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Battlelines drawn in fight over preserving Wilmington’s historic Brown House

Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Plans call for the Brown House to be torn down to make way for townhomes on the property

The fate of another historic property is up in the air – this time in Wilmington’s Browntown neighborhood.

Residents and preservation advocates are fighting an effort to demolish the Brown House - which dates back to around 1820.

Contributor Larry Nagengast dives into this controversy and where things stand right now.

Preservation advocates and some residents of Wilmington’s Browntown neighborhood have joined forces to fight the demolition of the early 19th-century mansion that gave the community its name.

To succeed, they’ll have to overcome one of the most familiar adages in American government: You can’t fight City Hall.

The administration of Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said this week that it wants the Dr. John A. Brown House torn down, but it too faces an obstacle in getting its way: an approval from the city board that must approve demolition requests.

The controversy began last month when the Wilmington Housing Partnership proposed demolishing the mansion, sometimes known as The Anchorage, to pave the way for a private developer to build up to 40 townhouses in the neighborhood off Maryland Avenue in the southwest part of the city.

The Partnership, an insolvent nonprofit, was essentially shut down two years ago and the Wilmington city government has been attempting to dispose of its remaining assets. It had acquired the Brown House in March 2015. Other than the boarded-up windows and doors, there is no indication that the Partnership has made any effort to maintain the structure.

Credit Jane Katsnelson
This is the main grand staircase in the Brown House leading from the 1st floor central hall to the 2nd floor. Little appears to have been done to maintain the house.

The Partnership’s demolition application hit a snag, however, when the city’s Design Review and Preservation Commission, which must approve such requests, tabled action on the matter at its February meeting, citing a need for more information that is required under city law.

On Wednesday, John Rago, Purzycki’s deputy chief of staff, told Delaware Public Media in an email: “The Administration favors the demolition of the Brown Mansion and the construction of new townhomes. We are sensitive to the concerns of the local neighborhood as far as the density of the project. The Mayor and District Council Member have discussed the project and are working together to come up with something that is appropriate and beneficial for the community.”

City Councilwoman Yolanda McCoy, whose district includes Browntown, immediately questioned the statement. “The only thing that is accurate is that the mayor and I had a conversation yesterday [Tuesday],” she said, and that was before her scheduled meeting with a task force formed to preserve the mansion.

McCoy said she would prefer a solution that preserves the mansion and results in construction of fewer than 40 housing units. 

Officially, the next step in the process is up to the city’s Department of Real Estate and Housing, which is overseeing the Partnership’s dissolution. Robert Weir, the department head, also serves as the Partnership’s president. Rago said that the city and the Partnership will comply with requirements in the city code by giving the Design Review and Preservation Commission “documentary evidence … that other alternatives have been considered for the building.” Documents must include “evidence of attempts to sell the building … financial spreadsheets documenting the economic non-viability of maintaining the building … as well as fully developed architectural and site plans for the reuse of the site,” according to the city code.

Preservationists, residents unite

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Preservation Delaware Inc., working with area residents and preservationists, is setting up a task force to fight the demolition.

“When they heard of the demolition proposal, residents said, ‘this is the centerpiece of our community. This is what we’re named after,’” said Mike McGrath, Preservation Delaware president.

McGrath and others said the Partnership made a tactical mistake in filing its demolition application.

McGrath, a former planner for New Castle County, recalled the advice of the late James H. Gilliam Sr., the county’s first director of community development and housing, whose credo was “the first people you talked to were the people in the community.”

“That didn’t happen here,” he said.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
A view of the Browntown neighborhood surrounding the Brown House.

Browntown, the area bordered by Maryland Avenue, Beech Street, Interstate 95 and the city line, has been a neighborhood in transition for at least a generation. Known for its Polish community, it has lost many of its older homes in the last 20 years or so, according to Nancy Pierkowski, “age 60-plus,” who has spent her entire life in Browntown.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she says, older homes on larger lots would be bought by developers, torn down and replaced with blocks of townhouses. One of those homes, on Seventh Avenue downhill from the mansion, was owned by a farmer who raised chickens and kept a flock of pigeons – “a piece of country in the city,” she adds.

Today, Browntown has become a mix of older single-family and rowhomes, newer townhouses and a sprinkling of vacant lots awaiting redevelopment. The Brown House, minus the tall hedges that once surrounded it and the carriage house and other outbuildings that added to its stature, is the last link to the neighborhood’s heritage as an agricultural community annexed to Wilmington as part of the city’s post-Civil War industrial, commercial and residential expansion.

The basics of a plan

The latest redevelopment concept, which has not been fully fleshed out, calls for tearing down the Brown House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and building up to 40 townhouses on the .9-acre site and an adjacent vacant lot. Responding to a request for proposals placed by the Partnership last year, a developer has expressed interest in taking on the project, but Weir told the Design Review and Preservation Commission last month that the Partnership needs approval for the demolition before a developer would commit to moving forward with planning.

