Wednesday, March 19, 2014

MCHHB on the Road -- The McComb-Winchester House

The McComb-Winchester Mansion
Since it's been a while since we've done this, I thought we'd take a trip beyond the borders of Mill Creek Hundred to visit one of my favorite of the lost houses of Wilmington. On the north side of Rodney Square today stands the Classical Revival building erected in the 1930's as a federal building, courthouse, and post office. In recent decades its public duties have gone elsewhere, and now it serves as the headquarters for Wilmington Trust, now a subsidiary of M&T bank.  But for about 20 years, this block bounded by 11th, 12th, Market, and King Streets was owned by one of the wealthiest men in the city - Henry S. McComb.

On the southwest corner of the block stood the site of the once majestic Henry S. McComb Mansion. The space that's now the west end of the old Federal Building was formerly home to one of the most impressive examples of early Victorian architecture in Wilmington. Built in the Second Empire style imported from France, the McComb Mansion displayed the style’s typical mansard roof and turrets. In addition to the front of the house facing Eleventh Street, there was an extensive wing along the Market Street side. Built of brick and rising to three stories, the house was as powerful as the man who built it.

Henry S. McComb (1825-1881) rose from very humble beginnings to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Delaware. The second of five children, McComb’s blacksmith father died when the boy was only seven. Consequently, young Henry spent little time in school, as he was forced to find a job to help support his family. After working for a couple years in a newspaper office, Henry was apprenticed to a tanner. Being a bright boy, he picked up the trade quickly. He also spent much of his free time making up for the schooling he missed as a young boy. In fact, he so impressed his teacher, Judge Willard Hall (Federal Judge, head of Wilmington schools, and school namesake, among many other things), that Hall gave him a personal loan to start his own leather business.

Henry Simpson McComb

This, it seems, was all McComb needed to get him started. He began his business at age eighteen, and by twenty-five was one of the leading businessmen in the city. This is reflected in the fact that in 1853, McComb married Elizabeth Bush, daughter of Charles Bush, the part-owner of Bush and Lobdell, the largest manufacturer of railcar wheels in the country at the time. By age thirty, Henry McComb had one of the largest leather companies in the country. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was able to land several lucrative government contracts for items such as tents, knapsacks, and leather goods. Because of the exemplary manner in which he fulfilled his contracts, he secured the admiration and friendship of many high officials, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and even President Lincoln. When a military governor was suggested for Delaware, the position was offered to Henry S. McComb. He advised against the idea, and the proposition was dropped. Instead, McComb raised and equipped at his own expense the Fifth Delaware regiment, which he commanded as Colonel.

After the close of the war, through his military and political connections, McComb was pulled into the construction of the Union Pacific Railway, part of the Transcontinental Railway. He took part in the infamous Credit Mobilier scam, one of the biggest scandals of the Grant presidency (and that's saying a lot). If you like reading about corporate/political scandals, this is a good one. McComb, though, was unhappy with how the spoils were divided, and ended up leaking documents to a newspaper, leading to the public disclosure of the massive fraud.

McComb's Mansion in 1872

After this affair, McComb turned his sights on broken-down Southern railroads looking to recover from the war. He first acquired the Mississippi Central Railroad and greatly expanded it, even founding the new railroad town of McComb, Mississippi. He went on to purchase several other small lines, and for a time served as the president of the Southern Railroad Association. Unfortunately for him, his ventures turned sour during the Panic of 1873, and all were absorbed by larger railroads.

He did have one more railroad venture in him, though, and in 1880 purchased the struggling eight year old line known then as the Delaware Western Railroad. It's better known by it's original name, the Wilmington & Western. (This was not his only investment link to MCH, as we'll see in an upcoming post.)  Henry McComb was briefly involved in the high-stakes negotiations between the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroads (and others) to build a second East Coast Corridor line. The former leather merchant's part ended with his death in 1881, just as things were heating up.

By the late 1850's Henry McComb was already quite wealthy, and he decided that he should have a home befitting his stature in the community. In 1859 and 1860 he purchased his property, which had on it a large home built some thirty years earlier by Dr. George Stephenson, a prominent physician from Pittsburgh. McComb moved into the house and in 1865 (presumably after the war) began a major renovation of it. The renovation took more than seven years, completely changing the look of the mansion, bringing it "up to date" with the newest Second Empire style. According to an article from 1934, McComb's architect may have been the same one who designed Philadelphia's City Hall.

Looking west along 11th St. towards First & Central Presbyterian Church

As noted, Col. McComb (as he was referred to) owned the entire block, which in addition to the house contained large stables, a milk house, and even a one cow dairy. During most of McComb's lifetime the house overlooked not Rodney Square, nor even the old courthouse, but instead faced the Market Basin reservoir. The new courthouse opened in January, 1881 -- McComb died in December of that year. After his passing the house went to his daughter Elizabeth and her husband, James Price Winchester. The Winchesters owned the home for more than 50 years.

In 1933 the Winchesters sold the property to the US Government for the (then) princely sum of $500,000. That would amount to more than $8.5 million today. The house was soon razed (as seen below) and construction of the new Federal Building began in 1935. It was completed in 1937.

Demoliton, with the DuPont Building in the background

For a number of reasons, including the strong Quaker influence upon the city, Wilmington was never host to many large, opulent mansions. It did have some -- in my opinion -- very beautiful, elegant homes, though. For my money (OK, for far more money than I'll ever have), few homes in Wilmington said "Wealthy Industrialist" better than the Henry S. McComb Mansion.


Photo Additions (7-16-15) --

With great thanks to Scott Peoples, a GGG-Grandson of Henry S. McComb, I give you a glimpse into the interior of the McComb-Winchester House. And yes, that's a portrait of McComb reflected in the mirror.




8 comments:

  1. This was my grandmother's family home--she was the daughter of Elizabeth and James Winchester. It's nice to know that someone outside the family thinks of it fondly.

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    1. Do you have any pictures of the interior?

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  2. Like I wrote, I've always been drawn to that house. Right now I'm working on another post with family connections -- not quite as strong -- but closer to MCH.

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  3. Scott Palmer are you the author? I am the g-g-g- grandson of HS McComb. I think I have some interior pics. I saw your blog the week I buried my dad at the McComb family plot in Wilmington. Would like to catch up with you

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    1. Yes, I am. If you'd like, email me at mchhistory@verizon.net. I would absolutely love to see anything you've got!! Thanks!

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  4. My name is Thomas Tear. I am looking for information about Henry McComb's connection to Llangollen house off rt 13. I know he owned it but did he ever live there? How long did he own the property? Was it he who named the farm Llangollen? Does anyone have any old photos of the property? I can be reached at, grandoaksc@aol.com. Thank you

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  5. There you go, Larry T. A few interior pictures of the house have been added.

    And while we're at it, does anyone know anything about the house referenced in the comment above? I did a quick look and yes, McComb did own the house. Although he may have used it as a summer home, I think it's more likely that it was a tenant farm. It's also known as the Grantham-Edwards-McComb House, and it looks like it's in the process of being place on the National Register of Historic Places. The 1868 map still lists it as E. Edwards, so if that's correct then McComb bought it sometime between 1868 and his death in 1881. His heirs still owned the property in 1925, when they sold off at least part, if not all. Llangollen Estates seems to have been begun in 1945, but I don't know if the name is older or not. Anyone know anything more, by any chance???

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