Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Save the Eli B. Talley House!

The E. B. Talley House on Mt. Lebanon Road
Considering everything I said in the last post about vigilance and advocacy for endangered historical sites, I'd be remiss and more than a bit hypocritical if I didn't bring to light what's going on right now up in Brandywine Hundred. There's an active situation involving an historic house that actually has elements of both the Abram Chandler House and Sunnybrook Cottage. I'm not sure what the odds are right now for saving it, but I want to make sure everyone is aware of the story revolving around the Eli Talley House on Mt. Lebanon Road.

The beautiful, whitewashed stone house sits on the north side of Mt. Lebanon Road just off of Concord Pike (Rt. 202) in Talleyville. Mt. Lebanon Road is the one heading west near the Talleyville Fire Comany, the post office, and the big Taco Bell. The house is on the right, just past the Boston Market, the Brandywine YMCA, and the Brandywine Valley Baptist Church. The three-bay, two story home, of course, long predates any of these, having reportedly been built in 1814.

The early history of the house doesn't seem to be too clear, as far as I can tell. The 1849 map shows it as McGalley, but I think that probably should be McCaulley. Just south of there, on the east side of Concord Pike in the present-day area of McDaniel Crest, there's an A. McCaulley, who I think is Alexander McCaulley. He actually died in 1841 and is buried at Mt. Lebanon Methodist Church, but his family may have still owned the properties. There's also an older Alexander McCaulley still living in Christiana Hundred in 1850, listed as a "Manufacturer". I'm not sure exactly where he is although the large number of Irish artisans listed around him make me think he may have been in the Hagley area.

Talley House (highlighted) in 1849

In any case the house soon came into the ownership of Eli Baldwin Talley, who also owned several other properties in the area (including the other McCaulley house) that would soon bear his family's (and maybe specifically his own) name. Talley also owned a house on Naamans Road just east of Concord Pike, where I think he actually resided. More importantly to our story, though, in about 1920 the house was purchased by Woodlawn Trustees, a foundation established by Wilmington philanthropist William P. Bancroft. Woodlawn had (and still has) the dual mandate of preserving open spaces along the Brandywine corridor, while occasionally selling off some of that land for development to finance their operations. The land for the developments of Edenridge and Tavistock on Mt. Lebanon Road were purchased from Woodlawn.

For a time, Woodlawn rented the house out, but in 1975 they sold the property. However, in keeping with trust's interest in the house's historic nature, they attached several restrictions to the deed which go with the land. Most importantly, Woodlawn reserved the right to approve any additions or exterior alterations to the house. Needless to say, demolishing the home would probably count as an "exterior alteration".

Talleyville area, 1868

In 1982, the house was purchased by Charles and Eiko Downing, the deed restrictions still intact. The Downings later divorced, and in 1997 Mrs. Downing became the sole owner of the nearly one acre property. She lived there for a while, but has since moved out and the house has been vacant for the past seven years. It seems that even when Downing was living in house, it was not very well cared for. Windows are missing and there are several holes in the roof. As a result, water damage is extensive throughout the home, as is mold. Reportedly there are even raccoons and squirrels living in it. On top of all that, quite literally, Downing seems to have been a bit of a hoarder and there is three feet of soaked, waterlogged, personal belongings cluttered throughout the house.

Because of this, Downing has never placed the house on the market. Although she wants to be rid of it, she has been too embarrassed to have anyone come and look at the house, and for safety reasons doesn't want anyone inside of it. All this comes to us from the one person who has been through the house, real estate agent John Laursen. Depending on your point of view, in this story Laursen is either the hero, the villain, or just a guy looking to make a buck. I honestly don't know which one he is, although I'd lean towards the latter.

Several years ago, Laursen came in and contacted Mrs. Downing, offering to buy the house from her. He even lent her money to pay off the back taxes on the property, and some extra to help get her by. The catch, though, is that Laursen doesn't want to buy the house to live in, or even to resell -- his plan is to demolish it and build two new homes on the property. According his statements at the Historic Review Board meeting last May, he has offered her $330,000 for the property, above what he says she could get from anyone else.

The Historic Review Board questioned him extensively at the hearing, trying to determine if there was any other option that might save the two century old home. Laursen stated several times that for the owner, the financials just didn't work doing anything other than tearing down the house. It was at the HRB meeting that the deed restrictions were first raised, Woodlawn having been notified of the situation by members of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred (CCOBH), an umbrella group led by Bob Valihura, himself a practicing lawyer.

Not long after that, Woodlawn transferred the enforcement rights for the restrictions to CCOBH, whose board voted to withhold approval of the demolition permit. More recently, CCOBH filed suit against Laursen, Downing, and New Castle County to stop the demolition. One of the issues, they state, is that Laursen does not have standing to file for the permit. The problem is, no one, not even Laursen himself, can get a hold of Downing.

According to a recent News Journal article, it looks like Laursen might be reaching the end of his fight. He states that he will withdraw the application for the demolition permit and walk away, frustrated at what he sees as "a historic group of people who are hellbent on stopping this." On the one hand, this seems like good news for the old house, in that it's safe from the wrecking ball for now. Unfortunately, this still does nothing to address the underlying problem -- the dilapidated state of the house and an owner who is unwilling and unable to do anything with it. Luckily, there are good people looking out for the property, and I certainly hope it can be saved if at all possible. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on.

