following the posts about the Coffee Run site and the Byrnes Mill Dam. With the news I received over the weekend, though, this is now going to be a much different post. Less of just reporting some news, and more of getting up on my soapbox and trying to ease my own conscience.
I was originally simply going to report the now almost two month old story of the loss of the Abram Chandler House on Limestone Road in Milltown. The house (which was one of the first sites featured on the blog, nearly five years ago) had been vacant for several years, and the blaze has since been determined to have been arson. It was apparently in pretty bad shape even before the fire, and according to the News Journal article the owners could not be contacted. Under the circumstances it's hard not to be very suspicious about some sort of insurance situation, although as far as I know no suspects have been named.
I was already feeling a little bad that I had no idea that the house was vacant and in such a bad state. I'm not sure what if anything could have been done had we known, outside of maybe trying to pressure the owners into taking better care of the historic home. Somehow, though, I have my doubts about how successful that would have been.
But if the not-so-accidental destruction of the Chandler House bothered me, the news this weekend thoroughly disturbed me. A commenter informs us that the Sunnybrook Cottage, the large white and green-trimmed house on the grounds owned by the Delaware Association for the Blind (across from Emily Bissell Hospital on Newport Gap Pike), has been torn down. This news took me totally by surprise. I think that when I read the comment at home the other night, I might have said a few words that my wife prefers I not say around the kids.
|Sunnybrook no more (thanks, Dave Z)|
As far as I knew, the house was old, but still in decent shape and being used by the DAB. As it turns out, that was not the case. When I did a quick search to see if I could find any mention on the internets about the demolition, nothing new came up. What I did find, however, was the very illuminating transcript from the July 15, 2014 meeting of the New Castle County Historic Review Board (HRB). At this meeting the DAB came before the board to request the demolition permit for Sunnybrook Cottage. A fairly extensive exchange followed, which explained the entire situation.
The Cottage (or as I'd prefer to call it, the Henry Clark House) had until recently been used by the DAB, with about half of it serving as a caretaker's residence and the other half used for various purposes. Sometime in 2012 the caretaker was moved out, and the other functions were reassigned as well. The old house was falling into disrepair, and in the winter of 2012 the DAB looked into renovating the structure. Unfortunately, they were told it would cost more than one million dollars to completely renovate the house, which was far more than the non-profit could afford.
|Sunnybrook Cottage in happier times, 1943|
Before they could do anything with it, in January 2014, the water heater and boiler malfunctioned, flooding the structure. The damage was apparently not cleaned up, because then the freeze-thaw cycle took its toll on the floors and walls, causing even more damage. All that, along with the water damage and mold issues that arose, made the old stone home unsalvagable. Sunnybrook Cottage, home to 19th Century millers and 20th Century ailing (and potentially ailing) children, was doomed. Finally, I assume late last week, it was leveled. Eventually, the site itself will be leveled, and used as a playing field for the children.
The HRB members did what they could at the meeting, questioning the petitioners about the circumstances, history, and finances. They asked about other options, but it was clear that Sunnybrook was going down. If I understand it correctly, the only authority that the HRB has in these cases is the power to impose a nine month hold on any demolition permits. This is designed to give all parties the opportunity to seek other options and try to avoid the loss of a historic structure. Beyond that, there's not much they can do. (Unless there's a legal issue at play, in which case they can refer it to the proper authorities. This we'll see in the next post about another historic house in grave danger.)
If there's any fault to be found here, I suppose it's towards the DAB for not maintaining Sunnybrook, and allowing it to come to the state it was in two years ago. I have no way to know for sure, but I wonder if the heater/boiler/pipe issue had anything to do with the fact that the house was unoccupied at the time. But once that happened, there was no way they were going to be able to afford to fix it. I guess they could have tried some sort of a fundraising campaign, but I don't think they were inclined to do so.
The only other thing that bothered me about this story was that fact that if you read the HRB transcript, nobody seemed to know very much about the history of the house. They didn't know when the DAB purchased it, they weren't sure what function it served with the Brandywine Sanatorium/Emily Bissell Hospital, and they seemed to have only a vague notion that the house dated back as far as the mid-1800's. In this particular case I don't know that it would have made much of a difference if the history of the site was more well-known, but it couldn't have hurt. They even started at one point talking about Edgewood Sanatorium, the "colored" TB facility. That was located a good distance away, over on the north side of Hercules Road.
The loss of these two once-majestic homes reminds us that the remaining historic structures we're lucky to have around us are not guaranteed to be here forever. I'd like to think that the work of the blog here -- researching, compiling, and publicizing the history of local sites -- is a good first step towards keeping them safe. The next step would be to take this information into the real world, keep an eye out for any historical locations or structures that could possibly be in danger, and make sure that they have an advocate. No historic building should be lost just because its historical significance was lost first. Knowing the story behind an old structure won't guarantee its safety, but it should make it harder for it to be demolished, whether by machine or by neglect. Only we the people who care about such things can make that happen.