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Ivyside Farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred could see new life

The Ivyside farmhouse in New Castle County's Bechtel Park
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
The Ivyside farmhouse in New Castle County's Bechtel Park

New Castle County appears poised to halt the demolition by neglect of another historic building in one of its parks.

Recently, the Jester Farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred saw its transformation into a home for a community art program completed. Now, it appears the historic Ivyside Farmhouse could get a makeover following a similar model.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports this week on Ivyside’s history and the plans for its new lease on life.

Contributor Larry Nagengast reports on Ivyside Farmhouse's history and plans for its new lease on life

Nearly surrounded by a chain link fence and largely obscured by trees and greenery, the historic Ivyside farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred may soon experience a revival.

In mid-June New Castle County posted an invitation for contractors to bid on stabilizing the farmhouse, located in Bechtel Park on Naamans Road. The work needed at Ivyside, which was built largely in the mid-19th century, involves several critical improvements, including new windows, roofing and flashing, and installing electrical, water and sewer connections.

The county anticipates spending more than $1 million to stabilize the building and $4 million overall to upgrade Bechtel Park, according to Councilman John Cartier, D-Brandywine East, whose district includes the property. If all goes well, the exterior work at Ivyside could be completed in late 2025.

Then, the revival would begin, through a memorandum of understanding that county signed in March with the Delaware Africa Coalition, a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 whose mission is to “advance the interests of people of African descent in Delaware and beyond.”

The county anticipates that, when the stabilization work is complete, the coalition will sign a 20-year lease and fit out the interior of the building for use as a “community-based recreation center.”

Councilman John Cartier, D-Brandywine East.
John Cartier
Councilman John Cartier, D-Brandywine East.

The arrangement would be much like one that culminated in repurposing the historic Jester Farmhouse, also in Brandywine Hundred, as a community arts center. The coalition, with about 100 members and supporters, views Ivyside as a venue where it can establish a footprint and elevate its profile. The coalition would also make the space available to civic associations and community groups to hold meetings and other events on site.

However, if the Jester experience is any guide, the Ivyside repurposing will not come quickly. It took nearly 7½ years from the time the county received a proposal for creation of the Jester Artspace until the center’s opening in early June.

Although he has not yet seen Ivyside’s interior, Kelechi Lawrence, the coalition’s president, said “we’re hoping it’s not going to take six or seven years.”

Cartier said he is happy the county has found “a well-organized group” to assume management of the property. “After all these years of neglect, of this not being a priority, it’s finally a whole new day,” he said.

About Ivyside

New Castle County has owned Ivyside since 1976, when it acquired the former farmland now known as Bechtel Park. The 2½-story house, built on a plot of nearly 3 acres, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its last occupant, John Bechtel, continued to reside in the house until he fell ill in the early 1980s, according to Brandywine Hundred historian James Hanby Jr. Although the county invested funds in a partial restoration during the late 1990s, the building has deteriorated significantly over the past 40 years, Hanby said.

The National Register nomination form, completed by the county in 1981, describes Ivyside as “a well-preserved example of the stone dwellings erected by prosperous Brandywine Hundred families in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

Years ago, when Naamans Road was just a two-lane thoroughfare, there was a tennis court between the front of the house and the roadway, Hanby recalled. Inside, he remembered being shown a concealed area under the main staircase where liquor was stored during the Prohibition Era.

The first section of the farmhouse was built in the late 18th century, but the largest portion was completed in 1853. A final section, including a kitchen and bedrooms, was added in 1907.

The surrounding Bechtel Park was originally one of the many farms that dominated Brandywine Hundred in the 19th century. For years Ivyside Farm was an active dairy farm, and milk bearing its label was regularly shipped to Philadelphia. In addition to pastures, some of its acreage was devoted to wheat and corn fields.

Once part of a larger tract that extended northward across the state line into Pennsylvania and eastward to include what is now the campus of Talley Middle School, Ivyside Farm changed hands several times. An early owner, Benjamin Reynolds, is believed to have built the first section of the house, probably in the 1790s. James Shivers, a Phildelphia physician, purchased the property in 1853 and is credited with erecting the main portion of the farmhouse.

The front porch of the Ivyside Farmhouse, another historic building in Brandywine Hundred that appears on track to get a new lease on life.
Larry Nagengast
Delaware Public Media
The front porch of the Ivyside Farmhouse, another historic building in Brandywine Hundred that appears on track to get a new lease on life.

In 1890, the farm was purchased by Emma Hanby, a member of one of Brandywine Hundred’s most prominent families. Two years later she married Frank Bechtel, a partner in an import-export business with offices in Philadelphia, London and Paris. Frank Bechtel cared little for farming, so his wife assumed most of the responsibility for managing the cows and the crops. The property remained in the hands of the Bechtel family until it was acquired by New Castle County.

