Thursday, December 20, 2012

MCH History Blog On the Road: The New Castle County Courthouse

The New Castle County Courthouse
I've decided to introduce a new occasional feature -- MCH History Blog On the Road. Here we'll look at sites and structures beyond the borders of Mill Creek Hundred. They may have some sort of a connection to MCH, or they may just be things I personally like or feel some sort of connection to. It's certainly not meant to be a comprehensive or systematic look at the wider area, just an excuse to feature some topics I find interesting.

My own personal gateway into the study of local history -- before I started focusing on Mill Creek Hundred -- was learning about the history of Wilmington. I think in large part this was just because that's what there's the most written about. There are lots of books and other material written about the First State's largest city -- about MCH, not so much. While reading about the 300 plus year history of Wilmington and its predecessors, one building always stood out to me, and quickly became my personal favorite -- the (first, in Wilmington) New Castle County Courthouse. It only stood for less than 40 years, but it was probably the best-known building in the city during its time. Its location is still one of the best-known spots in town, even if very few now know what used to stand there.

The county seat of New Castle County, dating back to the early days of English rule in Delaware, had always been in the town of New Castle. (In fact, for a short time the state capital was there.) Having the county seat (and therefore, the county courthouse) in the small town on the Delaware made sense in the Seventeenth and through most of the Eighteenth Centuries, when it was the largest and most organized settlement in the county. By the late 1700's, though, many residents began to see New Castle as being too far removed from the population, and began to complain about the difficulties in traveling there when they needed to attend to legal affairs.*

The first official legislative look at moving the county seat was in 1810, when a committee (headed by Milltown resident Andrew Reynolds) of the General Assembly suggested looking for a location near Christiana Bridge (the village of Christiana). Nothing, however, was done, but the sentiment to move the county seat remained. Before long, the quickly-growing city of Wilmington became the obvious and popular choice for the site of a new courthouse. The normal dysfunctional and glacial pace of Delaware politics took over, and it wasn't until 1879 that the decision was made and the money appropriated to build a new courthouse in Wilmington. A suitable location was soon found for the structure -- the block bounded by Market and King, 10th and 11th Streets. This lot is known today, of course, as Rodney Square.

Rodney Square, though, is actually the third name by which this spot has been known. Before becoming Courthouse Square in 1880, it served the city in a different capacity. Actually, it served in a capacity of about a million gallons -- it was the site of the first large reservoir in the city, built in 1827. Market Basin held water pumped up from the Brandywine for use by the growing city. By the 1860's, though, the Market Basin reservoir was inadequate for the needs of the increasingly industrial and booming Wilmington. It was replaced first by the Rodney Street Reservoir, and then in the 1870's by the larger Cool Spring Reservoir. When it came time to find a location for the new courthouse in 1879, it was decided that Market Basin Square would become Courthouse Square.

Courthouse in 1893, facing future site of the DuPont Building

Work on the foundation was begun and completed in the fall of 1879, and I assume this included filling in the old reservoir. The structure itself was built the following year at a cost of $66,203, and was completed by Christmas 1880. On January 20, 1881, workers, materials, and paperwork were transferred from New Castle to the new courthouse facing Market Street. The building was 83' x 137', constructed of Brandywine granite, Ohio buff (a yellowish-brown sandstone), and Chester County serpentine. The first floor held offices for things like the sheriff, Levy Court, register of wills, recorder of deeds, and the county treasurer. The second floor featured a 65' x 65' courtroom, jury rooms, a library, parlors, and consulting rooms. The entire cost of the building and grounds was $112,605.33.

When the courthouse was built in 1880, the bulk of the city was still centered further south on Market Street (unlike when the Market Basin was built, and was almost outside of the city). The ensuing decades, however, saw the business district quickly march north. In 1908, the first section of the DuPont Building was erected across Market Street from the courthouse, and with additions built several years later would come to dominate it. The city and county both had grown since the erection of the building with the tower on Courthouse Square, and both were outgrowing their facilities. By the early 1910's, time was growing short for courthouse, then only little more than 30 years old.

NCC Courthouse and the DuPont Building, c1915
In 1916, behind it on the east side of King Street, the new neo-classical City-County Building was erected. Among its other functions, this new building would house the New Castle County courts and other county offices. With the "old" courthouse now obsolete, its fate was sealed. Three years later in 1919, only 39 years after its construction, the structure was torn down. I'm sure many of the same people who watched it razed in 1919 also watched it rise in 1880.

Demolition of the courthouse, 1919

As it happened, the demolition of the courthouse and the future of the the lot it occupied -- first Market Basin Square and then Courthouse Square -- were all part of a larger plan. John J. Raskob, Pierre S. DuPont's secretary and bigwig with DuPont and General Motors, had become enamored with what was known as the City Beautiful Movement. In keeping with its ideals, he envisioned Courthouse Square being an open public space, surrounded by classically and aesthetically appealing buildings of a public nature. I'm sure it was only a coincidence that his company's headquarters would occupy one side of this square, which he hoped would become the city's center. Soon after the courthouse was removed, work began on creating the new Rodney Square, dedicated to the Delaware patriot. Eventually the Wilmington Library would occupy the southern side and the post office building would stand on the north of Rodney Square.*

In recent years, much of the city's social and cultural focus has shifted towards the riverfront area, where once its industrial heart lay. Still though, I'd bet that most people would think of Rodney Square if you asked where the center of Wilmington was. I'd also bet that most would have no idea that this space once hosted a reservoir, then held (what I consider to be) an impressive and majestic courthouse.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The first movement to relocate county administration and paperwork in the 1760's was actually spurred by fear of the Spanish pirates who occasionally sailed by on the Delaware.
  • Market Basin Square was purchased in two increments, in 1827 and 1832, from Sally Dickinson, daughter of John Dickinson.
  • Actually, there's a lot to write about just dealing with the structures that used to stand around Basin/Courthouse/Rodney Square. Fascinating buildings of all sorts came down to put up those four massive structures.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the history of the original "downtown" courthouse built in 1880. Here's abit more trivia: Many of the workers no doubt were Civil War veterans. In the late 1800s most of the plastering contractors listed in the Wilmington City Directory were owned by the McCaulley family. Robert McCaulley was one of those Civil War vets and a Canadian citizen who immigrated to Philadelphia as a child, was indentured into the plastering trade and joined the Union Army at age 39. Arriving nearly broke in Wilmington at the close of the war with his wife & six children , he built up his businesses with his sons and likely was involved in the plastering of the court house's interior. (His company also built about 70 homes along Lovering Avenue and on the East Side). Ironically, his grandson, John Dockery Thompson VII, owned the architectural firm that designed and built the Beaux arts design Public Building that replaced the original.At last report, the beautiful exterior of that building will remain intact even as the interior is modified. kc.