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Enlighten Me: Preserving the 180-year-old Buttonwood home

Buttonwood home exterior
Larry Nagengast
Buttonwood home exterior

Buttonwood is a 180-year-old riverfront “summer home” in the City of New Castle and is associated with a 19th century Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice.

But it has fallen into disrepair and faces several obstacles to avoiding demolition by neglect.

In this week’s Enlighten Me, contributor Larry Nagengast explains these obstacles as part of his ongoing examination of historic preservation efforts and issues in New Castle County.

Contributor Larry Nagengast explains the obstacles in preserving a 180-year-old Buttonwood home in the City of New Castle.

Few places in Delaware take their history more seriously than in the City of New Castle, so it seems only natural that efforts are beginning to prevent a 180-year-old riverfront “summer home” from falling victim to demolition by neglect.

The campaign to save Buttonwood, a home associated with James Booth Sr., a 19th-century chief justice of Delaware’s Supreme Court, is new and it’s not clear where it will lead. “We need to get some energy on it, get some more eyes on it,” says organizer Paul Camponelli, whose father and grandfather both served on New Castle’s city council.

The “perfect scenario,“ in Camponelli’s mind, would be to “rehabilitate the building, transfer its ownership to the New Castle Historical Society or another nonprofit, and connect it to the city’s historic district” through a walking and bicycle trail along the Delaware River.

It’s not going to be easy to make that happen, as there are multiple obstacles. Topping the list are three interrelated concerns: location, ownership and accessibility. And, even if those hurdles are overcome, there are the not-so-small matters of developing a viable plan for adaptive reuse and finding a way to cover restoration costs.

None of that deters Camponelli, who is steadily building a network of allies.

One of them, Michael Emmons, assistant director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD) at the University of Delaware and a vice president of the Preservation Delaware nonprofit, says that building this network is “a critical phase” in the preservation effort.

Buttonwood, while structurally sound in many aspects, is indeed “in an active state of deterioration,” Emmons says.

But it’s also starting to attract attention. After touring the site on June 6, Emmons posted a collection of photos on CHAD’s Facebook page. “We got the most shares, likes and comments of any of our postings,” he said.

Location, location, location

In the first half of the 19th century Buttonwood would have been a real estate agent’s dream. About a half-mile north of then-bustling New Castle, it offered unobstructed views of shipping traffic on the Delaware as well as the river’s New Jersey shoreline. Its main floor features four large parlors, two on each side of a center hall and extending from the front to the rear of the mansion.

The location made Buttonwood an ideal getaway destination, says Michael Connolly, executive director of the New Castle Historical Society, while acknowledging that “today, it seems kind of funny to say that a place a couple of blocks away from town was considered ‘out in the country.’”

Connolly, Emmons and others pointed out that, in that era, many of New Castle’s leading families had second homes just outside of town that were used as summer escapes or, in some cases, had acreage leased to tenant farmers.

Its Greek Revival design and four parlors made Buttonwood “a pretty grand house in its day … quite elegant … an open concept for its time,” and likely suitable for fine entertaining, Connolly says.

Paul Camponelli at Buttonwood
Larry Nagengast
Paul Camponelli at Buttonwood

Today, however, Buttonwood’s location could be considered less than ideal, thanks to construction of two business complexes north of the historic district but still within New Castle’s city limits. Buttonwood sits at the southern end of the River Edge Business Park, whose entrance is just south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Reaching the mansion by car requires a drive of about a mile through the business park. Between the historic district and Buttonwood sits the Twin Spans Business Park, so creating access to Buttonwood from the historic district would require securing an easement from Twin Span’s owners to build a pathway along the river.

A related concern is that the mansion itself is no longer at its original location. As the River Edge park was built, the mansion’s final residents moved out and the structure was moved 200 to 300 feet to the southeast to facilitate construction of a warehouse now occupied by Zenith Home Products. Because the structure has been moved, it may be harder to secure recognition on, for example, the National Register of Historic Places, Emmons says. However, Emmons and Camponelli say, the fact that care was taken to move the building in 1996 shows that the business park’s developers recognized its historic significance.

Ownership of the building is another hurdle in restoration.

Kevin Orcutt, Zenith’s manager of safety and environmental affairs, says the Zenith site, which includes the warehouse and the mansion, has changed ownership several times in the last 25 years. Zenith’s landlord is now STAG Industrial Inc., a Boston-based real estate investment trust that owns 558 buildings in other states but only the Zenith site in Delaware. “They’re kind of a remote owner,” Orcutt says.

The property owners of the late 1990s were interested in preserving the mansion, but they are no longer on the scene and subsequent owners have done little beyond periodically cutting the grass and making repairs when brought to their attention, Orcutt and Camponelli say.

“They just have to do minimal maintenance, make sure it’s not deteriorating,” says Jeffrey Bergstrom, New Castle’s building and zoning officer.

Orcutt says he isn’t aware of STAG’s plans, if any, for the mansion, but, given its location adjacent to wetlands, he doesn’t see how it could be of any development value to STAG.

Rob Hawkins, STAG’s vice president for asset management, did not respond to requests for comment.

A blurred history

According to James Meek, a New Castle historian, Buttonwood “was never a heavily important part of New Castle’s history, but it was a relaxation site for the Booth family.”

All the details of Buttonwood’s history are not clear, especially those that relate to James Booth Sr., who not only was Delaware’s chief justice but also a state legislator, an abolitionist and secretary at the state constitutional conventions in 1776 and 1792. A 1996 study by the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering (now CHAD), considered by locals as the most definitive history of the site, states that Booth acquired the farmland before he died in 1828, and most likely before an 1816 tax assessment. At that time, the UD study notes, Booth owned at least three farms in the area, all containing brick dwellings and all occupied by tenants.

