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Historic Achmester estate falls victim to 'demolition-by-neglect'

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Media

Over the past couple of years, contributor Larry Nagengast has delved into a variety of historic preservation efforts and issues in New Castle County, chronicling the various successes and failures to save buildings of historic value and give some a new lease on life.

This week, he picks up that coverage in Southern New Castle County, examining the fate of the nearly 200-year-old Achmester estate near Middletown, which appears on its way to being lost. But in this case the owner letting it slide into oblivion may surprise you.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss the fate of the historic Achmester estate

A crumbling piece of southern New Castle County’s history will soon be reduced to rubble, demolished after its owner for the past two decades made no attempt to preserve it.

The property’s owner: the county’s Department of Public Works.

The county’s Historic Review Board, an arm of the Land Use Department, approved a request to demolish the farmhouse known as Achmester and most of its associated structures, with some minor conditions, at its June 7 meeting.

The Achmester estate, nearly 200 years old, on Marl Pit Road north of Middletown, was the home of Richard Mansfield, a noted peach farmer and community leader. Mansfield, who purchased the property in 1819 and lived there until his death in 1846, was “a mid-nineteenth century ideal of the gentleman farmer – a man educated in books and practical experience – with close ties to both community and home,” according to the 1979 nomination of the property for the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination takes note of Mansfield’s high standing, citing his service as a commissioner of the Delaware Railway, brigadier general in the Delaware Militia and a founder of the Middletown Academy, one of the first schools in the area.

“Large, prosperous farms with Greek Revival peach mansions and other early farm complexes dominate the landscape” along Marl Pit Road, the 1979 nomination reads. “Very little in the way of new building has occurred here in [the 20th] century, leaving broad, unspoiled vistas of an area which has maintained its agricultural status to the present.”

At the time the nomination was written, a transformation of the Middletown area was beginning – from a mostly rural agricultural community into a replication of the suburban sprawl that characterized much of northern New Castle County.

While hundreds of acres of farmland in the area were sold to developers, Achmester fell to development in a different way. By the late 1990s the county was grappling with ideas for handling the sewage that would be generated by all the new homes being built in the area.

In 2001, the county acquired the estate, with plans to turn the farmland into the site of a spray-irrigation facility. At the time, a report to the Historic Review Board noted, the house was “already showing signs of deterioration … through neglect of its former owner.” The county never went through with its spray-irrigation plan, nor did it take steps to stabilize the house.

Nadine Burroughs, who said she has lived on Marl Pit Road near Achmester since 1986, said she has watched the structure’s steady deterioration. “If that were part of my property, New Castle County would be coming down on me, fining me,” she told the Historic Review Board during a hearing on May 24. “I’d like to say shame on you for leaving the property to go like that.”

Achmester, Middletown resident Alison Matsen said at the hearing, “is a poster child for demolition by neglect,” referring to the practice of property owners allowing structures with historic significance to deteriorate until they are virtually beyond repair.

“I’ve raised this subject with four different county executives. As I was fighting with Blenheim Homes [over Houston House], it was really hard for me to swallow that around the corner the county was doing the same damn thing. Now it has to be torn down…. It’s heartbreaking to see this happen."
New Castle County Councilman David Carter

The Achmester case troubled New Castle County Councilman David Carter, a Democrat who represents the Middletown area. In 2019 and 2020, he argued unsuccessfully against Blenheim Homes’ request to demolish the historic Houston House, a deteriorating farmhouse in Blenheim’s Village of Bayberry North community, not far from Achmester.

“I’ve raised this [Achmester] subject with four different county executives,” Carter told the Historic Review Board on May 24. “As I was fighting with Blenheim homes [over Houston House], it was really hard for me to swallow that around the corner the county was doing the same damn thing.”

The years of deterioration and neglect have taken their toll.

“Now it has to be torn down…. It’s heartbreaking to see this happen,” Carter said at the hearing.

In approving the demolition request, the Historic Review Board asked the Department of Public Works to consider signing a contract with an archaeologist for a basic survey to determine the likelihood of discovering artifacts from the 19th century. The survey could be performed after the demolition, the board said. The board also asked that the department consider restoring and maintaining a smokehouse and one of the barns on the property.

