney (May 22, 1879 – June 19, 1944) and Thomas Matthew Burney (January 6, 1882 – January 17, 1965).
During 1903 and 1904 William Burney built the homes for Lumberton merchants, Luther H. Caldwell and J.P. McNeill, and set the standard for the superior level of craftsmanship found in all Burney built structures. The two-story Queen Anne style homes were similar in design both featuring two-tier porches. The McNeill home was torn down after suffering fire damage in 1967. The Caldwell home located at 209 West 8th Street was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
William Burney died as a result of a number of strokes. Three of his sons and his son-in-law, Dock Walters, built his coffin out of 12 inch black walnut boards that Burney had milled for that purpose.
William Moody Burney learned his craft from his father and later worked with his brother in law Doctor Pink Walters (Valeria’s husband). He married his first wife, Annie (maiden name unknown), on Christmas Day 1906 in Cleveland, Alabama. They were parents to a son, Lessie Byron, and daughter, Eula Mae. After Annie’s death, he married Mary Lynn Ellis on September 6, 1942.
William’s first building project as sole contractor was the office and gin of the Robeson Cotton Oil Company. In 1917, he built the Lumberton Municipal Building on the corner of Elm and Second Streets. The municipal building stands vacant waiting to be useful once again. These two buildings represented an expansion of Burney style design, but continued the level of craftsmanship.
William Moody Burney and his brother, Thomas Matthew Burney did business as Burney Brothers Builders from 1918 to 1922. After this date, they ceased their partnership and focused their efforts on building their own independent contracting firms. This partnership however produced three significant structures; the Baker Sanatorium (later the Medical Arts Building), the Freeman Printing Company and the McIntyre Building on Chestnut Street.
William built the ochre-colored pressed brick building with Tuscan columns on the corner of Elm and Fifth streets for the First National Bank; it later housed the Sanitary Café and the Brown House Craft Store. In 1938, he added another style to his palette, by building the Spanish Revival style stuccoed Stephens Funeral Home on Elm Street.
Other notable structures were homes built for Dr. R.S. Beam, Ira Bullard, M.A. Geddie, Kelly M. Barnes (currently Biggs funeral Home), and Dr. Stephen McIntyre (currently home of Mr. and Mrs. David Branch).
The second partner in this generation of Burney builders was Thomas Matthew Burney, who, like his brother, worked for father and brother-in-law, Dock Walters. Matt married Mary Emily (Mollie) Russell on December 28, 1910. They were the parents of Russell Thomas, Mary Pauline (Polly), Doris Elizabeth, Loris Faye and Cleo.
They settled in Lumberton about 1913 and Matt built a bungalow style home for them on the corner of Pine and 14th Streets. In 1929 Mollie started operating the home as a tourist home, the forerunner of the modern Bed and Breakfast. In 1937 Matt enlarged it into a two-story home. Their daughter Polly continued to operate the tourist home for years. During the tobacco market sales at Lumberton’s ten tobacco warehouses there was never an empty room.
In 1926 Matt built the Thompson Memorial Hospital, which later housed the Lumberton town office and was demolished in 2006 to make room for the parking lot of the new city hall. He built three tobacco warehouses the Britt and Hedgepeth both on Pine Street and the Carlyle on First and Chestnut. In 1938 he constructed a modern masterpiece for the Norment Motor Company on West Fifth Street which was designed by his son, Russell Thomas Burney.
In 1945 Matt accepted the position as building engineer for the Farmers Cooperative Exchange and Cotton Growers Association for North and South Carolina. In this position, he was responsible for overseeing and maintaining all buildings associated with the company in both Carolinas. He held this position until his death in 1965. During his tenure, thirty-eight FCX Service Centers opened.
The homes of this generation of Burney builders varied greatly in design. They ranged from the Elm Street brick home of R.C. Adams with its corbelled corner and red tile roof to the colonial revival home of Robert C. Lawrence (author of The State of Robeson) at the corner of North Walnut Street and Elizabethtown Road and the outstanding art deco home for Edwin Welsh behind the Lawrence home. All three of these structures are still standing. The art deco house is one of the finest surviving examples of this style in North Carolina.
Lessie Byron Burney was born December 19, 1907 to William Moody Burney and his wife, Annie. He received a degree in architectural engineering in 1930 from North Carolina State University. He worked for three years after college with his father in Lumberton.
By 1937 Byron was living in Raleigh and in 1947 obtained his North Carolina architect’s license. He served as architect for several Lumberton homes which included the Elm Street home of Hector MacLean and the Barker Ten Mile Road homes of Dudley Jennings, Foster Davis and Frank McLeod, Jr. Byron Burney retired in 1972.
Russell Thomas Burney was the oldest child of Thomas Matthew Burney and his wife, Mary Emily Russell. From the earliest years of his life Russell was always on construction sites with his father. First as water boy, then a mason’s assistant and finally truck driver.
Russell graduated with a civil engineering degree from The Citadel in 1934. He married Peggy Moody in 1937 and began working with his father in Lumberton. Their firm was known as Thomas M. Burney and Son, Inc.
In 1938 Russell designed and his father built what was to be called their greatest modern work, The Norment Motor Company was located on West Fifth Street. The high art deco style building featured large plate glass windows and terrazzo flooring.
The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company featured the building that year in its advertising. The company hired Russell as an architectural and engineering representative in the Carolinas and Georgia.
In 1941 Russell served as a consulting engineer for the construction of Camp Davis. He was engineer of construction and maintenance for the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington during World War II.
He founded R.T. Burney, Inc. and engaged in the design and construction of bridges, wharves and fishing piers from Florida to Virginia.
Russell’s specialty became steel piers after the one he designed and built at Surf City was the only pier to survive Hurricane Hazel in 1954 from Florida to Virginia.
Russell’s son, Russell Thomas Burney, Jr. also graduated from The Citadel with a degree in civil engineering. He has worked with many firms building schools, bridges and roads.
Doctor Pink Walters was born January 18, 1864 to William Pinckney Walters (1829-1905) and wife, Sarah Ann Loe (1825-1887). He married Esther D. Atkinson and they were parents to Linnie Mae, Fannie, William Oscar and Marcus Floyd. Esther died in 1900.
In 1903 Dock married Valeria Burney, daughter of William and Elmira. They were parents of Joseph Neal, William Manley and Sarah Elmyra.
He was a Lumberton commissioner from May 1912 until May 1914 and a director of the Planter’s Bank and the National Bank.
Dock built the Planter’s Bank on the corner of Fourth and Chestnut Streets (later Scottish Bank and First Union) and the National and Jennings Cotton Mills.
This family of builders set their distinctive mark on the landscape of Lumberton with their distinctive and quality built homes, office building and industrial sites that were needed during its period of growth. While many of their architectural treasures survive; many more have fallen to the rolling bulldozer.