Although another author suggested that Booth built Buttonwood before 1828, and perhaps even in the late 1700s, the UD researchers said their architectural review indicates that the mansion was erected in the late 1830s or early 1840s. If that estimate is correct, Buttonwood was most likely built by Molton C. Rogers, who took ownership of the property in 1836. Rogers, born in Sussex County but a resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was the brother-in-law of Booth’s daughter Maria.

The Rogers family owned the farm, including Buttonwood, a tenant house and several outbuildings, until it was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1879 to settle outstanding debts, according to the UD report.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several steel mills were built north and south of the historic district and Buttonwood and its adjacent farm become the property of what would eventually become Lukens Steel. In 1938, according to Bob Tjaden, a former New Castle resident, members of his family secured a 99-year lease from Lukens, beginning a tenure as tenant farmers that would last nearly 60 years. His aunt, uncle and grandparents would live either in the mansion or the tenant house throughout that period, raising chickens, pigs and cows at first, then transitioning to growing corn, soybean and other cereal crops, Tjaden says.

As teenagers, Tjaden and his cousins frequently hunted on the grounds, with rabbits, quail and pheasants their primary prey.

Historic design

While the mansion’s relocation and the blurred history of its association with the Booth family might be viewed as negatives to some preservation purists, the 1996 UD report nonetheless labels Buttonwood as “a significant example of the type of rural dwelling associated with residents of the town of New Castle who owned both urban and rural residences.”

Buttonwood Interior
Larry Nagengast
Buttonwood Interior

Interior features include Greek Revival trim, double-leaf doors between the parlors and marble fireplace surrounds. The four upstairs rooms have a layout similar to the parlors below and each has its own fireplace.

“Clearly the house retains architectural integrity and demonstrates its function as a secondary residence used primarily for entertainment,” the 1996 report states.

But 1996 is more than a quarter-century ago, and Buttonwood now needs work.

The roof is deteriorating, the windows and doors (now boarded up) need restoration and new stairways for the front and back entrances must be built, Camponelli says. Some of the brickwork needs repair and building a new wooden porch on the length of the rear wall would recreate the mansion’s original appearance.

For a home that hasn’t been occupied for 25 years, the interior is in relatively good condition, according to Camponelli, Emmons and Connolly. They caution, however, that if the roof isn’t repaired soon, there’s potential for significant damage to the interior walls and floors.

“If there’s any water infiltration, it does fast damage,” Emmons says.

No plan yet

The dilemma facing Camponelli and those who are working with him is that they need a viable plan for repurposing the mansion before they can get any financial commitments to cover restoration costs. Buttonwood’s ownership – by a private entity that has not signaled its intentions for the site – adds to the complexity.

What might Buttonwood become?

As an old home, the idea of a house museum first comes to mind but Emmons warns that such projects are “usually unsustainable unless you draw a lot of attention and traffic.” With vehicular access only through the business park and no direct connection to New Castle’s historic district, the house museum would seem to be an unrealistic option.

Several people mentioned the possibility of using the parlors on the main floor to create an entertainment venue for special events. Others suggested adapting the building for office use, for a private entity like an architectural or engineering firm or for a nonprofit committed to history or environmental preservation.

Camponelli and others see merit in creating a pedestrian and bicycle trail to Buttonwood from New Castle’s historic district. Not only would it provide a connection to Buttonwood from downtown but it would give walkers and bicyclists a riverfront alternative to the Battery Park Trail, which runs to the south of the historic district. Depending on its design, the trail could also link to the Jack A. Markell Trail, which runs between the Wilmington Riverfront and historic New Castle. Building the trail to Buttonwood, however, would require securing an easement to pass through the Twin Spans Business Park.

Picking up the tab

In Camponelli’s vision, the ideal owner and future caretaker for Buttonwood would be the New Castle Historical Society, but the society doesn’t currently have the resources to take on such a project, Connolly says.

In New Castle, when organizations are seeking support for worthy projects, one of the first organizations they contact is the Trustees of the New Castle Common, a trust established in 1764 to preserve and protect the common lands of New Castle.

But asking is merely the first step toward receiving.

“It’s hard to predict what they might do,” says historian Meek, who served a 12-year term as one of the 13 trustees. “They’re more interested in the here and now [than in historic preservation].”

As examples, Meek points to several small buildings in the historic district that the trustees purchased and demolished to make way for other community projects. “They support education, they support the city [public works projects] and the fire department, but they haven’t done preservation on a large scale.”

“It’s hard to predict what they might do. They’re more interested in the here and now [than in historic preservation]."
James Meek, New Castle historian

Nonetheless, Camponelli has found an ally in one of the trustees, Tommy Wilson, who plans on making a presentation to the organization’s Outreach Committee later this month to see how they will react. Their initial goal is to secure funds to repair or replace Buttonwood’s roof as the first phase in a long-range plan.

“Paul has done a great job of trying to save the building, but this is a long, drawn-out process,” Wilson says.

The trustees spent about $1.4 million to relocate their offices to historic Penn Farm, a property they own on the outskirts of town, Camponelli says, “and this would cost a whole lot less than that.”

The trustees, Wilson says, make it a practice to support nonprofit organizations, and they might not want to make an exception while Buttonwood is owned by a for-profit private business, even if that business has little or no interest in restoring the property.

Camponelli, meanwhile, says he’s willing to explore other funding sources, including state and federal grants.

Fearing further deterioration of the structure, he acknowledges that “time is not our friend.”

But Wilson isn’t anticipating any quick results.

“We’re at the infancy of a very long, hard project,” he says.

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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.