Stabilizing the building

Cooperson Associates, the architectural/engineering firm hired by the county to determine the work needed at Ivyside, has recommended “a limited amount of demolition and restoration,” including interior framing on the first floor in the main section of the house; the kitchen addition on the west side; the upper portion of the north shed addition; and the porch on the south side, facing Naamans Road. Most of the windows in the farmhouse would also be replaced. According to Cooperson’s report, most of the areas where demolition is required are “additions to the oldest portions of Ivyside, easily restored, and generally lacking in distinctive features.”

Restoration and improvements to Ivyside’s interior would be the responsibility of the coalition.

Because the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, all rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction work, both interior and exterior, would have to comply with U.S. Department of the Interior guidelines.

How DAC came to be

Two distinct events led to the creation of the Delaware Africa Coalition, said Lawrence, an international trade consultant who originally came to Delaware to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

Kelechi Lawrence is the founding president of Delaware Africa Coalition.
Kelechi Lawrence
Kelechi Lawrence is the founding president of Delaware Africa Coalition.

First came the election of Chris Coons to the U.S. Senate in 2010. Soon after taking office, Coons dispatched his aides to meet with members of African communities throughout the state. During that process, Delawareans of African heritage embarked on a journey of self-discovery, as they came to realize that those who are not of African heritage tended to lump them together as one group, “Black” or “African American,” regardless of whether their roots were in Africa, the Caribbean or Latin America.

“We needed to teach each other who we really are, learn about each other through each other’s eyes, and learn to walk together,” Lawrence said.

Then, in 2015, Dr. Caroline Ekong, a psychiatrist who was raised in Nigeria, was slain by a White patient who was mentally ill. “We wondered whether justice would be done. Our community did not know how to address the justice system,” he said.

Those events led Delawareans of African heritage to see a need to work together, to share their common interests and objectives, Lawrence said.

“It started in my basement. Then we moved to my kitchen table, then to a church,” he said.

The group’s first tangible success came in early 2017, when the newly elected Gov. John Carney signed legislation creating the Delaware African and Caribbean Affairs Commission, a group that Lawrence now chairs.

Since then, the coalition has grown, now having about 100 members and supporters, and having successfully organized an annual Taste of Africa food festival, Lawrence said. “But we realized we needed an organized presence – a place to meet and all that.”

The search for a home gained momentum, Lawrence said, after he attended an event where New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer was present. When the program ended, Lawrence ran across a field to track down Meyer and tell him about the coalition. That led to another meeting with Meyer, who then asked his staff to identify appropriate sites for the group.

Suggested locations near Middletown and Bear were considered, but the county’s intention to restore Ivyside made it preferable, Lawrence said.

The Ivyside Farmhouse's deteriorating porch on its east side.
Larry Nagengast
The Ivyside Farmhouse's deteriorating porch on its east side.

There was one more hurdle to face last year: submitting a winning proposal to demonstrate to the county that it had the resources and talent to create and manage a community-based recreation center. County evaluators rated the coalition’s plan above one submitted by a newer organization, the Brandywine Hundred Historical Society.

The next potential hurdle for the coalition will likely be raising the money needed to restore Ivyside’s interior and fit it out to serve as a community center. Since coalition members have not been inside the building, they could not provide an estimate of how much the interior work might cost, Lawrence said.

To jump start the fundraising effort, the coalition went right to the top – to the office of Sen. Chris Coons, whose early encouragement was instrumental in the coalition’s creation.

Coons is pushing for the coalition to receive $500,000 through what’s called a “Congressional discretionary spending grant” under the National Parks Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, a spokesman for his office said.

The program’s guidelines require that grant money be spent on “preservation, rehabilitation and conservation” of the property, and not to support any programming activities.

The coalition’s plans

As might be expected with any cultural organization, the coalition anticipates offering programs associated with African heritage – with lessons on cuisine, language and dance, Lawrence said.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.
Chris Coons
U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

More importantly, the coalition wants to become a resource to build awareness of the importance of the African Diaspora – a term that broadly describes the dispersal of African peoples to other parts of the world, the contributions of these peoples to the regions where they relocated and their interest in preserving connections to their roots.

Significant themes associated with the Diaspora, Lawrence said, include an interest in genealogy, immigration, and citizenship issues.

The coalition also wants to help individuals of African descent “to survive and to thrive” in a society that might be much different from their heritage. “Many of us have grown up in military dictatorships,” Lawrence said, “and some of us don’t know how to do this [act in a democracy].”

What’s next

Contractors have an August 20 deadline to submit bids on the exterior stabilization project but there are plenty of “to be determined” blanks to complete in the rest of the timeline.

A spokesman for Coons said the $500,000 National Parks Service grant has the endorsement of the Department of the Interior but now is subject to the vagaries of the Congressional appropriations process, with a decision likely, but not certain, prior to Election Day, November 5.

While work on the stabilization project moves forward, the coalition will focus more on fundraising to cover the cost of the interior restoration. The amount needed will depend on the outcome of Coons’ grant request.

Then, the coalition will have to solicit bids to find a contractor to handle the interior work – work that could easily take a year or more.

While the timeline remains in flux, Lawrence is confident that the coalition has found a home where it can move forward to achieve its goals.

“As these things happen, when you achieve success,” he says, “many more people will take an interest in you.”

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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.