Long-running efforts to forge a future for the Weldin House bear fruit
Last week, contributor Larry Nagengast highlighted a historic preservation victory in New Castle County – the Jester Farmhouse while highlighting some of the issues keeping the state, and specifically New Castle County, from seeing more success stories.
But there are other success stories. This week, Larry looks at another one, the Weldin House, detailing how it was saved and what its future holds.
The 230-year-old Weldin House, a landmark at the top of Penny Hill north of Wilmington and a reminder of days when there were probably more cows than people in Brandywine Hundred, will soon be prepared for a new life, this time as a gathering place for residents of the community that helped save it.
The house, now owned by the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, sits on the northeast corner of the intersection of Philadelphia Pike, Marsh Road and Lore Avenue. It fell into disrepair in the late 20th century and became a target for developers in the early 2000s, when residents rallied to prevent its demolition to make way for the construction of a 7-Eleven convenience store and gas station on the site.
Earlier this month, New Castle County’s Historic Review Board approved the state’s plans for exterior restoration of the house, determining that the work would ensure an appropriate interpretation of the structure’s history. The approval was needed before the repairs could move forward.
“This house has been through hell and back, and back again,” said John Brook, a member of the Historic Review Board after the panel’s 6-0 vote of approval. “I’m really pleased to see something positive. This is an important house for our history.”
The state’s current plan, following exterior and interior restoration work, is to repurpose the house as “a shared community meeting place,” according to Timothy Slavin, state director of historical and cultural affairs.
“What had been going on was demolition by neglect,” says Terry Wright, chairman of the Eastern Brandywine Hundred Coordinating Council, a social welfare organization that assists in community development and the preservation of historic sites.
The Weldin House, believed to have been built around 1790, went through four distinct phases of construction and additions, according to a history prepared in 2005 by the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD).
Between 1780 and 1820, the house’s main two-room, two-story block was built. By 1854, a one-story stone addition had been built. Between 1854 and 1901, a two-story frame service wing was built and a second story was built atop the earlier addition. The service wing was expanded during the 20th century. The only significant recent work on the house was the replacement of the roof two years ago.
In considering restorations, Slavin says, “we compare periods of significance with the needs of today. If extraneous additions are problematic, we take them off.”
The restoration plan, designed by the Bernardon architectural firm, will bring the house’s exterior back to its appearance around 1890. The work entails dismantling and reconstructing a porch, restoring wood windows and doors, masonry repairs and repointing, cleaning exterior stone, replacing a large first-floor front window, replacing wood shingle siding on the second floor and installing new wood shutters and copper gutters, downspouts and flashing.
Read more about what the Weldin House's future will look like here.
Planned work on the rear of the house includes removing post-1900 additions and enclosing an addition built around 1875; reconstructing exterior perimeter wools and roof; installing new siding; salvaging and restoring wood windows, constructing a new covered side entrance porch and several other repairs.
A century of Weldin owners
“There’s a lot of history in any home that stays in the same family for four or five generations,” says historian Kim R. Burdick, who formerly lived in the area, and that is true of the Weldin House.
Before the Revolutionary War, the land on which the Weldin House sits was owned by John Allmond. He died in 1772, leaving the land to his son, John Jr., whose sister, Elizabeth, married a farmer named George Weldin, who, according to the CHAD history, lived “on a farm near the Marsh Road and on the ‘King’s Highway,’” the name then used for Philadelphia Pike, in 1781. The house was apparently built by George Weldin, but John Allmond Jr. remained as the owner of the farm until 1805. Allmond Jr. left the property to his mother, Barbara Reed, who died two years later and left the farm to her daughter, Elizabeth Weldin, and grandson John Weldin, making Elizabeth and John the first Weldins to own the house.
"There's a lot of history in any home that stays in the same family for four or five generations." - Historian Kim Burdick
By 1816, John Weldin was operating a wheelwright’s shop on the site, and the farm had grown to 25 acres. Between 1820 and 1854, John Weldin built a one-story addition to the house, and he also expanded his agricultural holdings to about 40 acres.
In 1854, John Weldin sold the farm to his son, William Weldin, who expanded the farm to 102 acres by 1880. The farm, as well as another owned by the neighboring Talley family, may have extended as far east as the Delaware River, Burdick says. William Weldin and his wife, Louisa, had nine children, prompting a need for several additions during the period. At his death in 1893, New Castle County tax assessments listed his estate as including “a stone house and a frame house,” an indication of the additions that had been made to the second story and in the rear, according to the CHAD history.
