Thursday, September 21, 2017

This Old House: It's Having A 300th Birthday, But There Won't Be A Celebration

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.
I 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.
This 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.

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 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 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 fireplace.
The 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.)
By 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 one. 
(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.
It 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.)
Meanwhile, with 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.
From 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.
Private 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 unchecked.
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.
Anyhow, 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 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.


Unknown said...

And I don't know that I will ever be able to go back after seeing the photo. The tragedy of neglect .......

K.J.Linhein said...

A tear in my old eye as well..

David McCorquodale said...

I've gone past that house many times when I did long runs in the area. What a shame!

A Big Fat Slob said...

Our long standing lack of regard for the historical and the old is in our DNA -- an offshoot of our founding in which we intentionally shuffled off old ways and old alliances and looked forward. That philosophical outlook had its tangible corollary in the lack of concern over the loss of grand old structures like this one, or historical ones like Ben Franklin's Philadelphia home. There's also the idea that, in Eurpoe, a 300-year old building is often a "newer" structure than the truly ancient. (I always thought that the preservation of Gettysburg battlefields was a remarkable accomplishment in that era.) It's been decades since I read it, but I have a vague recollection that Tocqueville may have made a similar observation in the 1840s.

It's really only post WWII that there have been concerted efforts at preservation of historic structures (part of that undoubtedly tied to the general increasing wealth and financial security of the evolving middle class).

Anyway, I agree. it's a shame. I live in a 100-year old home and like the sense of history and stability it conveys.

Everything Gutter said...

Love the park, I wish there was a way to save this house. I always wondered about this house. The more I dig the more I find! We should try and save this house there has to be something that can be done?

Alan Muller said...

I'm the owner of a 1700s house and could say a lot about this, but won't, except that our disregard for cultural resources is similar to our disregard for natural resources.

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Shaun Mullen said...

EDITOR'S NOTE: Comments subsequent to this one were posted on September 21, 2017 or thereafter when this story was updated to include the arson fire.

Anonymous said...

What a damned shame! I loved that place, and know you did too.

Anonymous said...

Fond memories remain. Very sorry.