Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Losses and the Case for Vigilance

Now we get to what was supposed to be my third and final "catch up on stuff I'd missed" post,
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.


  1. Scott, I've got some pictures I took today. but because of insurance reasons I was not allowed to stay. But was given permission to return when demo. is done.Could you give me your email address so I can send you these. Dave Z

  2. I was there years ago redoing their electric service and the groundskeeper at that time told me the oldest part of the house was from the 1700's. Dave Z

  3. Dave Z -- The email is mchhistory@verizon.net. I'm morbidly curious to see the pictures. Interesting about the possible date. Obviously that's just coming from the groundskeeper, but I wonder if he had any real reason to think that. There certainly were people in the area at that time, so it's not impossible that there could have been an original section dating from that time. In that case, depending on the exact date and the precision of the deeds and Walt's interpretation of them as seen in the map he made (included in the Clark mill post), the house could conceivably be a Wollaston, Yarnall, or (I think more likely) Robinson house.

    I forgot to mention it in the post, but a team from UD came out to document the house last October. Now I'm even more interested to see what they might have come up with.

  4. I just added a current picture of the rubble pile that used to be Sunnybrook, taken from almost the exact same spot as the shot at the top. Thanks go to Dave Z for the picture.

  5. Interesting but sad info. Preserving historical properties is a complex subject. Most people are for it but the reality of the money required to renovate these type of structures is astronomical. Older structures were not built in the style that people want today. Being so close to Newport Gap Pike did not help either. There are structures at Emily Bissell that have or will meet the same fate as Sunnybrook. Mike Hearn

  6. You're absolutely right, Mike, it's often very complicated. I love these old properties, but I'm also a realist. I know that for varying reasons, not all of them are going to be saved. The Talley House in the recent post is a good example. Like Sunnybrook, the damage has already been done. Rehabing them is usually expensive, like you said. Nowadays it often takes either a corporate entity or an individual with a great appreciation and a great pocketbook. Sometimes the best we can do is try to make sure that these old properties have some sort of representation, and that they're not allowed to be taken down too quitely. If they have to go, they have to go, but they shouldn't go without the public realizing what is being lost. Also, we can try to keep a better eye out for sites that are on the road to ruin, and attempt to halt the process before it gets too bad.

    For what it's worth, I'm thinking about setting up a page highlighting endangered sites to publicize them. May not help, but at least we can try.

  7. The Judy Johnson House is another example. It doesn't date back to the 1700's or 1800's but is on the National Register and has been sitting vacant for aprox. 3-4 years.

  8. Good one, Denis. If I get around to setting up the Endangered Sites page, I'll definitely include that one. Thanks!

    Among others I have in mind are the Harmony Schoolhouse, the house on Kiamensi Road, and maybe the Harmony Mill house. I'm not sure what the latest is on that one. When I do, I'll take all the help I can get in compiling and maintaining the list.

  9. Possibly an approach to take on saving more of these treasured historic buildings is to find out the back story on the ones that are saved and tell the stories on here and on the endangered sites page. That may empower someone to help. The Samuel Dennison house is one example of a positive outcome. I wonder what went on in the planning stages regarding that property in regard to the sale and construction of the housing that's being built now. We might look outside our area too for examples. I think a great story is the Old Sterling Hotel in Delaware City. The place was in disrepair, the interior was falling apart and I think it was on the verge of being torn down. Several in the community saw the value of this building as an anchor in their town and got together and took action to preserve it. I don't know the details but they found buyers who purchased it, renovated it and now lease it to the American Birding Association as their National Headquarters. You should visit them and ask for a tour. It's a beautiful building and whoever purchased it did a wonderful job and invested a lot of money into the project without any return as far as profit goes. I'm sure the satisfaction of saving such a special place was a great enough value. I know the local Rep, mayor and local business owners had a hand in the attempt to save it and in finding a buyer. Several local business owners have invested, purchased, or provided the means to renovate many of the buildings and turned them over as small locally owned businesses that bring people and revenue into town. It's a great story and a wonderful example of local community coming together with a similar interest. Possibly there are people in the Mill Creek area or in the state who have the desire and the means to d something. I cringe every time I think of some of the historic structures that were torn down in Newport, even after attempts to save them. I think they have an endangered sites listing. I cringe every time I drive by the Harmony School House. It's starting to look worse. Thank you for what you're doing to educate and bring awareness to your readers! Joanne M.