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Work to give the historic Jester Farmhouse new life nears completion

The Jester Farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred is now home to a community art program.
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Pubic Media
The Jester Farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred is now home to a community art program.

A historic building in New Castle County is about to come back to life with a new purpose.

After years of fits and starts, the Jester Farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred is poised to become home to a community art program. It’s the culmination of decades-long efforts to find a use for the building and the land around it.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on the effort to bring the Jester Farmhouse back to life and its new purpose.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on efforts to bring the Jester Farmhouse back to life and its new purpose

After nearly nine years of planning and three and a half years of work, the 19th-century residence once known as the Jester Farmhouse is about to take on new life as the home of a community art program in Brandywine Hundred.

New Castle County officials completed a series of inspections of the renovated structure on May 10. The county is issuing a certificate of occupancy once a minor issue involving wrapping over the HVAC ductwork is resolved, according to Alan Baseden, board chairman for the Jester Artspace.

“We’re going to have a soft opening as soon as we can and a grand opening – we’re calling it a ‘housewarming’ – in late summer or early fall,” he said.

The Artspace board will discuss scheduling for the opening events at its next meeting, on May 26, he said.

The Artspace’s two June events, both with Father’s Day themes, will likely be the first in the new home, Baseden said. For several years, the Artspace has been holding workshops at the Buzz Ware Village Center in Arden.

(left to right) Jester Artspace board members Jamie Liberatore, Suzanne Murphy, and Alan Baseden.
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
Jester Artspace board members Jamie Liberatore, Suzanne Murphy, and Alan Baseden.

“There’s a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, that so many people have come forward to support,” Baseden said. “We’re ready to start a new chapter.”

The reincarnation of the old home, located on county parkland on Grubb Road in the northwest corner of Brandywine Hundred, is not an example of historic preservation. More accurately, it’s a demonstration of adaptive reuse, salvaging portions of a building that had nearly fallen victim to demolition by neglect and installing contemporary amenities for the benefit of current and future generations.

The farmhouse was built sometime between 1799 and 1849, said Baseden, who grew up in a nearby home on Grubb Road. The county acquired the building, along with the 31-acre site on which it rests, in 1974, and it had remained vacant for most of the past 50 years. Until around 2000, the county had leased the farmland to HyPoint Farms, whose dairy cows grazed there.

Over the years, various plans to restore the house and repurpose the farm for public use fell through. In 2015 Baseden and others interested in the arts began brainstorming about creating an art center on the site. In late 2016, the group approached the county with their proposal.

It took some time for the pieces of the arrangement to come together. Ultimately, the county committed to spending about $1.3 million to rebuild the shell of the farmhouse and make other improvements outside. The nonprofit Jester Artspace was granted a 20-year lease for the building. In addition to fitting out the interior, the Artspace will have to cover utility bills, insurance costs and maintenance expenses – and pay the county a $190 annual service fee.

The construction project

Demolition of portions of the farmhouse that couldn’t be salvaged began in November 2020. “We tried to retain as much of the original concept as possible, but when stuff gets old, it gets very brittle. If a beam is rotted, it’s rotted,” said Dave Murray, project manager for BSS Contractors, which handled the teardown and exterior work for the county and the interior work for the Artspace.

Murray’s crew and Jester volunteers did what they could to salvage interior woodwork.

The rear wall and portions of the building’s perimeter remain intact, but the front entrance, vestibule, and main gallery space are new construction.

Suzanne Murphy, a Jester board member, points to green paint on one of the interior walls. “That’s part of the interior trim salvages from the old house,” she said. There’s original plaster on another wall, along with exposed exterior masonry walls. “We were able to save three of the old stone walls,” she said.

Contrasting with the salvaged portions of the building are some contemporary features. Restrooms are ADA-compliant and adjustable LED track lighting on the ceilings will provide flexibility for artists at work and for gallery displays. “It’s like the community budget version of the Brandywine Art Museum,” Murphy said.

Much of the interior is deliberately kept open, with the lower level likely to serve as a gallery and instructional area and the upper level as an artists’ workspace, she said.

“We don’t quite know what the next step will be,” she explained.

To figure that out, the Jester board has been surveying its friends – more than 1,000 on Facebook and nearly 500 on its email list, according to board member Jamie Liberatore.

“We’ve got people who want to look at artwork, people who want to make artwork, people who want to take a class,” Baseden said.

“We want it to be accessible to the community. It’s going to be a hub, as well as a piece of history,” Murphy added. That accessibility includes the prospect of renting out the space for events like birthday parties and baby showers, she said.

A benefit for New Castle County

Finding a new use for the old farmhouse was important for the county because it serves the community and preserves a bit of local history, said Stephen Ruble, project administrator in the county’s Public Works Department. “When we’re able to find tenants for older buildings, they’re not going to continue to deteriorate.”

Salvaging the farmhouse led to an ancillary benefit, Ruble said, citing the county’s decision to install a 1.1-mile paved walking trail through the former 31-acre farm. “If it weren’t for the Artspace, the park might not have gotten the attention. Sometimes the dominoes start falling and other good things happen.”

“We’ve gone through nine years of planning this project, and we’re not entirely over the hump. It’s one thing to be pregnant and another to have a baby.”
Alan Baseden, President of the Jester Artspace Board

What’s next

Artspace board members and volunteers will be spending the next few weeks moving furniture, art supplies, and equipment into the building, Baseden said. As that work is carried out, they will also consider some desirable add-ons, like a shed to store electrical and pottery equipment and materials that could be moved in and out of the building based on programming needs.

With a “soft opening” anticipated, the transition from the Buzz Ware Village Center may be gradual, and everything won’t necessarily be in place when the first programs at the new site are held, Baseden said.

“It’s OK if it’s not all sorted out on Day One,” Baseden said. “If we can take what we’re doing at Buzz Ware and move it over here, it’s a win.”

“We’ve gone through nine years of planning this project, and we’re not entirely over the hump,” Baseden said. “It’s one thing to be pregnant and another to have a baby.”

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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.