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Reopening the doors of Wilmington's Gibraltar

Delaware Public Media

Gibraltar, the sole surviving walled estate in the city of Wilmington, is still standing like a rock, thanks to its framework of steel girders and walls that are 30 inches thick.

No one has lived in the storied mansion since 1991. But the developers who want to revive the sleeping giant view it as a potential home for businesses, a place where companies and their clients can enjoy an upscale office center with a stately, historic vibe.

Gibraltar Preservation Group owner Drake Cattermole discusses the process of restoring the walled Wilmington mansion.

Gibraltar Preservation Group owner Drake Cattermole discusses the process of restoring the walled Wilmington mansion.

“I can’t imagine someone pulling onto this property who would not be impressed,” says David Bull, who is walking the grounds with fellow developer Drake Cattermole.

Once manicured, the lawn surrounding the house is thick with weeds. Bull’s wife Patricia, a keen gardener, went to work pulling down vines from the estate’s stout walls and was rewarded with a nasty case of poison ivy. Wilmington police use the rough terrain for K-9 training, which offers the added benefits of deterring intruders.

“It doesn’t take long for things to get overgrown but imagine how wonderful it will look when things are cleared away,” Cattermole says.

The third partner in the enterprise is David Carpenter, the brother of Cattermole’s wife Lucinda. The Carpenter siblings are the great grandchildren of Margaretta du Pont, the younger sister of Isabella, who took ownership of the property in 1909 with her husband Hugh Rodney Sharp.

When the couple’s son, Hugh Rodney Jr., died in 1990 there was no one to take on the estate, whose celebrated gardens required tending by a full-time staff of 17 gardeners. The family put the property up for sale. The asking price: $2 million.

Preservation Delaware Inc. (PDI), a nonprofit conservation group, was deeded the property in 1997. The Sharps received $750,000 from the Delaware Open Space Program, a state land-preservation initiative.

PDI was intent on breathing new life into Gibraltar. But two separate initiatives to transform the house and grounds into an historic bed-and-breakfast inn failed to take off.

C. Roderick Maroney, an architect who served on Preservation Delaware’s board for seven years, says would-be suitors were put off by limited opportunities to turn a profit.

“PDI wanted to maintain ownership, yet they expected a new outfit to come in and pay for a lot of upgrades,” he says.

In the end, PDI decided the expense of maintaining and securing the estate was too great. Preservation Delaware started soliciting proposals to essentially give Gibraltar to an organization that could find an appropriate purpose for it.

“Any use, any price,” Maroney recalls. “For the sake of saving Gibraltar, Preservation Delaware had to get rid of it altogether.”

The Gibraltar Preservation Group, a partnership between Bull, Cattermole and Carpenter, was deeded the property for $10 in 2010. Bull and Cattermole say developers pumped $500,000 into legal fees to obtain a use variance opposed by neighbors, who contended a commercial enterprise would shatter the residential character of the community.

In the end, the state Supreme Court affirmed PDI’s plan permitting developers to convert the mansion, greenhouse and garage into office space and to build a 6,500 square-foot addition to the house. The new wing would be finished in stucco, a contrast to the locally quarried Brandywine blue granite on the rest of the structure, in keeping with a property that has evolved over time.

“We are maintaining the facade and historic integrity, as well as respecting the easements,” Cattermole says.

The plan calls for maintaining the first floor and its large, elegant rooms, which still boast such details as wood paneling, moldings in a Greek Key pattern and opulently carved mantels. The developers are permitted to reconfigure the second and third floors to meet tenants’ requirements. The gardens, designed in 1916 by landscape architect Marian Coffin, a du Pont family favorite, will remain open to the public.

Gibraltar is not the group’s first go-round at converting a grand house to a commercial property. Several years ago, Cattermole and Carpenter redeveloped Holiday House, a country manor built in 1925, into an office center at the intersection of Route 141 and Kennett Pike in Greenville.

Among Gibraltar’s charms are ready access to Interstate 95 and Kennett Pike, as well as a park-like setting and jaw-dropping views of the city. The developers are confident they can deliver lower rents for Class A space -- the most prestigious level for offices -- than the going rate in Greenville.

Still, there’s a glut of attractive office properties on the market, the result of several years of corporate cutbacks. With fewer employees in the workforce, companies don’t require as much space.

In New Castle County, about one-fifth of office space is dark, according to a market report by CBRE, a commercial property firm. In fact, the vacancy rate was 20 percent or more in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Most recently, the developers have fielded inquiries from law offices, financial services firms and a plastic surgeon who envisions the estate as a high-end retreat and spa for patients.

Bull says the project would be completed within a year of commitment by a tenant. The property is on the National Register of Historic Places and the restoration could be eligible for historic tax credits, depending on the scope of work.

“But we aren’t counting on it,” Bull says.

Gibraltar’s history dates back to 1844, when John Rodney Brinckle, grand nephew of patriot Caesar Rodney, built a two-and-a-half story Italianate villa on a rocky promentory on a 77-acre parcel at the corner of Greenhill and Pennsylvania avenues in Wilmington. He intended to move in with a bride, but she turned down his proposal and Brinckle lived out his days as a bachelor.

In 1862, he sold the house to his brother, who died a year later. His widow immediately began selling off lots to buyers eager to build homes in the Highlands to take advantage of the city’s newly launched trolley system.

Once the Sharps acquired the property in the early 100s, they embarked on a series of ambitious projects over two decades. They added servants quarters, a solarium and a library, ultimately tripling the size of the house to 16,000 square feet. The facade, made from institutional looking blocks of Brandywine blue granite, bears no resemblance to the original villa.

In fact, it is so square and looming some visitors don’t realize the building was once a home.

“It’s ugly,” Maroney says. “Architecturally, it’s a bit of a head scratcher.”

Inside, Gibraltar is ghostly and glorious. The grand entrance is defined by a large central staircase, its carpets worn by countless footsteps. Beneath layers of dust in the large, first-floor rooms are inlaid mahogany floors.

“They are in great condition, absolutely amazing,” Bull says.

The original zinc sink and counter are in place in the kitchen. An elevator car is parked in a second-floor sunroom. A large cast iron tub was wrested by determined thieves from the cement floor in the bathroom down the hall. The floor-to-ceiling mirror in a dressing room, embellished with colored glass insets that depict dancing courtiers, conjures images of Gibraltar’s wealthy owners donning finery for a gala.

In the solarium, windows extend from floor to ceiling. PDI paid $34,000 in 2005 to replace a leaky roof that soars more than 20 feet above the marble floor.

Last fall, Bull and Cattermole climbed on the roof to batten down the hatches as hurricane Sandy approached.

“We got through it without a hitch,” Bull says. “Clearly, this house was built to last.”