Dave Carter
An aerial view of the Achmester estate

The county does not have to follow those recommendations but, if it does not, it will have to wait nine months before demolishing the structures.

Once the buildings are demolished, the county is likely to lease the land for agricultural purposes, the board was told.

Achmester’s demise cannot be blamed on current county officials, Carter said. “This was financial, and a failure of leadership over many years.”

“People have been aware of its significance for a long time, but there was no political will to save it,” says Michael Emmons, assistant director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at the University of Delaware.

He recalls approaching the Historic Review Board about 10 years ago to ask about the property’s status. The response he received from the county’s preservation planner, he recalls, was “something like, ‘oh, it’s going to be demolished eventually.’”

“No one likes it when private developers or land owners go in to request a demolition permit for structures with historic significance. But it’s especially maddening when it’s our own government."
New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham

For years, preservation advocates have criticized demolition by neglect, especially when private-sector developers allow structures to deteriorate while planning to replace them with potentially lucrative commercial or residential projects.

“No one likes it when private developers or land owners go in to request a demolition permit for structures with historic significance,” says County Councilwoman Dee Durham, a Democrat from Brandywine Hundred regarded as one of the council’s strongest preservation advocates.

“But it’s especially maddening when it’s our own government” seeking the demolition permits, she adds, “because people expect government to be leading the way [in preservation]. It’s just a bigger slap in the face.”

“People wonder, ‘If our elected leaders won’t take action to preserve Delaware’s historic places, then why should its citizens?’” Emmons says. “It sends a horrible message.”

The problem, he notes, is hardly unique to New Castle County or even to Delaware. “It’s happening all over the country.”

In an effort to limit recurrences of the Achmester episode, Durham successfully sponsored legislation last year that increases the protection of any historically significant property that the county might acquire. The most important component of the new ordinance is that it requires the county to place historic overlay zoning on any property it acquires that has historic significance. The ordinance also requires annual inspections of these properties to ensure that they are not deteriorating as well an annual report to the Historic Review Board.

David Carter
A closer look at the damage to Achmester that has slowly taken place over years of neglect

“This doesn’t automatically guarantee” that properties will be preserved, “but it at least guarantees that the public will be reminded of this once or twice a year,” Durham says.

“It’s a fantastic thing that the ordinance was passed,” Emmons says.

But the new county ordinance does not protect historic structures on county property that had been acquired before the legislation was passed.

In the past decade, the county has spent nearly $11 million to restore historic structures, primarily at Glasgow Park and on the grounds of the Rockwood Mansion, county officials told the Historic Review Board. But, they said, they county also has a backlog of about $40 million in unscheduled deferred maintenance work. Some county-owned structures are essentially beyond repair, most notably the Talley House, nearly hidden in a wooded area behind the Brandywine Hundred Library in Talley-Day Park. The county estimates that repairing the Talley House would cost $3.1 million, and an architect has recommended that it be demolished.

In addition, the Historic Review Board heard demolition applications last month for two other government-owned properties that have some historic significance.

One is the state-owned New Castle County Workhouse, off Kirkwood Highway near Prices Corner, which was built in 1929 and served as the state’s first women’s prison. The building is now vacant. The state wants to demolish the building so it can expand the adjacent State Police Troop 6.

The other is Camp Wright, now owned by the county’s Department of Special Services, which seeks to demolish most of the buildings on the property on Mill Creek Road in Hockessin. From the late 19th century into the 1980s, several social services agencies operated an overnight camp for children from the Wilmington area on the site. Its previous owner, the West End Neighborhood House, sold it to the county in 2006 for $400,000. A construction company engaged by the county reported that the structures, most about 100 years old, would be too costly to repair.

The county currently plans to improve pedestrian and hiking trails through the property.

Emmons also points to the state-owned Kingston-Upon-Hull, on Kitts Hummock Road south of Dover and once owned by members of the John Dickinson family, which the Preservation Delaware nonprofit has labeled as “threatened.” The residence has been cited as a good example of the best quality of early 18th century Delaware brickwork.

“Elected officials and public servants don’t feel the political pressure until it’s too late,” Emmons says.

“With both the county council and the administration, as far as awareness, there’s a ways to go,” Carter says. “We need to learn from our mistakes, and hopefully we’re getting there.”

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