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Wilmington's historic Brown House gets a reprieve

Vince Watchorn
Brown town residents and preservation advocates rally outside the John A. Brown Mansion on April 21.

Wilmington city officials have dropped their bid to demolish a historic mansion in Browntown and replace it with a development of up to 40 townhouses.

In an emailed message Thursday to members of the John A. Brown Mansion Task Force, Herb M. Inden, the city’s director of planning and development, said “demolition is not currently being considered for this property [and] we do not have any developer interest that we are considering at this time.”

Inden’s message was sent a day after about 35 Browntown residents and preservation advocates met outside the mansion on Seventh Avenue to rally in support of their efforts.

“We are interested in your ideas for adaptive reuse as well as housing ideas for the surrounding property, and of course, how this all could be funded,” Inden wrote.

“This is our first win. They’re willing to discuss with us,” said Vince Watchorn, a member of the task force, which formed in the wake of a February hearing of the city’s Design Review and Preservation Commission in which city officials sought approval for demolishing the mansion as the first step toward a redevelopment plan that could lead to the construction of townhouses on the site. After hearing concerns from residents and preservationists and noting that the city had not met all requirements of the law, the commission deferred action on the city’s request.

The task force, Watchorn said, is a collaboration of individuals with interrelated priorities. Some want the mansion preserved because of its history, others are concerned about the impact of a major construction project in the neighborhood, and others would like to see the mansion transformed into a facility for community use. Members are not opposed to construction of some new housing, but they do not support anything near the 40 units previously contemplated by the city, he said.

On March 31, the task force, organized with the support of the Preservation Delaware nonprofit, sent a letter to Mayor Mike Purzycki, members of City Council and an array of city, New Castle County and state officials. The letter stated that the group wanted to “encourage a design that includes the mansion in a format that is part of a larger vision.” The letter cited three distinct concerns: historic preservation, respect for the needs and interests of Browntown residents and making the mansion the centerpiece of a revitalized community.

“Our hope is a win-win-win solution that will work for Browntown, the city budget, and the preservation of this important historical resource,” Watchorn wrote to Inden on Thursday, on behalf of the task force. 

“We’ve stepped back after listening to previous concerns,” John Rago, Purzycki’s deputy chief of staff, said Friday. “We are open to ideas about preserving the mansion as well as housing proposals that are compatible with neighborhood needs. This effort is focused entirely on the best way to preserve and strengthen a proud city neighborhood.”

The mansion, built about 200 years ago, was named “The Anchorage,” by its second owner, John Gallagher, a Navy captain who served in the War of 1812. The Browntown neighborhood derives its name from the mansion’s fourth owner, Dr. John A. Brown, who lived there from 1848 to 1856 and was known as a humanitarian who operated hospitals and was dedicated to improving the lives of the physically and mentally ill.

In his message, Inden hinted that the city would like to avoid delays in developing new plans for the site. “We do not want this property to languish like Gibraltar still is,” he wrote, referring to the former H. Rodney Sharp mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington. Its condition has deteriorated since it last had permanent residents in 1991. Preservation Delaware owned the property from 1997 to 2010 but was unable to put together a successful redevelopment plan.


Presevation Delaware Brown House Letter by Delaware Public Media on Scribd

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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