14 comments:

  1. Not everything old is worth saving. The do gooders here will tie it up until the house just crumbles, the state claims it for taxes and some politician gets the spoils for a buck.

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    1. I agree with you to a point. Most old houses (like this one) in the area are not so historically important that they should be saved "at all costs". At some point many of them (again, it seems, like this one) reach a stage where they just need to be taken down, if for no other reason than safety. That assumes we live in the real world where there is a shortage of people with unlimited funds to come and pump large sums of cash into saving the structures that have been allowed to dilapidate (I'm not sure that's a word, but you get the idea).

      However, if we step back in the process, I believe every old building deserves to have an advocate, much like the right to an attorney. Like criminal defendants, not every one deserves to win, but I hate to see them get "lost in the system". I have nothing against progress, and we shouldn't let the past get in the way of moving forward, but these old houses deserve to at least get a chance to survive.

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    2. Of course this comment is made by a builder looking to plow over anything or anyone to make a profit.

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    3. There is nothing is significant about this house. I drive by it everyday, it is and has been just an eyesore for countless years. May even be a danger to those snooping around it. Time to bring in the bulldozers.

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    4. First off, I want to thank you for your comment and your participation. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and the world is a better place for having honestly differing points of view. I appreciate hearing your opinion, even if I personally think it’s callous and wrong. You say that there is nothing significant about the house. Well, that depends on how you define “significant”. Is it Mt. Vernon or Monticello or a grand Vanderbilt estate? No, of course not. But it is an old house (likely over 200 years), one of the last remaining links to the early history of the area. It also links to one of the major families in the area. For those reasons alone, it should have gotten a better chance than it did.

      You also say it’s “an eyesore”. That’s not the fault of the house. The blame for that lies on the people involved. With the right owner and the right amount of money, it could be made beautiful again. Put a new roof on it, replace the shutters, and give it a new paint job (or better yet, strip it and reveal what’s probably gorgeous field stone underneath) and it’s better looking than much of the junk that builders are throwing up these days. But that’s just my opinion, your mileage may vary.

      I do agree with you on the next point, though. In its current state, it does look like it could be dangerous to snoop around in. However, it is still private property, and there shouldn’t be anyone snooping around to begin with. And given that it is private property, there’s frustratingly little we can do. So do I think, in a perfect world, that it should be saved? Yes. Unfortunately, we live in this world and I fully expect it will be torn down. Given the size of the lot, some builder will fit one, maybe two more houses there. He’ll make a few bucks at the expense of local history. That may not bother everyone (and apparently not you), but it does matter to some people. Just because it looks like it’s inevitable, it doesn’t mean we have to cheer it on or be happy about it.

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    5. And I just want to add, in a semi-separate point, that I'm not some sort of history version of a tree-hugger. I don't reflexively think that every old building should always be saved in every case. I do believe in progress. Sometimes the old does have to make way for the new. In this case, the two things that bother me are 1) that the house never really was given a chance, due to the negligence of the owner, and 2) it's not standing in the way of anything. Besides its condition, there's no good reason why it needs to come down. It's not on a huge lot. Replacing it will only add one or at most two new houses, and not in the most ideal of locations. In good condition the house could have been a beautiful gateway of sorts into the neighborhoods of nice homes down Mt. Lebanon Road. I'm just saddened that it came to this point.

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    6. Then I suggest you stop driving by and looking at it and because you need to make money is not a reason to bring in the bulldozers. Find another place to make money.

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  2. It is incumbent of the present to honor the past or the future would suffer.In millcreek hundred you can not walk more than a half a mile in any direction without stumbling a reminder of our past.it is pointless to argue what is and what is not worth remembering.Don't wait until that old house down the street is slated for the wrecking ball to take action,take action before and help preserve our history.

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  3. Scott, ignore this person. It's probably the developer that wants to tear it down. You have shared a historical perspective, and raised the issue of historical preservation without being a zealot. I know you don't make a dime for your opinions. This Anonymous has an agenda, shame on them. Hey Anonymous, talk to your shrink or go pound sand.

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  4. I'm the anonymous who drives by it everyday. I'm just a guy who lives in the area, not in any way going to profit from whatever happens. My actual preference would be to just clear the lot and have a small field or meadow there. We have enough houses already. True history would be woods with a deer or Indian path, not an old farm house...and that would be fine with me.

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    1. A perfectly valid opinion. Thanks. Cleared land is certainly in short supply. I actually love the open field across the street there. A couple of years ago I ran over that way a lot, and i loved seeing the deer that would congregate towards the treeline in the back. Sometimes they even make their way closer to the street. My wife even drove our daughter over there a couple times and just parked on the side street to watch them.

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    2. Clear the junk houses around it and not the one made to last that is over 200 years old.

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  5. Back I. The late 90s I went to an estate auction which was from the Talley estate. I'm not sure if it was this, but I ended up buying several antiques including photos and a portrait. Is this from the same place. Sebaxter67@aol.com

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    1. This particular house has been out of the Talley's hands for at least the better part of a century, so it doesn't sound like it was directly from this property. That being said, the Talleys were all related so there was almost certainly some sort of connection. Are any of the photos of houses or people? Are any of them labeled? If you want to discuss it more (and if it'd be easier), feel free to email me at mchhistory@verizon.net. I'd be happy to try to help answer any questions I can.

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