Jester Farmhouse delivers historic preservation win
Stories on historic preservation in recent years usually focus on the failure to protect buildings of significance from demise.
But this week contributor Larry Nagengast offers a more hopeful story – as one building Northern New Castle County – the Jester Farmhouse - avoids that fate.
The wall on one side of the farmhouse on Grubb Road in Brandywine Hundred has been torn down. Half the wall on another side is gone. So is the roof and what had been the floor of the second story. A couple of windows remain.
The stone farmhouse, built in the early 1800s with a wood-frame addition later in the century, today looks like yet another example of “demolition by neglect,” the determination by property owners to let an historic structure deteriorate to the point that it can no longer be salvaged, leaving demolition as the only alternative.
Despite current appearances, the Jester Farmhouse is not destined for a tragic ending. With more than $1 million in improvements planned, the next chapter in its story will be as a community arts center, the site of galleries and exhibits, work space and classes, even some special events, all under the guidance of a nonprofit known as the Jester Artspace.
It almost didn’t turn out that way.
The farmhouse sits on the northeastern edge of a 31-acre site acquired by New Castle County from Francis and Eleanor Jester in 1974. The building has been vacant for most of that time, and the farmland has been idle for 15 years or so, since the county and Hy-Point Farms ended a lease agreement that allowed the dairy’s cows to graze there.
Through the years, efforts to find other uses for the farm and the house proved unsuccessful. The Concord Soccer Association once contemplated asking the county for a lease to place a complex of soccer fields there but backed off in the face of objections by nearby residents who were concerned about heavy traffic.
In 1999 and 2000 the county consulted with structural engineers who recommended framework and foundation repairs for the farmhouse that would cost between $80,000 and $100,000, plus an unspecified amount for needed upgrades to the mechanical and electrical systems. Three years later the county proposed demolishing the farmhouse but dropped the idea in favor of looking for a “resident curator” who would rehabilitate the structure, live there and care for it. Ten years ago, Hy-Point’s owners proposed creating a “community creamery” on a 1.1-acre site that included the farmhouse, but those plans fell through.
Meanwhile, residents remained concerned about the farmhouse’s deterioration. Opponents of the demolition plan in 2003 included members of the Day family, whose elders had sold the farm to the Jesters, and Tod Baseden, who lived across Grubb Road near the farmhouse. The prolonged inaction especially irked Tod Baseden, who persisted in his efforts to save the structure, frequently advocating to former New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner, who represented the area, according to his son, Alan Baseden.
“On Christmas 2015, I was sitting next to my Dad, who was dejected that there were no takers for the curatorship,” recalls Alan Baseden, an art school graduate who had retired as a news artist with the Associated Press and Philadelphia Inquirer. Soon after father and son began brainstorming, Alan contacted Susan Benarcik, an artist and friend, and a few others to get more ideas. In May 2016, a small group met at Tod Baseden’s home for their first “friendraiser.” Fueled by some beer and an ample supply of Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken, they began putting a plan together and created the Jester Artspace.
“We looked at other models to gauge economic viability,” Alan Baseden said, mentioning organizations like the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn and the Newark Arts Alliance. “We looked at where the money comes from, and where does it go.”
By the end of 2016, they had pitched the idea to Bob Merrill, the county’s public works program manager, who oversees resident curatorships. Merrill saw a unique opportunity. “When you think of recreational activities, the county has a lot of soccer, football and baseball fields, but we didn’t have any type of cultural recreation,” he says.
Read more about the resident curatorship program's mixed track record here.
Recognizing that it was unlikely to find a resident curator, the county pivoted to a different type of arrangement, agreeing to pick up most of the tab for restoring the property, with the lessee responsible for ongoing maintenance.
County Executive Tom Gordon, who would lose his re-election bid that fall, then agreed to sign a lease agreement. With the transition to Matt Meyer, Gordon’s successor, work on some of the details bogged down, Baseden said, but now the pieces have come together.
"It was not exactly what we wanted, but if we said no, then what?" - Alan Baseden, Jester Artspace board of directors
“Finally, we’ve got a viable proposal,” Tracy Surles, general manager of the county’s Public Works Department, told the county’s Historic Review Board in December as she gave an update on the farmhouse project.
Originally, the Artspace’s organizers wanted the entire building renovated, but the first bids received came in well over the county’s budget. Some parts of the original plan, like adding a wraparound porch to help preserve the wooden walls from the late 1800s addition, would have to go, said Steve Ruble, project administrator for the county’s Public Works Department.
The county revised its plan and prepared for a second round of bids last spring.
“It was not exactly what we wanted,” said Baseden, who now heads the Artspace’s board of directors, “but if we said no, then what?”
Well, the “then what” was that the house would continue to deteriorate and the fledgling nonprofit might lose the more than $100,000 in grants it had lined up from the Welfare, Longwood and Crestlea foundations.
The county and the Artspace decided to move ahead, the second round of bids came in within budget and work began in November. The teardown portion is nearly complete and the rebuild work should start soon.
The county is spending nearly $1.3 million, Ruble says, with $827,000 allotted for rebuilding the shell of the farmhouse – a metal roof, walls, windows and doors – plus a vestibule, new exterior stairs and interior utilities, and another $463,500 for exterior work – a driveway, parking area, landscaping and water, sewer and electrical connections.
The exterior walls now standing will remain, Ruble says. The county will redo the stucco and the new exterior walls “will use something like clapboard siding,” he says. “It’s going to match the original materials as much as possible, but it will look better.”
The county hopes to have the exterior work finished by June.
Interior improvements will be the Artspace’s responsibility. Plans call for two galleries, a kitchen and a bath on the first floor and two classrooms upstairs.
That work could cost as much as $250,000 “if we have to pay full market rate,” Baseden says. That’s well above the $128,000 the organization has banked, “but we’re looking for donations of labor and materials…. We’re hoping that when people can walk in, touch it and feel it, that will help us with donations.”
If all goes well, the project should go out for bid in the spring and be completed in the fall, allowing for initial programming to begin before the end of the year, Baseden says.
“We’re going to be small,” he says. The organization’s five-year plan estimates serving 2,600 people a year – an average of 50 a week, or seven per day.
“We’re working on outreach with our neighbors to be a creative hub for the community,” he says.
Depending on its ability to earn grants and receive donations, the Artspace will offer some programming for free, but there will be fees for using workspace and equipment, and for event rentals, Baseden says.
County Councilwoman Dee Durham, whose district includes Jester Park, is pleased with the way the project has developed.
The public-private partnership, she says, “is a great model” for the preservation of historic sites in the county.
As for the rest of the Jester Park, the county is now moving ahead to open the site as a neighborhood park, according to Kendall Sommers, the parks division manager in the Public Works Department. Plans call for a “double-loop, multi-use trail system,” suitable for walking, running and bicycling. One loop would circle the area near Grubb Road and around the farmhouse; the other would wrap around the meadow in the rear of the property. Plans also show pathways into the park from adjacent neighborhoods.
Several deteriorating farm buildings in the meadow area will have to be demolished because the county considers them “attractive nuisances,” according to Ruble and Sommers. The demolitions will require approval by the Historic Review Board and the Land Use Department.
“There aren’t going to be a ton of improvements,” Sommers said, emphasizing that this will be a neighborhood park, not one that will be designed to attract visitors who need cars to get there.
Sommers says she would like the work to be wrapped up by the end of the year.