Friday, October 29, 2010

Judge Morris Estate -- Part 1

There are, as you can see on this site, many beautiful, old homes in Mill Creek Hundred, but there are very few that are open to the public. One of the few houses that is open for public view (at least sometimes) is the Judge Morris Estate, also known as the Andrew Gray House. Thanks to the loving restoration carried out earlier last century by a man whose name is very familiar to University of Delaware alums, the house is in excellent condition, especially considering that it's at least 220 years old. In addition to its architectural beauty, few other houses can boast a roster of owners whose record of public service rivals this one.

Like almost every house of its advanced age, the Morris House is comprised of several sections built by various owners over the years. There is no clear consensus on when then oldest section of the house was built, or by whom. According to Francis Cooch in Little Known History of Newark, DE and Its Environs, there are several dates inscribed on stones on different parts of the house: 1684, 1742 or 1752, and 1777. Date stones where often used to record the date of a building's erection, but where also used sometimes to commemorate important dates long after the fact. The original land grant for much of the Polly Drummond Hill (AKA Meetinghouse Hill) area was made from William Penn to William Welsh in December 1683, so if I had to guess, I'd say the 1684 date refers either to this or possibly the date of the first house (probably log) in the area. It's unlikely any part of this house was built then.

It seems that the trail of ownership for the property gets a bit confused for most of the 18th century, but at some point it is purchased by Scottish immigrant Thomas Montgomery. Montgomery was the first of the residents to spend time in public life, and although there is no indication when, I think it was he who built the first section of the current house. Montgomery was in the area by the 1740's, and there is record of him being involved in a local militia regiment at that time. It's possible that he could have built the oldest (probably western) section of the house then*. Another possibility is that the 1742/52 date refers to an older house, and 1777 was the date of construction for the current house. He certainly owned the property by 1779 (although there seems to be no specific mention of the house), as in January of that year he conveyed the tract to a Blair McClenachan. If it was this Blair McClenachan, I think it's reasonable to assume the transaction had something to do with funding for the Revolutionary War. Whatever the reason, Montgomery reclaimed the property from McClenachan in 1786.

The other reason I'm inclined to believe that the property sale was related to the fight for independence is Thomas Montgomery's record of public service.  He served in the state legislature in the 1780's and not only attended the state constitutional convention in 1792, but ended up as its chairman after John Dickinson resigned. Also that year, he ran for governor in the first public election for the post, but lost to Joshua Clayton. The following year, Montgomery became the Delaware State Auditor. He also served as a trustee of the New Castle County Almshouse (a poorhouse, which I believe was located in what is now the west side of Wilmington).

The rear of the Morris Estate
I have not had a chance to study the house up close, but from what I've seen, I'd say that Thomas Montgomery's house was was probably what is now the northwestern wing, facing Polly Drummond Hill Road. There is a 1 1/2 and a 2 1/2 story section, either of which or both could date to the mid-to-later 18th century. From the looks of it, the 2 1/2 story section was of a three bay, centered door design common to the time. A little later, probably by the next owner, the south-facing five bay section was built*. This, and the families who occupied it, will be featured in Part 2 of the post.

* Although I still think my analysis makes sense, this page states that "John Barclay built the main 2-½ story stone house in 1792." By this, I assume they mean the five-bay, southern-facing section. It then adds that the 1-1/2 story west wing was added by the next owner, the subject of Part 2. I've not been able to verify this information elsewhere, but since they own the house, I'll defer to their assessment.

Edit [2/4/11]: I just found this page , which has a picture of the plaque located on the house grounds. It more or less confirms the previous paragraph, stating that John Barclay built the main section and the rear ell, while the 1-1/2 story section was added later. I still have found little for sure about Barclay, except that he may have been a merchant near Christiana. Also, he may have been prominent in Pennsylvania politics, including serving as mayor of Philadelphia in the 1790's. However, it's not completely clear that this is the same man.


  1. Judge Morris played a vital role in preserving the land as we now know it in this vicinity as well as creating another colonial revival house in addition to the one in which he lived in as described above. On February 22, 2011, the Johnson-Morris House was listed on the National Register of Historic places. This is another house that Judge Morris owned for a while which is close to his Chestnut Hill home. I will give more details about the new listing (my current home) in the days to come.

  2. Dave L. -- Congratulations! If you'd like to share information about the history of your home, please feel free to email me ( I'd be honored to do a post on it, or, if you feel comfortable, have you do a guest post. I'm sure everyone would be very interested. If it's the house I think it is, it's in what's now a quiet area, but near an area that has a busy, industrial past. And one I haven't really touched on yet.

  3. So I take it too, that the Thomas Montgomery mentioned is the one who moved up to "Loveville"/Mt Cuba and was a key member of the Red Clay Presbyterian schism from the White Clay church??

  4. Blair McClenachan owned the Byrnes Mill Dam in White Clay Creek Country Club after Daniel Byrnes sold it!