The first thing you need to know about the John Evans House is that it was really old, as in 302 years old.
The second thing you need to know is that I lived in the John Evans House, brought my newborn children home to its welcoming embrace, cherished it in summer heat and winter cold, and worked tirelessly to keep it from the fate that befalls far too many historic structures -- be they grandiose mansions or tarpaper slave quarters -- in a country that neither understands nor values its past.
The last thing you need to know is that the John Evans House was killed twice over.
It was first killed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which was gifted the house and the verdant lands around it by an act of Congress. Its response was to willfully neglect a profoundly historic structure that predates the commonwealth itself by nearly 75 years and then list it for demolition. And then it was killed again by what in all likelihood was an arsonist.
This then is the story of the glorious birth, long life and awful death of the John Evans House.
John Evans was a Welsh Baptist who, as the story goes, sought a new life in the New World early in the 18th century to escape religious persecution. He and his brother Thomas sailed to the Pennsylvania colony where they bought land in what would become Chester County in Southeastern Pennsylvania and the northernmost of the three lower Pennsylvania counties that were to become Delaware. The seller was William Penn. The nearest neighbors, Lenni Lenapes who had lived in the region for perhaps 2,000 years and had sold much of the valley to Penn in 1683, were not consulted.
The Evans brothers sailed home, outfitted a ship and returned with their families and servants to the colony in 1715, which as years go, was pretty tumultuous beyond the Evans's tight-knit world and centuries-long legacy of messing with their Welsh Baptist brethren by whomever happened to be in power in the so-called United Kingdom.
Elsewhere in the U.K. in 1715, Viscount Bolingbroke was secretly negotiating with France, leading to the Treaty of Utrecht, which more or less ended the War of Spanish Succession. There was a rare total solar eclipse in London, the first in almost 900 years, scaring the bejesus out of Believers and Non-Believers alike. In the young American colonies, the first black slaves were arriving, while to the south in the Province of Carolina, the Tuscarora gave up their war against encroaching settlers and fled through Lenni Lenape country to upstate New York.
Meanwhile, John Evans had the Belgian bond brick ballast from his ship transported to 400 acres he had been deeded in a secluded valley hard by the confluence of the East and Middle Branches of White Clay Creek where he built a two-story gentleman's house of the ballast bricks with touches of what would become known as the Georgian architectural style. The first floor was an all-purpose room. There were two small bedrooms on the second floor and servants would have been quartered in the attic. There undoubtedly was a summer kitchen behind the house, while cooking was done in the large fireplace downstairs in cold and inclement weather.
The valley must have been heaven on earth for the Evanses.
The White Clay ran high, clear and fast even during the driest summers when its banks were perfumed by wildflowers. The creek ran deep, as well, as it coursed between boulders that were visitors from the last Ice Age and had stayed put after the big thaw. The verdant woodlands of oak, chestnut, maple, black walnut and sycamore teemed with wildlife, including deer, bear, turkey, mink, beaver and turtle. There were trout and eel in the creek, and when it flooded its banks in the spring, its deposits further enriched already fertile soil.
John Evans understood that he was building on a flood plain and the basement was constructed to allow water to run in and drain back out. I witnessed this at least once a year during my tenure there, and I became adept at being able to quickly remove the motor on the oil furnace as flood waters rose.
Underlying the valley is a conglomeration of rock formations, including the black granite that was the primary stone in the fieldstone walls of the first of two expansions to the house. The first expansion was later in the 18th century with the addition of a dining room with a grand fireplace and three more bedrooms upstairs. The master bedroom, which had a commanding view of the creek and field behind the house, had a smallish, free-standing fireplace.
The house grew again around 1800 with a story-and-a-half addition containing a kitchen with a large walk-in fireplace, rendering obsolete the summer kitchen behind the house. There also were various small outbuildings probably built of oak and chestnut.
In 1725, John Evans had begun construction of what became known as the Landmark Primitive Baptist Church (home of the legendary Ticking Tomb) a few hundred feet to the west of his house in thanksgiving for his good fortune. The area around the house was farmed, but a mill and millrace soon were built nearby. Later, grist and lumber mills and other businesses began springing up as the colony became a young republic and the nearby village of Landenberg grew and thrived.
In one of history's ironies, the White Clay Creek Valley is an oasis today compared to the fouled waters and air of 150 years ago when industry thrived in and around Landenberg and the John Evans House house passed out of the Evans family.
A succession of other families lived in the house, including the Yeatman family in the mid-1800s. (The house is referred to as the Yeatman Mill House by the Bureau of State Parks.) An emigre family from Canada operated a sod farm for some time in the 20th century on the fertile floodplain behind the house. I know that because I found a son's Army dogtags under an opening in some attic floorboards and traced his ancestry.
By the early 1960s, the house was somewhat in decline but still solid. It was fronted by a white picket fence when I first discovered it while riding my three-speed English bike into the valley from my family home a few miles away on high school-aged explorations. I imagined what it would be like to live in this brick-and-stone jewel and fantasized about being able to do so some day.
