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Slated for demolition on August 03, 2011
DEDICATED TO SAVING THE WILLIAM MURPHY HOUSE
Located at 1601 Rockland Road Wilmington, Delaware 19803
Journal Article by Robin Brown
March 28, 2011
House Likely to meet it's Demise
The fate of the Murphy House near Rockland has
deteriorated along with the condition of the
1840s-era farmhouse itself, from cause celebre to
apparently lost cause.
Its preservation has devolved into a cautionary tale
showing that good intentions, promises, public trust
and even deed restrictions do not guarantee an old
building won't meet the wrecking ball -- even one at
a prominent site tied to the du Pont family.
The Nemours Foundation bought the state-owned house
across from the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for
Children in 2008 and promised to restore it. It
studied the cost last year and could not justify the
expense, even though a decades-old deed restriction
called for exactly that, spokeswoman Grace Gary
"Even an organization like Nemours has to look at
its expenditures at a time like this," she said,
adding that every cost must be weighed against its
mission to care for children's health.
The two-story, Greek Revival brick-and-stone house
may be razed in months. Its last chance at survival
appears to be a long-shot hope that someone will
move and fix it elsewhere.
"It was a success story," said Delaware Magistrate
James R. Hanby Sr., whose family has been in the
area since the 1700s. "Now, it's a source of shame."
The foundation applied for a county demolition
permit last November, sending the case to the
Historic Review Board, a citizen panel that reviews
permit applications relating to historic sites. It
can hold up demotion for nine months and is doing so
with Nemours' application, Chairwoman Barbara Benson
said. But it can't stop the razing.
Despite pleas from Hanby, other residents and
Preservation Delaware, county officials say Nemours
will get the permit to begin razing Aug. 3, when the
review board's hold expires.
Hanby, who helped save the house years ago,
testified at a review board hearing this month to
ask the foundation to find a way to keep its widely
praised promise to restore the house -- or save it
for better financial times. He called Nemours'
reversal "a huge betrayal of trust and a huge loss
to the historic fabric of Brandywine Hundred."
While praising its hospital and good deeds that
include the renovation of the Nemours Mansion, Hanby
said the foundation should be ashamed of breaking
its promise to the community. "I understand hard
economic times, but a commitment is a commitment."
Hanby served on the review board during its 1990s
work with state officials and attorneys, when a deed
restriction was devised to preserve the Murphy
House. But officials say it can't be enforced.
Restrictions not cited as "running in favor" of
anyone require no one's permission to be altered or
eliminated by property owners, said David Culver,
general manager of the county Department of Land
Use. Such deed restrictions often are lifted in the
land-use process without problem or penalty, Culver
Recorder of Deeds Michael E. Kozikowski said deed
restrictions typically fall to maintenance
corporations and civic associations; for example,
having them be responsible for limits on decks,
sheds and pools.
"This is really the first time, as recorder of deeds
for eight years, that we've had something like this
come up," he said.
Known for its fading pink stucco, the Murphy House
sits on ground littered with cigarette butts near
traffic at its Rockland Road corner across from the
entrance to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for
State agencies and officials had promised since the
1990s to preserve the house and other buildings in
connection with area road work. The Department of
Transportation acquired the Murphy House after
performing road work on the site, a farm pared over
time to a little less than an acre.
Starting in 1992, agreements involving the state and
federal governments over a decade promised the state
would "take steps to ensure the stabilization,
restoration and adaptive reuse" of the house and to
keep it in good condition. Pacts also promised its
"permanent preservation covenant" would ensure all
repairs and restoration met federal preservation
"That didn't happen," said County Councilman Bob
Weiner, whose district covers the site. "The advance
work was put into its preservation, but it failed.
DelDOT spokesman Mike Williams said the agency
replaced the roof, stabilized the house and secured
it. DelDOT couldn't afford the restoration and was
pleased the foundation offered to do it, he said.
Before the $10 sale, DelDOT made sure the foundation
had the state's $1.2 million renovation estimate.
Foundation officials did a final walk-through and
agreed the house would be preserved permanently,
"We thought it was in good hands," Williams said.
The state wouldn't have sold if there was any doubt
the foundation could afford the restoration, he
said. "They assured us that they could. They took it
knowing about repair costs in that range. ... They
had plans to do it and those plans changed."
The change did not sit well with Preservation
Delaware's new president, Daniel R. Griffith, who
had signed earlier preservation pacts as a state
historic preservation planner.
He wrote to Nemours last month, asking the
foundation to withdraw its demolition permit
application, saying the demolition "seems to be in
direct violation of the historic preservation
declaration attached to the deed."
Griffith wrote to the review board that Nemours has
not adequately explored alternatives to razing,
should get more renovation bids, advertise
nationally the building is available for relocation
and offer a subsidy for its move.
The foundation had every intent to reuse the Murphy
House, said Gary, executive director of the Nemours
Mansion and Gardens. But, she said, "DelDOT had the
building for a very long time and ... [it] became
Last year, the foundation hired experts to study
restoration costs again. After John Milner
Associates said rehabilitation, not counting major
structural work, would cost $885,500 to use two
floors as offices, the foundation decided on
demolition, she said.
The inside would need a full rebuild because
ceilings and walls have fallen, floors are bad,
there is no insulation, utilities would have to be
installed and a winding staircase would have to be
replaced, as would the roof, she said. Gary, who
worked 30 years in preservation, said DelDOT's road
work also created issues with traffic and access.
At more than $485 per square foot for office space,
Gary said, foundation leaders found it was "just an
unfeasible amount," especially since the house's
historic context was lost over time. "Choices have
to be made and it's not easy," she said.
Griffith's withdrawal request was rejected as "not
timely," because the foundation is beyond four
months into the process, she said. The application
has been in since fall, got its board review, and
the foundation is following its recommendations,
such as offering the house free for the moving.
The foundation accepted the board suggestion to save
part of the house as a landscape feature with
explanatory signage, she said, adding that the
foundation has another house the family used.
At this point, Gary said, the foundation does not
plan to reconsider demolition. "Our intentions were
good from the start and we're still trying to make
the best of a bad situation," she said.
Gary said she and foundation leaders hope the house
is moved and restored. "That would be a marvelous
solution," she said.
Weiner said the take-away lesson is that future
preservation pacts and deed conditions must detail
required preservation, monitoring, enforcement,
public hearings before a sale, guarantee buyers meet
in-perpetuity deed obligations and other steps to
avoid losing more sites to "demolition by neglect."
"Unless people are willing to commit themselves to
be watchdogs," he said, "we're bound to repeat this