Delaware Public Media

Preserving the past: The state of historic preservation in Delaware

Jan 29, 2016

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, preservationists in Delaware are savoring their victories, lamenting their losses and girding themselves for their next battle.

The Claymont Stone School was saved, and so were Tweed’s Tavern in Hockessin and the West Brandywine Grange in Talleyville, not to mention to 40 or so Sussex structures, all from the 18th and 19th centuries, that were moved to Lewes to create the community called Shipcarpenter Square.

But the Kux/Alrich House in Port Penn is gone, and so is the Murphy House near Alfred I. du Pont’s Nemours estate. It’s hard to remember many of the historic structures that have disappeared, preservationists say, because they’re easily forgotten once they’re gone.

“If it’s not on somebody’s radar, if it’s not of community concern, they just gradually disappear,” says Michael DiPaolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society.

“We’ve saved a lot. Sometimes we forget how much we’ve been able to preserve,” says historian Kim R. Burdick, who lives as resident curator in the state-owned Hale-Byrnes House, where George Washington and his top aides held a council of war in September 1777 just before the Battle of the Brandywine.

“There’s a tendency in Delaware to say that they knock everything down, but they don’t,” she says. “We’ve done a pretty good job at saving stuff, but we like to whine a lot.”

For preservationists, the challenges are structures considered vernacular, not spectacular.

“Even the little houses tell us a lot about our past,” says Dee Durham, a founder and former member of the virtually dormant Preservation Delaware organization.

In the 1990s, for example, state support facilitated the transfer of the 1844 Gibraltar mansion in Wilmington from the estate of du Pont family heir H. Rodney Sharp Jr. to Preservation Delaware. The Blue Ball barn, a Nemours outbuilding along Concord Pike, was acquired by the state and restored as part of land acquisition for the widening of Concord Pike and Route 141 when to accommodate the expansion of AstraZeneca more than a decade ago.

“We get hyper-excited when we save things like Gibraltar. The problem comes with the preservation and interpretation of properties that have to do with what the rest of us are,” says James Hanby, a descendant of two prominent Brandywine Hundred families, the Hanbys and the Forwoods, who was instrumental arranging the 1999 move of the West Brandywine Grange building from the median strip on Concord Pike to a vacant lot 300 yards east of the highway.

Now Hanby finds himself in the middle of a percolating controversy related to the Forwood School, built by his ancestors in 1799 just west of the Shoppes of Graylyn center at Marsh and Silverside roads.

The old stone building, which continued as a public school until 1939, was the longest-serving public school in Delaware and is the oldest school still standing in the continental United States, Hanby says.

Setting Properties Inc. purchased the school site from the Forwood family two years ago and wants to build a mixed-use retail-office-residential complex there. Developer Joseph Setting expects to file his plans with New Castle County’s Land Use Department next week. When he offered preliminary plans to area residents at a community meeting last June, some complained that he planned to tear down the old school and use the salvaged stone to build a smaller replica in its place.

“It’s definitely worth saving,” says Carolyn Roland, a real estate agent specializing in historic homes who lives nearby.

“To knock down something that has such deep roots in Brandywine Hundred, that’s just stupid,” Burdick says.

However, the talk about saving the building may have come too late.

Setting, Hanby and Burdick agree that the old school may be a victim of what preservationists call “demolition by neglect,” as the former owners let the school deteriorate to the point where it is virtually beyond repair. A tarp covers the dilapidated roof and Hanby says “it’s custom, not mortar” that is holding the stones in place.

Learn More about plans to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act here

Long before Setting purchased the property, Roland and Hanby recall, the Forwoods told area civic leaders that they planned to maintain the building , but nothing was done to hold them to their promise. “When they said they were willing to preserve it, we should have gotten the county to put a ‘historic zone overlay’ on the site,” says Hanby, who once served on the county’s Historic Review Board. That designation would not prevent the building’s demolition, but it would force a developer to go through extra hoops, he says.

As it stands now, Setting needs no one’s permission to demolish the old school, and he has an engineer’s report which states that the building, which has no foundation, is not structurally sound.

“The only way we can do anything with it is to dismantle it and rebuild,” he says.

Hanby agrees. “As a Forwood descendant, I’m attached to it, and there’s a great history there, but …” he says, his voice trailing off. Setting, he believes, is trying to respect the interests of the community by using the original stone to build a 20- by 22-foot reproduction of the school as it looked in 1810 as part of his plan for the site.