Out of college and back from a stint in the Far East a few years later, the house was somewhat seedier but still solid. The picket fence was gone and the valley and environs had been gobbled up by the DuPont Company, which was headquartered in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
The chemical giant, which for 200 years had an outsized presence in the region, intended to dam the White Clay and flood several thousand acres of the valley, submerging the Evans House, the church Evans built, and dozens of other structures. A magnificent habitate would be wiped out in the service of supplying water from a massive reservoir to a textile manufacturing plant DuPont intended to build at the Milford Crossroad north of Newark, Delaware.
But in a twist of fate that help seal the career a young politician who was to rise to national prominence, the John Evans House and valley were saved.
DuPont had consolidated its grip on the valley by secretly razing houses. One day there would be a house and the next day a newly landscaped and seeded lawn. Some were simple bungalows, but a few were historically significant, including the magnificent three-story and balconied Elzey House on Sharpless Road off London Tract Road, which was reminiscent of the Deer Park Tavern in Newark before it was bulldozed and buried in an unspeakable crime against history. Only the three giant sycamores that shaded the house remain.
Du Pont's furtive scorched earth policy left the John Evans House as probably the oldest structure still standing in the valley even if George Washington never slept there. A cabin made of chestnut logs said to have been built in the 1680s sat uphill on the far side of the White Clay, but it was destroyed in an arson fire well before DuPont big footed onto the scene.
DuPont began curbing its less altruistic corporate instincts because of furious opposition to the dam and reservoir from an unlikely coalition of foes: Dorothy Miller, a birding enthusiast and devoted environmentalist, a sportsman's club affiliated with the United Auto Workers Union at the Newark Chrysler Assembly Plant, and Sally Rickerman and Jan Kalb, whom I jokingly referred to as Attack Quakers in my admiration for their outspoken faith-based belief in saving the valley, which they happened to love and was where their own historic homes were located.
I did my part as a young editor at the Wilmington News Journal, where I assigned a reporter to write a series of stories on the mysteriously disappearing houses, which a DuPont mouthpiece initially denied had disappeared at all.
With the indefatigable Dot Miller leading the charge, the coalition fought DuPont to a standstill and then in 1970 a slate of Democrats was swept into office in New Castle County, Delaware on a reform platform that included opposition to the dam and reservoir, which had been backed by the deeply entrenched DuPont-friendly Republican incumbents. (The News Journal was a DuPont shill and pro dam and reservoir, and I caught flak for the stories.)
Among the newly elected reformers was a 28-year-old county councilman by the name of Joseph R. Biden.
It was not until 1984 that the future of the John Evans House seemed to be assured.
That was when Biden, by then a two-term U.S. senator, and colleague Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania sponsored legislation under which DuPont would receive a generous one-time tax break, which no one talked about, by deeding the valley to the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania in perpetuity for a preserve -- as opposed to a park -- that beyond rustic trails and the occasional gravel parking lot would remain undeveloped and largely undisturbed.
Meanwhile, with DuPont as my landlord, my boyhood dream had come true and I had been living in the house since 1981. With the deed transfer, my rent checks went to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, custodian of the new White Clay Creek Preserve.
But from the start, the Pennsylvania side of the White Clay Creek Preserve was woefully underfunded.
We made "sweat equity" repairs to the John Evans House in return for reduced rent. These repairs were, for the most part, fairly minor, although we never did get the skid marks out of a corner of the living room floor, which a neighbor who had lived in the valley for years later told us were from the kickstands of motorcycles parked there when bikers had briefly used the house. Yet for being 270 years old, the house was in good condition and as structurally sound as the day John Evans had opened the front door to his family for the first time.
The house remained in that condition, if a little rough around the edges, until after the last tenant moved out about 1998 when the inevitable deterioration commenced that befalls old houses that are not kept up.
Looking back, the fate of the John Evans House was determined when the state did an inadequate job of closing it up.
Houses like people need to breathe, and this is especially true of old houses as temperatures and humidity cycle up and down. This house's doors and windows were sealed with plywood boards instead of boards with louvers, which experienced preservationists use. Louvers would have allowed the house and its floors, walls, ceilings, attic and roof to breathe and not suffocate, checking its deterioration until the state woke up to the treasure in its midst or an angel with deep pockets came along.
By 2015, the house sat forlorn and very much neglected.
There was hideous graffiti on some of the first floor plywood boards and the roof and attic dormer windows were collapsing inward. The floors on the second floor had collapsed from being exposed to the elements because of the roof collapse. Vegetation had overtaken and seized the back of the house, covering the windows from which I had watched the sun burn off the mist over the creek on many a morning, slowly but surely assisting in a team effort of time and neglect to ravage an irreplaceably beautiful house.
In 2006, the state Bureau of Parks first listed the house for demolition.