Earlier this month, McCoy arranged a Zoom meeting involving residents, preservationists, Weir and a representative of a builder, Ryan Homes, interested in the project. McCoy and other participants said that the builder’s representative stated that his company would not participate in the redevelopment if the mansion had to be preserved and fewer than 40 homes would be built.

Rago said Wednesday, via email, that the city favors building townhouses on the site and is aware of a developer who has proposed building the units.

"When they heard of the demolition proposal, residents said, 'this is the centerpiece of our community. This is what we're named after.'" -Preservation Delaware president Mike McGrath

Last year, when the Partnership solicited proposals for redevelopment, its request stated that the Partnership “prefers an adaptive reuse that will include preservation of the exterior” of the mansion.

The city has “not been able to identify any type of adaptive reuse,” Rago said. And last month Weir told the commission that restoring the mansion to usable condition would cost too much, about $1 million.

But preservationists dispute that estimate and are floating several ideas for adaptive reuse of the mansion.

When assessing vacant historic properties, developers frequently contend that the structures are beyond repair and secure rehabilitation appraisals that “always come in outrageously higher,” said Jane Katsnelson, a preservation expert who restored and now lives in the Woodstock mansion, about a mile and a half away in New Castle County’s Banning Park. Katsnelson’s work at Woodstock is considered the only success in the resident curatorship program the county created about a dozen years ago.

“Woodstock was estimated at $1.5 million. I did it for much less,” says Katsnelson, who has examined the interior of the Brown House. “I think they estimated $1 million. I could do it for around $200,000.”

The structure’s historic architecture and detailing are well preserved and “nobody has tried to vandalize it,” she says.

New ideas for an old home

Residents and preservationists indicate that opponents of the demolition have not yet coalesced on a plan for the property.

McCoy acknowledges that her constituents in the neighborhood fall into two camps: longtime residents familiar with the mansion’s history who want it preserved and relative newcomers who “don’t want to look at it in its current state any longer.”

“You can say ‘don’t tear it down,’ but you have to finish the sentence. You have to say, ‘don’t tear it down because [what],” says Vince Watchorn, a longtime Wilmington resident and researcher into the city’s history. “The neighborhood is more vibrant if it has a historic core” but, he says, “market forces” will ultimately determine the mansion’s fate.

“Historic preservation is often portrayed as an impediment to redevelopment, but it can be a significant positive factor,” says Michael Emmons, assistant director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design and a Preservation Delaware board member.

"You can say 'don't tear it down," but you have to finish the sentence. You have to say., 'don't tear it down because...'" - Wilmington resident and researcher Vince Watchorn

“The best historic preservation provides new jobs for old buildings,” he says.

Pierkowski says she hopes the mansion can be saved and transformed into a gathering place for the community and local youth. Since the Partnership acquired the old Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the neighborhood in 2010 and demolished the building several years later, Browntown’s community association has often had to hold its meetings outdoors, she says.

Some familiar with the structure say it could be upgraded for reuse as a large, single-family home. Others have suggested making into a multifamily residence. If the community center approach is taken, it could be configured to include second-floor living quarters for a resident curator.

Emmons, citing Dr. Brown’s interest in tending to the needs of the city’s poor and infirm residents, suggests that including affordable housing units as part of the overall redevelopment plan might be an appropriate remembrance.

“It sounds like a cliché, but we have to ask how we can turn this into a win-win situation, so the development gets done and the house gets preserved,” says McGrath, the Preservation Delaware president.

Credit Jane Katsnelson
According to the former owners, there were about 20 people living in the house in the 1930's and this downstairs parlor was part of the 1st floor apartments that their grandparents stayed in.

One possibility, he says, is using the building to display more than two centuries of Browntown’s history. “We have the African-American story, the Polish story, the abolitionist story, the march to Yorktown,” he says, making the case for a museum in the mansion.

“The solutions are numerous. The question is where is the interest in the market,” Emmons says.

But, he adds, demonstrating that preservationists are allowed to have friendly disagreements, while the community may have an interest in preserving and displaying its history, “a museum is not a sustainable model.”

Regardless of that outcome, residents remain concerned about the impact of additional housing in a community whose main entrance is Seventh Avenue, a narrow, one-way street. On-street parking and congestion, especially during peak traffic hours, could be major problems, McCoy says.

Adding some housing units might benefit the neighborhood, she admits, but she worries about the city making hasty decisions.

“I don’t want to slow progress,” she says, “but I’m taking a slowdown approach, and I think Real Estate and Housing [Department] should slow down as well.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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