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Final act in Forwood School's demise nears

After years of crumbling, the historic Forwood School, a landmark in central Brandywine Hundred since 1799, will soon be tumbling … all the way to the ground, and then it will rise again.

In February, the New Castle County Council approved a rezoning of the 11.5 acre site on which the old school sits – along Silverside Road just west of the Shoppes of Graylyn – to permit the developer, Setting Properties, to go ahead with planning a mixed-use shopping center and residential subdivision there.

The old school’s demise had been predicted two years ago, when Setting Properties submitted its plans to the county’s Land Use Department. At the time, preservation advocate James Hanby, a descendant of both the Hanby and Forwood families – two of Brandywine Hundred’s oldest, said “it’s custom, not mortar” that’s holding the school’s stones in place.

In its current state, the school provides a classic example of what historic preservationists call “demolition by neglect,” the failure by a property’s owners to maintain a structure until in deteriorates to the point that there is no option but to demolish it.

Hanby blames the deterioration of the structure on his ancestors, members of the Forwood family, who owned the building until Setting acquired the property in 2014.

“If I had let my house get into that state, the county would have told me to fix it up and cut the grass,” said Carolyn Roland, a real estate agent who specializes in historic properties and lives in nearby South Graylyn Crest. “But the Forwoods seemed to get away with the county not saying anything.”

Credit Larry Nagengast/Delaware Public Media
Tarps cover the deteriorating roof at the Forwood School

Roland is disturbed that government officials allowed this property, and others in the county, to fall into such disrepair. “I’m going to Europe next month, and I’m going to see buildings that are 1,000 years old,” she says. “Somehow, they manage to preserve them.”

Two years ago, the county did create a $200,000 fund to pay for repairs to sites designated as historic – and then bill their owners for the costs – but the measure did not apply to the old school because its former owners had not sought a historic designation for it.

After Setting purchased the property, Hanby explored other options for the old school, including possibly moving the building about a half mile north, to the site of a current Brandywine School District elementary school that bears the Forwood name. He has had experience with at least one similar effort. A generation ago he helped engineer the move of the historic Brandywine Grange building from the Concord Pike median strip south of Silverside Road to its current site, about a quarter-mile east on Brandywine Boulevard.

“If I won the lottery,” Hanby says, “I’d take it and rebuild it myself.” Barring those long odds, the only other option would be for a generous benefactor to write a check, “but no one has come forward with that offer.”

How much longer the school will remain standing remains unknown. Having weathered several heavy storms in March, it’s not likely to fall down, Hanby says.

And the developer won’t be tearing it down until he wins approval from the county of an updated plan for the site, which will be known as Forwood Commons.  The original plan called for 38 townhouses and retail spaces for a bank, restaurant, drug store, coffee shop, a couple other stores and a small dog park. An updated version of the plan will be submitted to the county in 30 to 60 days, developer Joseph Setting said this week.

A key part of the plan, Setting says, is the construction of a replica of the old school, as it looked in 1799, using stones salvaged from the crumbling structure.

He said he has hired Victor Scalise, who did the masonry work for the Enchanted Woods children’s garden at Winterthur, to dismantle the old school and build the exterior of the replica.

Setting hopes Scalise can begin his work in late summer and complete it by the end of the year.

Credit Larry Nagengast/Delaware Public Media
A closer look at the crumbling Forwood School

The old school, in its current state, has lost much of its historic character. Although its 1799 date stone is still evident, the building was enlarged from its original single room in 1845 to its current 40- by 22-foot dimension.

It remained in use as a public school until 1939, making it the longest-serving public school in Delaware, and, according to Hanby, it remains the oldest school still standing in the continental United States.

But for the Great Depression, Hanby says, the Forwood School’s history might have taken a different turn. In researching the building’s history, he learned that in the 1920s, when it was common in Delaware to have one school per district, voters in the area served by the school voted overwhelmingly in 1927 – actually, there was only a handful of voters and the final tally was 8 to 1 – to plan to build a new school for 112 pupils, at a cost of $16,000 to $20,000, with residents paying about $8,500 and the state picking up the tab for the rest.

“Evidently, even in the 1920s, there was a school bureaucracy in Delaware, and before the state could approve the appropriation, the Depression hit,” Hanby says. State funding was never authorized, and a new school was never built.

Then, in 1937, Hanby says, voters in the Forwood district approved merging into the larger and adjoining Alfred I. du Pont School District, only to have Alfred I. du Pont voters turn down the proposal by a 52-3 margin.

Two years later, the school would close.

Then, in 1947, dormers were added and the doors and windows were changed as the structure was converted to residential use. Members of the Forwood family lived on site or rented the property into the 1990s.

The building, vacant for more than 20 years, has steadily deteriorated. Over time, Hanby says, “it became a hangout for people doing some nefarious things.”

Credit Larry Nagengast/Delaware Public Media
Doors are boarded up to keep people and animals out of the building.

Today, the doors and windows are now boarded up, tarps cover the rotting roof and beams and several large holes in the exterior walls are easily visible.

When the building is dismantled, the 1799 date stone will be stored for safekeeping, and then mounted above the front door of the replica, Setting says.

While the rest of the project is under construction, the replica building will serve as a construction and leasing office, he says.

Afterwards, the interior will be fitted out to resemble its 1799 appearance, with plaques mounted on the walls to tell the story of the school and the surrounding area.

It will be open to the public by appointment, and for special activities several times a year, Setting says. Also, he says students from the current Forwood Elementary School will be able to walk to the replica to learn more about how children were educated in the 19th century.

Because much of the site will be a construction zone later this year, Setting is planning an opening ceremony for the replica building on a still-to-be-determined date in 2019, which would mark the 220th anniversary of the opening of the original school.

Hanby regrets having to acknowledge that his Forwood ancestors played a significant role in the downfall of a historic site, especially one that bears their name, but he believes Setting’s plan is the most sensible approach under the circumstances.

“It’s the best solution to a horrible situation,” he says. “If five generations from now, my descendants can [look at the replica and] say, ‘this is part of our family history,’ then I’m OK with that.”

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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