The Forwood School is just the latest example of “demolition by neglect,” which occurs, preservationists say, because state and local laws don’t have sufficient teeth to prevent owners of properties with historic significance from letting them run down.

“County code inspectors just look at structural things and say ‘you have to fix it or tear it down,’” Hanby says. There has to be a process, he says, that permits building inspectors to say “this is a historic structure and something should be done to prevent further deterioration.”

For good examples of preservation successes, Burdick points to Claymont, Hockessin and Lewes.

Claymont enjoyed two victories in the 1990s, the restoration of the Darley House and the preservation of the Old Stone School.

The Darley House, home of noted 19th-century illustrator Felix O.C. Darley, was largely a private undertaking by Ray and Judith Hester, who purchased the property in 1991, restored it and ran a bed-and-breakfast there until they retired and moved to South Carolina in 2005. The state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs took over the property and did additional restoration work. The building is now home to the Claymont Renaissance redevelopment program and the Darley Arts Center.

The Old Stone School, across Darley Road from the Darley House, was built around 1805 on land donated by Colonial patriot John Dickinson and served as a school for 120 years. It later became the community’s library, until suffering serious damage in a 1988 ice storm. In 1995, area residents created the Friends of Claymont Stone School, rallied the community and raised the funds to restore the building, which is now used for educational programs and community activities, according to Riva Brown, education director of the Friends group.

The Claymont examples illustrate the importance of two primary ingredients in successful preservation efforts: private owners who recognize the significance of historic properties and dedicated community members organized into a Friends group to press for donations from government, foundations and individuals.

Hockessin has had a string of successes, most notably the preservation, relocation and restoration of Tweed’s Tavern, an 18th-century inn where George Washington once dined. Its demolition was threatened in the 1990s by a state plan to widen the intersection of Limestone and Valley roads. Hearings before New Castle County’s Historic Review Board slowed the demolition process. Historical societies intervened and attracted the attention of state. The state Department of Transportation eventually sent archaeologists to the site, where they found more than 2,000 artifacts, according to Joe Lake, president of the Hockessin Historical Society. DelDOT Secretary Nathan Hayward eventually became personally involved, meeting regularly with the historical society, and ultimately arranging to have the tavern moved twice.

It now sits in a park on Valley Road, a short distance east of Limestone Road. The Hockessin Historical Society owns the building and broke ground this week on a meeting and exhibit center next door to the tavern.

In Sussex County, the Lewes Historical Society has preserved the old Midway School, built in 1898 on what is now Route 1, near the Midway Presbyterian Church. The building was used as a school until the 1930s, sat vacant for a while, and was moved about a quarter-mile south by the McGee family, which used it as an outbuilding for their farm.

The historical society tried to acquire the building as early as 1982, DiPaolo says, but, for unknown reasons, the transaction wasn’t completed until 1999, when it was moved to the corner of Second and Shipcarpenter streets. The old school is the society’s largest single interior space, and is used for meetings, educational programs and lectures.

“Ninety-nine percent of the original building remains,” DiPaolo says, including its fish-scale shingles, bead-board, chair rails and even a slate blackboard.

One block west of the historical society is Shipcarpenter Square, a community of historic buildings moved to the site beginning in the early 1980s.The project, led by investor David Dunbar and restoration carpenter Jack Vessels, “rode the 1980s wave of preserving early American architecture,” DiPaolo says.

Not every effort is successful. Preservationists were “late to the game” when they found out that the Nemours Foundation planned to demolish the 1840s Murphy Farmhouse, which they thought they had been saved when DelDOT sold it to Nemours with a deed restriction requiring its preservation. Nemours changed its mind and got DelDOT to rewrite the deed restriction. The house was torn down four years ago. “Once they made up their mind, it was difficult to convince them to change,” Durham says.

“Something we thought was a success turned into a failure,” Hanby adds.

The Aldrich-Kux house in Port Penn met a similar fate in 2014, demolished by the Delaware Wildlands conservation group after it couldn’t find anyone willing to move the 250-year-old farmhouse to another location.

Preservation, DiPaolo says, “is about having the opportunity to pass our history down to the next generation.”

In some ways, he says, “we’re ahead of the game … but we still have a lot of fighting to do.”