|JOHN EVANS HOUSE -- SEPTEMBER 2015 |
(ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2017, A FIRE DESTROYED WHAT WAS LEFT OF THE HOUSE.)
On rare occasions, history bequeaths us an opportunity to live in an old house that speaks deeply of its rich past, an experience that is far more common in the U.K. and Europe than the comparatively young U.S.
had one such opportunity in the 1980s when I lived in the John Evans
House, a gem of an architectural crazy quilt in a secluded valley north of Newark,
Delaware near where Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon drew their famous line. It is
where my children were born and spent their early years, a rather
isolated existence for youngsters who didn't have any place to
ride their bikes, needed to be mindful of not getting too close when playing near the woodstove in the winter, and had to be driven to town to trick-or-treat on
Halloween. But even at their tender age they
appreciated, as we grown-ups certainly did, the sublime beauty of the
house and its surroundings.
The John Evans House is 300 years old this year, but there won't be a celebration.
is because the U.S. is different than our cousins across the pond in
another way. We simply don't particularly value our past. While the
occasional old pile gets razed in the U.K. and Europe, old houses
typically are revered, maintained through the ages and restored as
necessary, while here too many old houses are just a wrecking ball away
from a highway interchange, shopping center or burger joint. Or worse,
die a slow death from neglect, which is the fate of the Evans House.
|EVANS HOUSE AND ENVIRONS -- ca. 1840|
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 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.
Evans brothers sailed home, outfitted a ship and returned to the colony
in 1715 with their families. John Evans had the brick ballast from the
ship transported to his land, some 400 acres in all, in that 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
house grew and grew again later in the 18th century with the addition
of a granite-fieldstoned center section containing a dining room and
fireplace and three more bedrooms upstairs, one with a fireplace, and
finally a story-and-a-half kitchen addition with a large walk-in
area around the house was farmed, but a mill and millrace were soon built
nearby, and then 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. The house passed out of the
Evans family at some point and a succession of other families lived
there, including an emigre family from Canada who operated a sod farm for some time in the 20th century on the fertile floodplain behind the
house bordering the White Clay Creek. (I know that because I found a son's Army dogtags under an opening in some attic floorboards and traced his ancestry.)
|EVANS HOUSE -- 1983|
the early 1960s, the house was somewhat in decline but still solid. It
was fronted by a white picket fence when I would ride 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 gem
and fantasized about being able to do so some day.
When I next
saw the house a few years later, it 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 had an outsized presence and was
enormously powerful 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 in 1729 in thanksgiving for his good fortune, and dozens
of other structures. A magnificent habit for rare flora, including wild orchids, and 33 species of mammals, 27 species of amphibians and reptiles, including the endangered bog turtle, 24 species of fish, and 93 species of birds would be wiped out
in the service of supplying water from a massive reservoir to a textile manufacturing plant DuPont
wanted to build 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 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, a crime against the
history and famous architecture of the lovely area if ever there was
(The Evans House may be the oldest 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 bigfooted onto the scene.)
|EVANS HOUSE -- ca. 2000|
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 treasure and 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 also was DuPont friendly 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 Joe Biden.
was not until 1982 that the future of the Evans House seemed to be assured. That was when Biden, by then a veteran 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 (3,300 acres) and
Pennsylvania (1,255 acres) 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.
In Pennsylvania, this sylvan wonder is known as the White Clay Creek Preserve, while in Delaware it is called the White Clay Creek State Park, an adjunct of the Walter S. Carpenter State Park. The icing on this environmental cake came in 2000 when President Clinton signed a law adding 190 miles of the White Clay
Creek and its tributaries to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
The White Clay was the first wild and scenic river in the United
States designated on a watershed basis rather than a river corridor. (We can thank Biden and then-Delaware Governor Tom Carper for that rule-bending sleight of hand.)
DuPont as my landlord, my boyhood dream had come true and I had been living in
the Evans House since 1981. With the deed transfer, my rent checks went
to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
|EVANS HOUSE -- SEPTEMBER 2015|
the start, the Pennsylvania side of the Preserve was woefully
underfunded, and we made "sweat equity" repairs to the 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 later told us were from the kickstands of motorcycles parked there when bikers had briefly used the house. But for being 270 years old, the house was in extraordinarily good condition and nearly 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 tenant who moved in after we moved
out, when the inevitable deterioration commenced that befalls old houses
that are not kept up.
groups expressed an interest in preserving the now vacant house. Under one
proposal, it would have become a museum. But the cost of restoration
would have been prohibitive -- at least a half million in late 1980s
dollars, according to my estimate at the time -- and neither the groups nor
the state had that kind of money. The deterioration proceeded
Looking back, the house's fate was determined when the state did an inadequate job of closing it up. We probably can blame that chronic underfunding of parks and the other things that really matter, although that excuse has become profoundly disingenuous in an era when the Pennsylvania government has opened our lands to rapacious frackers, but only a trickle of the billions in natural gas that energy companies pump out of our ground ever finds its way back into state coffers and places like the Preserve where it might really make a difference.
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 preservationists commonly use. Louvers would have allowed the house and its floors, walls, ceilings,
attic and roof to breathe and not suffocate, slowing its deterioration until an angel with
deep pockets might come along.
The memories came flooding back in September 2015 when I stopped by to pay my respects to the John Evans House, as I always do when I'm in the area. The valley, on the cusp of summer and autumn, was brilliantly sunlit and songbirds heralded my presence, as they always do.
The roof had been more or less in place, if a little leaky, on my previous visit a year or so earlier. But on this day 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. Vegetation
had overtaken and seized the back of the house, covering the windows from which we watched the sun burn off the mist over the creek on many a morning, slowly but surely assisting in the team effort of time and neglect to pull down and eventually transform to rubble an irreplaceably beautiful house and monument to local history.
I wept then, and all over again today when I learned that a fire had finished what the state of Pennsylvania had begun.