It will probably need a two-year gestation, but the historic Weldin House is expected to enjoy a rebirth that residents of the Penny Hill and Fox Point areas north of Wilmington will appreciate, this time as a meeting place for community organizations.
Renovations, for which the state has appropriated $1.35 million, are about to begin – first exterior, then interior – and should be complete by the end of 2022.
By then, the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, the house’s owner, expects to sign a lease agreement with a local organization, which would then have responsibility for day-to-day use of the building, pay the utility bills and take care of routine maintenance.
“It’s not a grandiose building. It’s pretty modest but it has enough space for community meetings,” says New Castle County Councilman John Cartier, D-Brandywine East, who formerly lived around the corner from the house and was among the neighbors who fought against its demolition nearly two decades ago.
The model for the Weldin House’s future use, according to Timothy Slavin, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, will likely be a state-owned historic structure four miles to the north, the Darley House in Claymont, the 19th-century home of illustrator Felix O.C. Darley where author Charles Dickens stayed for two weeks on his 1867 visit to the United States.
The division has been leasing the Darley House to the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation for about 10 years. Claymont Renaissance uses the building as its office and, in the past, has subleased space to a Claymont business owners association and the Claymont Historical Society, with the rent payments used to cover utility bills, according to Brett Saddler, Claymont Renaissance executive director.
The Darley House is available for use by community groups. Each Claymont-area civic association is invited to use it for their meetings once a year “and they almost always take us up on the offer,” Saddler says.
The state has not made a commitment to any potential lead tenant for the Weldin House, but Slavin said his division might want to set up a small office presence there. As one possible candidate, he mentioned the Eastern Brandywine Hundred Coordinating Council, a social welfare organization that assists in community development and preservation of historic sites. Last August the council donated $22,000 to the state to assist in the house’s restoration.
“We don’t necessarily need an office, but we can have meetings there, and we can go in and out every day” to provide a presence and a measure of security, says Terry Wright, chairman of the coordinating council. Some area residents have suggested creating a Brandywine Hundred museum on the site, and others have mentioned setting up an archive filled with records of local organizations and opening it up to researchers, he adds.
State Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte) said that community organizations like the Bellefonte Lions Club and “groups that help children in the area” would also receive consideration.
A selection process for choosing the lessee has not been established, she said.
Establishing lease arrangements that give community organizations a hand in maintaining state-owned properties is a preservation tactic that has succeeded in all three counties. Other partnerships include the Pencader Heritage Area Association at the Cooch House, near the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Cooch’s Bridge; the Delaware Nature Society leasing Abbott’s Mill in Milford; the Friends of Fenwick Lighthouse managing the lightkeeper’s house; and the Friends of Belmont Hall managing the restored 1773 home of Delaware Gov. Thomas Collins.
Belmont Hall was once a state conference center, Slavin said, but years before it had been a place where Smyrna-area residents would gather. About 12 years ago, he said, the state nurtured a relationship with a Friends group, which now manages the property and opens it to the public.
Arrangements like these are “a win-win,” Saddler says. “It’s historic preservation, it’s a helping hand for nonprofits, and public access makes it a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
Making historic sites accessible strengthens bonds to the community, Slavin says. “If a community can’t access a property, it won’t be given a chance to love it,” he says.
“What’s important here,” says Wright, referring to the Weldin House, “is that it’s up to the community, and the community wants it preserved.”