Wednesday, November 2, 2016

MCH History Blog On the Road: The Chambers House

Recently I was talking to my late-elementary school aged daughter about researching and writing. I told her that it's not unusual for you to have one idea about where you think an investigation will go before you start, and then have it end up going in a different direction once you start uncovering the actual facts. That is just what happened when I decided to look into the history of the Chambers House, located in Brandywine Hundred near Bellefonte, at the corner of Lore Avenue and Brandywine Boulevard. It's a beautiful Queen Anne style home on a corner lot, stylistically different from the comfortable early-century homes around it, yet somehow fitting in to the neighborhood.

I had known of the house before, but only that it was named for a former, high-level DuPont employee who had owned it for several decades. A few weeks ago I came across the name of the person who was credited for building the home in about 1894, so I was naturally curious as to who this person was who built such a stately home for the area. I had only her name to go on at first, but I ultimately did trace the ownership of the property from the early 1800's through the mid 1900's. I can honestly say that every step of the way had a "So that's who that was" moment, but in the end I can't quite answer the fundamental question at hand here -- Who built the Chambers House, and when?


1889 Sale from Gordon's heirs to William Beadenkopf

We'll begin the story as far back as I've gone, long before the house was built, with a debunking of a local naming myth. The story I'd heard was that Gordon Heights, the neighborhood south of Bellefonte and east of Brandywine Boulevard, was named by developer Earnest MacNair because "His ancestors were Scottish and the name kind of sounded Scottish." I can pretty definitively say that there's a simpler explanation than that. I haven't found the exact date, but sometime prior to his death in 1847 John Gordon (originally of Kent County) purchased farmland in Brandywine Hundred. Gordon made his living as a real estate dealer in Wilmington, so the farm was almost certainly leased to a tenant.

In 1889, Gordon's heirs sold 144 acres (north of Marsh Road, from Philadelphia Pike down to the river) to William Beadenkopf, a leather manufacturer from Wilmington. It seems it was Beadenkopf who laid out the plan for Gordon Heights, naming it after the former owners. He sold off the land piece by piece, including a 16 acre tract in 1891 to a single woman from Wilmington, Marion Clark. It was Clark who was my original starting point, as she's the one usually credited with building the home. I was curious to know more about Clark, and why she would build such a house. She didn't seem to be from a wealthy family, so it didn't quite make sense until I came across the newspaper ad below.


Philip R. Clark, Marion's father, was the real estate dealer selling lots in the area! I haven't completely figured the Clarks out, as Marion's sister May also bought and sold land in the neighborhood. It does seem though that they were strictly selling lots to be built upon, not building houses. Marion only owned the lot in question for three years, before she sold the 16 acres again in 1894. The deed gives a detailed description of the lot, so there's no doubt it contains the site of the house. The outline of the tract can be seen below. The house is directly above the blue bus stop icon.

1894 sale from Marion Clark to Preston Lea

Marion Clark's 16 acre lot

Clark's 1894 sale of the lot is interesting both for the price and for the buyer. The land was purchased for $10,000 by a very prominent Wilmingtonian with a name that should be familiar to those versed in Wilmington and Delaware history -- Preston Lea. Lea was (along with his brother William) heir to the Lea milling firm on the north bank of the Brandywine (now the site of the Superfine Lane condos). Through his business career, Lea, among other things, served as president of the milling company, president of several banks, the Wilmington Board of Trade, the Wilmington City Railway Company (trolleys), and was a director of the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington Railroad. If that weren't enough, in 1904 he was elected Governor of Delaware.

Gov. Preston Lea

Preston Lea always resided in Wilmington, so he didn't live in the house on Lore Avenue. The question is, did he buy or build the house, or neither? On the one hand, he was a very wealthy man and certainly had the resources to build the house, even if it was as a summer home for him and his family. In this respect, he seems a better candidate than Marion Clark, a real estate dealer who lived in various comfortable, but modest, homes in the city. (One of them incidentally, in the 1890's, was almost directly across the street from the Leas.) Plus, unlike Clark's three year ownership, Lea held on to the property for a full fourteen years. Why keep it if you're not going to use it?

On the other hand, when Preston Lea did finally sell the house lot (now about two acres), he did so for only $2000. I realize that the official sale price of a piece of real estate (especially between wealthy dealers) might not reflect the entire transaction, but this price seems too low for two acres (in a developing area) and the house. With the price alone I can make the argument that the next owner, real estate dealer John R. Wilson, may have built the house. He was a Brandywine Hundred native, from the Wilsons for whom Wilson Road was named. And unlike the previous owners, I'm pretty confident that by at least 1910 he was actually residing in the house. The 1910 Census lists him on "Lore Avenue Hillcrest", on a corner. (And, of note, two families down from Earnest MacNair and on the same page as artist and publisher George Wolf.)

The best argument for Wilson as being the builder comes when he sells the same two-ish acre lot just six years later, in 1914. He sells it to yet another interesting city-dweller, Alfred L. Ainscow, for the price of $14,250. Quite a jump from the $2000 he paid. Since I doubt that real estate values rocketed up that much, the logical explanation would be that he had built the house in the interim. Unfortunately, as of now, I don't have any hard evidence to prove who built the house one way or the other or the other.

Ainscow's establishment, white buildings on right

I can say that Ainscow didn't buy the house for himself. He turned around immediately, the next day in fact, and sold it to Blanche and Clarence Young. They happened to be his daughter and son-in-law. Alfred Ainscow had the ability to buy and sell the house because he, too, was a wealthy man. He owned a restaurant and hotel located at 802 Market Street, just a couple doors down from the Grand Opera House. Ainscow had several other ventures as well, including running the food services at nearby Shellpot Amusement Park.

I don't know for sure if the Youngs lived at the house, but I would assume that they did. They didn't stay long, though, as they sold the house in 1918 to Dudley Wood. Wood was an employee of the DuPont Company, and is shown in the 1920 Census in the house. His employer is relevant to the story because, not long after that 1920 Census, Wood sold the house to another up-and-coming employee of the DuPont Company -- Arthur D. Chambers.

Close-up from aerial photo taken 5-5-1940. Chambers House
is to the right of the top of the lighthouse.

Ontario, Canada native Arthur Chambers was a chemist for DuPont, and helped it in the transition from the 19th Century explosives company to the modern chemical firm. He was instrumental in building up the dye works across the river in Deepwater, NJ, and on his 1944 retirement the site was renamed the Chambers Works in his honor. I believe he lived the rest of his life in the house, until his passing in 1961. It was almost certainly, then, either he or his estate that sold the property to the next owners, the Wilmington Christian School.

Arthur D. Chambers

Wilmington Christian held classes in the house from 1962 to 1968, before moving on. At least one newspaper report from 1965 showed plans that had been drawn up to build a new school on the lot, but those were abandoned. The home has gone through about four owners since the school sold it and now, it's for sale again. I know this gorgeous house is well outside of Mill Creek Hundred, but it has an interesting history. While Marion Clark has been credited with its construction (and that is certainly possible), Preston Lea and John Wilson are possibilities as well. Hopefully at some point some concrete evidence of the builder will surface, but in the meantime enjoy some pictures of the interior of this stately abode (all taken from the listing).






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