Louisa Weldin inherited the house from her husband and lived there, with her two youngest sons, until 1907, when she sold it to Mary E. Veasey. She and her husband, Dr. Benjamin R. Veasey, made extensive additions and alterations during their ownership, which ended in 1940.
The house, the CHAD history states, “has proven to have a complex history [and] adapted to the changing needs of its occupants.
Over the next 60 years or so, the house changed hands several times, with its condition deteriorating over time. Nancy Leah Dunlap, who has lived next door since the mid-1990s, says the last owner was Elsie Herrington, who left the house to her daughter, Carol Harrington.
The preservation effort
Carol Harrington wasn’t interested in moving into the house and tried to sell it, Dunlap recalls. In the early 2000s, the Southland Corporation, owners of the 7-Eleven chain, expressed interest in the site, neighbors quickly organized. Dunlap, along with Michele Reed, Paul McCorkle and Stuart Watson, created a nonprofit called Friends of Penny Hill and gained the attention of state and county lawmakers representing the area.
“I was in the house about three times during the effort to preserve it,” recalls Dave Ennis, the longtime Republican state representative for the area. “It was in sad shape when I was in it.”
"This house has been through hell and back, and back again. I'm really pleased to see something positive." - John Brook, New Castle County Historic Review Board
The state Department of Transportation became involved and, after raising concerns about how the proposed convenience store and gas station would impact the intersection of Philadelphia Pike, Lore Avenue and Marsh Road, purchased the property for $700,000 in 2003. At about the same time, New Castle County placed a historic zoning overlay on the site, effectively preventing any owner from moving or demolishing the house.
But one rescue success wasn’t enough.
In 2005, after soliciting proposals for the site, DelDOT sold the property for $52,000 to Sycamore Development Group, which hoped to rehab the house and use it as an office for a financial services business. “They made a lot of pie-in-the-sky promises,” Dunlap says, “but they didn’t do much more than put a tarp on the roof.”
Then the recession hit in 2008 and, Dunlap says, the developers “decided it wasn’t worth it to follow through.”
After a couple of years of seeing little progress, the neighbors rallied again, with Reed leading the way.
“Michele was like the Energizer bunny. We’d go all night with meetings,” Dunlap recalls.
“She was the cheerleader for the residents who lived at the top of Lore Avenue,” says Ennis, the former state representative.
By 2010 there had been some changes on the political front. John Cartier, once a neighbor of the house and a participant in the first rescue, had moved to a home farther north off Philadelphia Pike and had become the county councilman representing the area. After Ennis retired and two successors served briefly, Debra Heffernan, who also lives near the house, was elected as the area’s state representative in 2010.
“Michele was the one who spearheaded the effort. She was a powerful voice who got people listening, and she connected with both county and state government,” Heffernan says.
Reed kept the pressure on and DelDOT reacquired the property from the developers in October 2017.
But the house wasn’t exactly vacant, civic leader Wright recalls. “A family of raccoons got in, and decided it was the right house for them, and they set up camp in there,” he says, adding “Raccoons poop.”
DelDOT, Wright says, “had to send in people with hazmat suits to clean up the mess.”
The agency did manage to keep out squatters and vandals, and paid to put on a new roof, but historic preservation was hardly its specialty.
According to Wright and Cartier, Heffernan then took the lead, successfully arranging to have $750,000 included in the state’s bond bill for Fiscal Year 2020 to pay for exterior restoration and for the transfer of $600,000 previously allocated to DelDOT to the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs when that agency took ownership of the Weldin House in October 2019.
With a little more than $1.3 million available, Heffernan says, the state is ready to move ahead with the restoration.
All the work, both exterior and interior, should be completed by the end of 2022, Slavin says.
As a finishing touch to the project, some of the supporters of the Weldin House rescue have one more idea: They would like to honor the efforts of Michele Reed, who died of cancer in December 2018.
“It’s kind of a shame that she didn’t live to see it finally saved,” Wright says.
The site is 1.3 acres, so there should be room for some sort of memorial.
“I’d like to see a small park, and name it after Michele Reed,” Heffernan says.