Resident curatorship program to boost historic preservation sees limited success
The New Castle County program created to give new life to historic structures has had only one success, but it wasn’t the Jester Farmhouse.
That’s partly because of the way the program is structured, and partly because of its timing, says County Councilman John Cartier, a Brandywine Hundred Democrat and preservation advocate.
In 2011, the county launched its resident curatorship program.
“It’s a win-win for the county and for the resident curator,” Bob Merrill, program manager in the county’s Public Works Department, said at the time. “The county gets people to take over historic buildings and make an investment in them, and the resident gets to live rent-free for 20 years on county parkland.”
It didn’t turn out that way.
Making the investment – a minimum of $150,000 in the first five years of an agreement – became an obstacle. Since the county retains ownership of the property, prospective resident curators can’t use the structure as collateral for a loan, according to Cartier and Councilwoman Dee Durham, another Brandywine Hundred Democrat and preservation advocate.
Applicants must commit to spending at least $150,000 in the first five years to restore a property, and all improvements made must be consistent with federal standards for historic preservation. In return, the successful applicant gets to live at the property rent-free for 20 years to a lifetime, depending on the terms of the lease. However, when the curator decides to leave, all the improvements made are left behind and there’s no equity to cash out.
Compounding the problem, Cartier notes, was the timing issue. When the program began, the country was stuck in the aftermath of the bursting of the housing bubble. “Nobody took into account that the banks weren’t lending to hardly anybody,” he said.
"As a private citizen, it's almost impossible to get financing because you don't own the property. We're looking at ways we can tweak it." - County Councilwoman Dee Durham
Merrill says the county has succeeded in leasing only one of the five properties identified for the curatorship program. That’s Woodstock, a large two-story residence in Banning Park near Wilmington, that was built in the pre-Revolutionary era, when Delaware was known as the “Three Lower Counties” of Pennsylvania.
“We found a husband-and-wife team whose whole life has been renovation,” Merrill says. “They’ve done a fantastic job, and they exceeded the financial requirements by far.”
Finding curators has been a greater challenge than the county anticipated, and not just because of the finances. “We want curators to succeed,” Merrill says, and that not only requires a viable plan for how the structure would be used, but also that the plan would mesh with a location within a county park.
(The county has negotiated rental agreements on residences within its parks but outside the curatorship program, according to Merrill and Steve Ruble, a project administrator in the Public Works Department. Examples include cottages on the grounds of Rockwood Mansion leased to county police officers, whose presence provides an additional measure of security there during their off-duty hours.)
The county has been unable to find a resident curator willing to take on Ivyside, a farmhouse in Bechtel Park, along Naamans Road in Brandywine Hundred, or the Talley-Day House, a Victorian farmhouse built in 1847 that sits behind the Brandywine Hundred Library in Talley-Day Park, Merrill said.
With Ivyside, as with the Jester property, the county may have to pivot away from the resident curator model, and seek a different use, but parking limitations might keep the building from being transformed for office use, Ruble said.
Cartier, whose district includes Bechtel Park, doesn’t think parking would be an issue and says that the Claymont-based American Legion Post 18, which does not have a building of its own, would be interested in occupying the structure and making it available to other organizations but does not have the funds to cover renovation or rehabilitation costs. Such an arrangement, Cartier said, could meet another need since there are no public facilities available for community meetings along Naamans Road in his district.
Merrill recalls going with Cartier to a meeting with the American Legion group but said there have been no recent discussions.
No one has shown any interest in the Talley-Day House, which had been a regular target of vandals, Merrill says. Surrounded by trees and dense foliage, the boarded-up structure is barely visible, easily overlooked even by regular visitors to the park.
Merrill says that Tracy Surles, general manager of the Public Works Department, has talked with him about possibly offering other county-owned homes for lease through the resident curator program but there is no timeline for doing so.
He also says he knows of no plans to make the program more attractive to prospective curators, something that Durham, the councilwoman, thinks would be beneficial.
“As a private citizen, it’s almost impossible to get financing because you don’t own the property. We’re looking at ways we can tweak it,” she said, noting that the topic has been discussed in the Historic Preservation Working Group she established nearly two years ago.
If the curatorship program, as currently defined, is not functioning well, both Durham and Cartier believe the county would be better off using the model developed for the Jester Farmhouse: improving the property so it is usable, then leasing it to a nonprofit community organization. “It’s a win-win,” Durham says, echoing Merrill’s words from 2011. “The county is better off sharing costs [with a nonprofit] than having a property sit vacant for 30 years.”
Read more about the preservation of the Jester Farmhouse here.
The Jester story may also add momentum to another longstanding issue that Durham is working to correct. She recently introduced an ordinance that would require the county to place historic overlay zoning on any property that it acquires that if it is determined that the property would qualify for the designation. That change would add some controls to how a structure might be used, but it would not necessarily address a related concern: ensuring that the county maintain properties sufficiently to keep them from becoming candidates for demolition by neglect.
“It’s a little hypocritical,” Cartier says, for the county to impose fines on property owners for violations of property and building maintenance codes while the county is not taking steps to maintain all the historic properties that it owns.
Durham’s ordinance is currently in the review process. She expects it to come up for a vote in county council in the spring.