Building for Posterity
Delaware is rich in striking buildings, and the architecture says much about the people who created them. Herein, a look at the state's most historically significant structures.
Delaware is rich in striking buildings, and the architecture says much about the people who created them. Some sites are significant because of design innovations, some for their novelty. This month, we look at buildings that are important for their historic value. What do these structures say about Delawareans of yore? They were pragmatic, yet still
interested in innovation. They liked to live comfortably and,
in some cases, were a bit star struck. Which means the
brick-and-mortar Federalist structures of yesterday are not unlike the glass-and-steel skyscrapers of today.
Take a look.
The brick Italian Villa-style mansion where “Southern sympathizer” Governor William Henry Harrison Ross hung his hat, sits on a 1,395-acre farm that also holds the dubious distinction of housing one of the state’s original slave quarters. “It’s kind of the only full-blown Italianate villa in the state,” says David Ames, director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Design at UD. “It’s got the tower and the arcades and all that good stuff.” That good stuff happens among three two-story blocks of the house, which together form an H-shaped plan, all completed by a three-story tower in the center. The principal façade displays gables over round windows. Prior to renovations, the house had a large veranda in the west arm, a canopy over the first floor windows and a balcony over the front door. Additions later created a concrete slab porch with iron railing. Inside, the house retains its exquisite plaster moldings, its Victorian trim and original inside shutters. This all came together in 1859, when Ross himself allegedly constructed this elaborate villa along the newly constructed railroad he helped to establish. With mass quantities of farmland and a mass transit system in place, farmers prospered all over western Sussex, Ross included.
Old Library Museum
Famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness was a hot commodity in the 1890s. Having just completed the University of Pennsylvania library, his firm was the natural choice to design one for the town of New Castle. Scholars have for years debated whether the library was designed by Furness himself or by a member of his firm, William M. Camac. Either way, the finished product is a striking hexagonal structure that cleverly integrates Queen Anne style and glazed-header-brick Colonial Revival, says renowned architectural historian and author Barksdale Maynard. An oversized fanlight and weather vane makes a witty tribute to Federal-era features that exemplify the rest of historic New Castle, as do an exceedingly tall roof and cupola. Natural light floods through strategically placed skylights. That light also shines through to the basement thanks to glass panels in the floor. When construction of the $5,500 facility got underway in 1890, local contractors erected a high fence to keep the public in the dark about the new library, Maynard says. When the fence came down, locals raved about its metropolitan style, colored mortar and pressed brick. The building eventually became a museum. Paint analysis done in 1982 helped restore the brilliant, original Victorian color scheme.
Weston Peach House
Peaches are almost universally associated with Georgia, and for good reason. But in the mid- to late-19th century, Delaware was one of the biggest producers in the world, shipping nearly 6 million bushels to market in 1875. At the time, towns across Delaware were dotted with plantations and their distinctive peach houses. A few still stand along U.S. 50 near Middletown. “They’re sort of two-and-a-half-story houses and very distinct,” says UD’s Jeroen van den Hurk. The dwelling pictured is one of the state’s finest examples of Italianate architecture, which is characterized by its flat roof and staggered eaves. The house was built in two phases: the first in 1810 as a brick farmhouse, then again in 1860, when a grand-room section with 12-foot ceilings was added, paid for largely by peach profits. “It’s very original,” says Jim Robb, who lives in the house known as Weston. “It’s a huge Georgian-style mansion with four pillars in the front. Everybody who walks in here just drops their jaw.”
Cherbourg Round Barn
At quick glance, the Cherbourg barn, just outside Dover, might come off as a kitschy landmark, maybe a tourist attraction. But the round barn is much more. At six stories, it’s one of the tallest buildings in the area and one of the most novel structures in Delaware farming history, as inventive as it is eye-catching. The circular floor plan maximized the ground floor space and made routine daily chores and cleaning easier. High ceilings and a two-pitched roof also made for maximum hay capacity. “They’ve been building round barns since the 18th century and even earlier,” says Jeroen van den Hurk at the University of Delaware’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design. “There are a lot of surveillance issues with round structure; the farmer could stand in the middle and watch all his cattle.” The construction of the round barn in 1918 was a wildly ambitious project that went against commonly accepted concepts of agricultural architecture to use both new materials and a new design. The Cherbourg stands out mostly due to its poured concrete walls and unorthodox support system. The massive roof was supported only by a straightforward system of rafters and plates without interior cross braces or collars. The roof collapsed during a storm in 1999.
