Rockwood Can No Longer Function With Small Intimate Groups of Visitors
County Executive Tom Gordon says he’ll need to create programs in order to keep museum afloat.
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Cartier’s characterization of the county administration’s stance on Rockwood is hardly unique. Others interviewed for this article said county leaders considered Rockwood a “money pit,” a “sinkhole” and an “albatross.”
According to budget summaries provided by County Executive Tom Gordon’s office, the county spent a little more than $3.3 million on repairs and improvements there from 1975 through 1997, an average of about $150,000 a year. Those figures do not suggest wasteful spending, but it was considered somewhat excessive for a small museum that attracted few visitors other than during the Ice Cream Festival and occasional special events. Rockwood, while unique to the area, couldn’t compete with Winterthur, Longwood, Hagley and Nemours, all boasting the homes of the 19th- and 20th-century du Ponts, and all supported by comfortable endowments.
Some of that began to change in 1997, when Gordon began his first term as county executive. And so did the role of the Friends.
It is Gordon’s view that the Friends were running the show at Rockwood, and that they were content to keep it as a museum displaying the Shipley-Bringhurst furnishings for a relatively small audience. “We had to open it up to the public,” says Gordon. “It can’t be run by a private group.” In 1998 Gordon took over the Ice Cream Festival from the Friends, transforming it from a fundraiser into a community celebration, using county employees to eventually build it into an even larger extravaganza, featuring fireworks and performances by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. To Gordon, the change was all about “creating value,” growing visitors at Rockwood to justify the money the county was spending there. “Eventually, we had 80,000 people here, but we didn’t do it to make a profit,” he says.
Then, in 1999, with major renovations about to begin, the county ordered the Friends to leave Rockwood—and to take their furniture with them. They paid to keep the furniture, including pieces still owned by the Hargraves family, at a mover’s warehouse in Newark, and moved into temporary offices at the Edgemoor and Claymont community centers. Essentially, the furniture had to be removed for renovations, and since the Friends owned the furniture, they were responsible for moving it on their own, as well as for paying storage costs.
Gordon’s administration went ahead with improvements. Spending during his first two terms, which ended in January 2005 and included construction of a new Visitors Center, topped $15 million. His goal was to create more traffic by bringing more visitors to Rockwood.