"The John Evans House was a topic of conversation on many occasions," said Carla Lucas, president of the Friends of the White Clay Preserve, which was founded in 2012 as a chapter of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation. "Those who visited the Preserve on a regular basis watched the building deteriorate. We'd talk to the park manager, who said the state would do nothing because it would cost at least $600,000 to repair."
More recently, vandals had been breaking into the house although it is only a few hundred feet from the Preserve headquarters. That has been made easier because the Preserve, which is being slowly starved by the Bureau of Parks, has not had a manager since 2015 and has only a single full-time employee to oversee its 2,072 acres.
Then on the afternoon of September 20, the house burned, leaving only the exterior walls standing despite the efforts of volunteer firemen summoned from West Grove, Avondale and Hockessin.
While an investigation by the Chester County fire marshal and state police is ongoing, the cause is almost certainly arson.
Even after the fire -- no, because of what the fire laid bare -- the exterior walls of the John Evans House have an extraordinary story to tell.
Despite the deterioration of the roof, attic and floors, the walls of the house remain structurally sound and survived the fire pretty much intact, a monument to the built-to-last craftsmanship of the 18th and 19th centuries. And despite much hankie-wringing in recent years among wannabe preservationists that the house was about to fall down, no such thing was going to happen.
All of the fireplaces are intact, if bare.
The freestanding fireplace on the second floor wall is largely unscathed although the floor and joists beneath it had given way. The living room fireplace, on which I did some restoration work during my time in the house, also is substantially intact, as is the kitchen fireplace with its lovely arch. The magnificent dining room fireplace and hearth are scarred but also intact, as if ready for the next dinner party although it will never come.
There is a dreary record of historic structures on private land giving way to drug stores, banks and housing developments in history-rich Chester County. But it simply is unheard of that a structure on public land -- your land and mine -- with the three-century lineage of the John Evans House would be allowed to deteriorate to the point where it became easy prey for vandals, giving new meaning to the term willful neglect.
The trajectory of that neglect becomes shockingly apparent in examining official documents pertaining to the house that I obtained from the Bureau of Parks as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request:
March 1998: A document states that the house is "in need of major repairs [but] due to its historical nature, plans are to keep this structure and improve it as monies allow. There is a project listed in the amount of $100,000 to effect those repairs. There are no plans to remove this building, nor change its use in the foreseeable future."
February 22, 2006: The then-director of the Bureau of State Parks states in a letter to a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources administrator that the bureau intends "to dispose of" the house.
2007~2009: The disposal request wends its way through the state bureaucracy with approvals obtained from the Historical and Museum Commission, Bureau of Engineering and Architecture and Department of General Services, among other agencies.
September 12, 2008: A regional parks manager states without elaboration in a letter that "We have found no documentation that supports the building as historically significant."
2008~2009: The house is stripped of distinctive interior architectural
features, including fireplace surrounds, mantles and molding.
September 4, 2009: A Historical and Museum Commission review concludes that the White Clay Creek Preserve "has provided no alternative uses for this building at this location and there are no alternative sites within the park to which this building can be moved."
October 14, 2009: A demolition permit is approved by the Bureau of State Parks, but the house remains standing because of a lack of money to tear it down.
We can blame the usual whipping boy, the chronic underfunding of state parks for this meant-to-fail strategy, but that rationale has become profoundly disingenuous because it excuses the Bureau of State Parks and the Preserve staff (when it had one) of their responsibilities as stewards of a structure gifted the people of Pennsylvania by Congress.
"I think it was a failure all around to preserve the John Evans House. Privately as citizens of the community we could never get organized to find the funding necessary to at least put a decent roof on the building to stop the
deterioration," said Lucas. "As stewards of the property, the state failed to see the historical value of this house and dedicate funds to preserve it."
"The state parks system is so underfunded and so understaffed it is hard to blame a specific person but as an organization, they could have done more."
The office of Governor Tom Wolfe deferred comment on this tragic state of affairs and punted to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the parent department of the Bureau of Parks.
"There are limited resources to tackle historic structures like this one," said Christina Novak, director of the department's Office of Communications. "DCNR does maintain one of the largest inventories of historic structures in the commonwealth. In many cases the department is successful when it finds a partner organization which can find use for the building and generate revenue to facilitate the rehabilitation. This has not been the case of this structure."
We live in an era when the Pennsylvania state government opened its lands, including state parks and forests, to rapacious frackers, although Wolfe did ban new drilling on most state lands in 2015.
Yet only a trickle of the billions of dollars in natural gas that energy companies have extracted since 2005 while polluting streams and rivers ever finds its way back into state coffers and places like the White Clay Creek Preserve, where it could make a difference.
And might have saved a 302-year-old historic and architectural gem.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
It may be too late to save the John Evans House, but it's not too late to save and restore other structures on state parklands, including the historic Sexton's House in the White Clay Creek Preserve. Make your voice known by joining The Friends of the White Clay Creek Preserve and contacting the offices of Governor Tom Wolfe, state Senator Andrew Dinniman and state Representative Eric Roe.