The Second Homestead
When it came time for Arden founder Frank Stephens to build himself a second home in 1909, the sculptor reached to Old-English design for inspiration. The result was a twin-gabled cottage with hollow tile construction and some amazingly unique woodwork courtesy of Frank himself, as well as his son John. The exterior is half-timbered, with leaded windows and the phrase “Tomorrow is a New Day” famously carved on a fascia. The house has been occupied since 1993 by Mary Marconi, who found herself in the beautifully historic home “purely by luck,” she says. “I was looking for a place, and it looked like this Hansel and Gretel cottage.” The house is built in Tudor-style, which is made clear by the lavish timber frame construction, stone and stucco. The house is the jewel among several in Arden built in the same style around the turn of the century, which should come as no surprise for a town founded by a sculptor and his architect buddy.
Old Dutch House The shocking truth about New Castle’s famous Dutch House: It isn’t Dutch. Yes, the house is unquestionably one of the oldest among the original 13 colonies, built somewhere between 1690 and 1710. And yes, it has features that have been definitively labeled Dutch through the years, such as the very overhang of the front eave and the distinctive H-frame series of bents. But according to van den Hurk, a native of the Netherlands who wrote his dissertation at UD about the house, it is nothing like 18th-century structures in his native country. Instead, the house is a clear representation of transition in America: the Melting Pot theory in building form. To explain, the Old Dutch House is unique in its variation of a bent frame, but the finished product doesn’t look altogether Dutch or Netherlandic. “If you look at the history of this area, which was part of New Netherlands, you had so many different cultural backgrounds melding together—Swedes, Fins, Dutch—all in this area,” van den Hurk says. “They worked together on their buildings, and they created a fairly unique framing system that uses bits and pieces from other cultures.” So there are elements of the English box frame, as well as the Dutch bent frame. “You can’t say it’s 100 percent Dutch or 100 percent English,” he says. “You can think of it as an early type of American framing.” When van den Hurk came to Delaware in 1995, people would point out the Dutch House to him, but he was struck by how un-Dutch it was. “It didn’t look anything like it” he says with a laugh. “So it’s unique in a sense that it represents a culmination of different cultural backgrounds and framing techniques coming together. It can tell you a lot about the people that settled here and their traditions.”
Corbit-Sharp House No doubt Delaware has many ties to Philadelphia, but one of the strongest and most historically significant bonds belongs to Odessa. The port town shared a sort of cultural and social exchange with the City of Brotherly Love during Colonial times, and the clearest evidence can be found at the Corbit-Sharp House, a 22-room mansion that cribbed some of Philly’s best laid Georgian architecture. Designed in 1774 by Robert May and built by William Corbit, the house is a pristine example of a Philadelphia townhouse. “It’s one of the finest in the original 13 colonies,” says Deborah Buckson, executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation. Georgian architecture is usually defined by strict adherence to balance and symmetry, and the Philadelphia style indicates a square plan with rooms that branch off the central staircase. Same goes for keystone pediments over the windows, foliated dormers, a brick watertable and original Chinese lattice railings. Nearby Georgian houses in the Delaware style take on an L-shaped form. The five-bay house (the front door flanked by two windows on each side) also features an immaculate second-floor ballroom, described in the 1970 book “Treasured Rooms in America’s Mansions, Manors and Houses,” as one of the 10 most beautiful rooms in America.
Appoquinimink Friends Meeting House This Quaker meeting house in Odessa is important for two reasons. The first, a decidedly sedate reason, is the building’s noted history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves allegedly would hide in the building’s loft on their way north. The second, a more snicker-worthy reason for notoriety, is the meeting house’s Lilliputian size: just 20 feet by 20 feet. It is believed to be one of the smallest public places of worship in the country. Built around 1785 by David Wilson and donated to the Quaker congregation, this toylike brick structure was frequented by many famous families, such as the Corbits and Wilsons. Many are buried in its graveyard. The Quaker congregation turned Hicksite in 1828, Maynard says, so by the time the place closed around 1880, there were only two members remaining. Luckily, the tiny building was restored in 1938. Public worship resumed there in 1946.
Eden Hill Farm House Here, one of Delaware’s most prominent early families began an architectural legacy just west of Legislative Hall in Dover. In 1748 Nicholas Greenberry Ridgely bought 230 acres of land where he built a white brick mansion for himself and his third wife, Mary Middleton Vining Ridgely. The original house was a fairly simple design, just one-room deep with a floor plan that included a common room, a parlor and a service wing. The home’s most important message is how each of seven generations of Ridgelys left a unique fingerprint on Eden Hill Farm by making unique alterations over 250 years. “It monumentalizes family,” says Bernie Herman, a professor of art history at the University of Delaware. “Each generation made changes to express who they are, all the while working within the confines of that particular site.” The first building was an impressive monument. Family members kept the original brick skin, doubled the home’s depth and changed the interior arrangement of rooms to reflect a new sensibility. Three major alterations were made before 1870, including the addition of a broad formal entry with two rooms on one side, and a service wing on the other. “When you’re looking at historic buildings, things are not always what they seem,” says Herman. “Every historic structure is an archeological site.”