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Efforts to preserve Brown House in Wilmington take shape

 The exterior of the 200-year-old Dr. John A. Brown House in Wilmington
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
The exterior of the 200-year-old Dr. John A. Brown House in Wilmington

Two years ago – The historic Brown House in Wilmington was on the cusp of demolition that would pave the way for a townhouse complex. But the 200-year-old building got a reprieve from the wrecking ball. In the two years since, its fate has remained in limbo – until, now.

Contributor Larry Nagengast explains what’s next in the effort to preserve the Brown House.

Contributor Larry Nagengast offers an update on plans for Wilmington's historic Brown House

Efforts to preserve an iconic Wilmington landmark continued this month as the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment considered a variance to give the 200-year-old Dr. John A. Brown House new life as an apartment building and the Browntown Civic Association asked for more information about the project.

The mansion, also known as The Anchorage, sits atop a hill on Seventh Avenue in the Browntown community, which derives its name from the building’s most prominent owner. Shattered, boarded windows, crumbling stucco and dangling downspouts are now among its most noticeable features.

The structure faced demolition in early 2021, when a developer was negotiating with the city to build a complex of about 40 townhouses on the site of the mansion and an adjacent parcel. The city’s Design Review and Preservation Commission deferred action on the city’s demolition request after a coalition of preservationists and neighborhood residents demonstrated that requirements to approve a demolition had not been met.

A lull of two years preceded last week’s hearing on the variance, the next legal step in a complex process that could result in the Wilmington Housing Partnership transferring title for the property to a development group that would preserve the building by turning it into a multi-family residence.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment, however, deferred making its decision after Dorrene Robinson, president of the Browntown Civic Association, said neighborhood residents had not been kept informed of plans to preserve and rehabilitate the mansion. She invited representatives of the development group to present their plans to the community at a civic association meeting on May 24.

Crumbling stucco and broken downspouts are among the issues with the Brown House
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Crumbling stucco and broken downspouts are among the issues with the Brown House

The building has not had permanent residents for more than 30 years. It was acquired in 2015 by the Housing Partnership, a quasi-governmental nonprofit that became insolvent in 2019. The city has been trying to dispose of the partnership’s holdings ever since and is eager to see properties like the mansion returned to its tax rolls.

If the zoning board eventually approves the variance – allowing multi-family use of a structure now zoned as a single-family rowhouse – the city could sell the .9-acre site to the Zahav Group, which plans an adaptive reuse for the structure, creating five or six market-rate rental units and two community rooms. One community room would be available for groups like the civic association to hold their meetings; the other would be designed for after-school use by neighborhood youths who need a safe place to use computers and do their homework. Zahav has lined up Jane Katsnelson, who has a background in historic preservation, to serve as project manager for the restoration.

“The mansion would be luxury apartments, and we’ll definitely keep the exterior as original as possible,” Katsnelson said in an interview. “It’s a grand building that will be the mascot of the neighborhood. It is really going to be a gem.”

Katsnelson is currently the resident curator of Woodstock, a mansion on the grounds of New Castle County’s Banning Park, a little more than a mile southwest of Browntown. The county created a resident curatorship program about 15 years ago – in which occupants follow preservation standards to restore historic structures – and Katnelson’s efforts at Woodstock are considered the county program’s sole success.

The Zahav Group, she said, is “somewhat experienced” in historic restorations and has done other housing rehabilitation work in the city.

“It’s a grand building that will be the mascot of the neighborhood. It is really going to be a gem.”
Jane Katsnelson - Zahav Group project mgr. for the Brown House

In February, Zahav gave the city a proposal to rehabilitate the mansion while preserving as much of the original structure as possible. The proposal includes a preliminary budget of just over $484,000, but notes that risks, including unseen structural damages, could increase that estimate. Restoration and rehabilitation would take 12 to 18 months, with the apartment units ready for occupancy sometime in 2025, the proposal states.

Robinson, the civic association leader, said after the zoning board hearing that neighborhood residents need to know more about the plans before they can give an endorsement. She served on the task force established in 2021 to prevent the mansion’s demolition but said she has heard little from Katsnelson or others in the task force since then.

Read more about one family's history in the Brown House here.

After standing up to fight the mansion’s proposed demolition, Browntown residents “felt betrayed” when they weren’t involved in planning its restoration, she said.

“We were in favor of three or four apartments, not five or six,” she said. “We need to see the layout. We need to see the plans. We need to know when they intend to start, and when they intend to finish.”

Katsnelson and Richard Wadman, a task force member whose ancestors owned the house from 1924 to 1980, said they would attend the May 24 civic association meeting and provide a detailed update on the plans.

While it is unknown how neighbors will react to the updated plans, the city did take the demolition option off the table two years ago and is now intent on authorizing some form of adaptive reuse of the property.

“The board [of the Wilmington Housing Partnership] has approved disposition of the property, subject to due diligence performed by its president, who is me,” wrote Bob Weir, who also heads the city’s Department of Real Estate and Housing. Since Weir signed off on the application for the zoning variance, it is clear that the city wants the variance approved so the Zahav Group can move ahead with the project.

“We need to see the layout. We need to see the plans. We need to know when they intend to start, and when they intend to finish.”
Dorrene Robinson, president of the Browntown Civic Association

However, Rob Goff, Wilmington’s city solicitor and chairman of the board of adjustment, noted that Zahav’s representatives and Weir must satisfy several criteria for the variance request to be approved. One of those factors is demonstrating that the plan would not be detrimental to the neighborhood, a contention raised by two neighbors who spoke at the hearing. One expressed opposition to apartments, and the other claimed the project would negatively impact property values.

Some details about the project’s financing and the property’s ultimate disposition remain unresolved, as does the use of the property downhill from the east side of the mansion.

Zahav’s proposal says it will secure initial funding for the project through a loan from its “preferred lenders” and private grants, apparently from individuals or groups interested in historic preservation. The proposal also mentions that Preservation Delaware Inc., a nonprofit that has worked with the task force, is working to identify funding sources associated with historic preservation initiatives. (Both the state and federal governments do offer historic preservation tax credits.)

Details concerning ultimate ownership of the property would not be resolved until after the requested zoning variance is approved.

Katsnelson said that the city would grant Zahav title to the property after the work outlined in the proposal is completed.

In an email, Weir wrote: “Given the complexities and costs, the Wilmington Housing Partnership is willing to place a mortgage on the property for the appraised value. The forgiveness of that purchase money mortgage is subject to the Zahav Group meeting approvals, timelines and renovation of the property.”

 Parcels adjacent to the Brown House (seen in the background) are slated to be developed into townhomes.
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Parcels adjacent to the Brown House (seen in the background) are slated to be developed into townhomes.

Intertwined with the future of the Brown Mansion site, but not a part of the variance request, is the fate of parcels to the east of the mansion. In 2021, Ryan Homes, a national real estate developer, was interested in building about 40 townhouses on the mansion site and the adjacent parcels but backed out of negotiations with the city when residents objected to the mansion being demolished.

Last year, Wadman said, the city decided to separate the mansion property from the adjacent parcels for development purposes.

Now, Weir said, a new developer, BKS Associates LLC, is working with the city on a plan for slightly over 30 townhouses on the adjacent parcels. The configuration of those homes and the number of units has yet to be determined, he said.

While both projects are moving through the city’s approval processes, Katsnelson said she believes that at least some of the townhouse project will be built before work on the mansion is complete.

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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.