Frank Lloyd Wright (perhaps you’ve heard of him) once said, “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.”
The truth of this, it would seem, is self-evident. Why else does one find such architectural variety across the globe? Why else has the course of human history been marked by an undying desire to create not only practical buildings, but beautiful ones as well? Perhaps then architecture really is the mother art, for it fuses form and function like no other discipline. One can’t find shelter in a book or protection in a painting. Instead we have architecture, the only art in which we can live.
Enter the city of Wilmington, whose myriad neighborhoods are not only diverse enclaves of assorted cultures and traditions, but also surviving testaments to the importance of unique architecture.
“Wilmington is blessed with a variety of architecture, from modern designs to structures that date back to the beginning of this nation,” says Mayor James Baker. “Unfortunately, they tore down a lot of the historically significant structures over time, but we’re still one of the few cities where you can walk down Market Street and still see how most of the original street looked back in the 1800s. That, to me, is significant. Overall there is a very nice collection of architectural periods and styles in Wilmington, which makes it a very unique city.”
What follows is a look at some of Wilmington’s most remarkable and architecturally distinct neighborhoods. Whether you’ve lived here your entire life or you are visiting, take a moment to explore some of these communities.
You don’t need an architecture expert to tell you that Quaker Hill is a portrait of quaintness. Just kissing the edge of Center City, this tight-knit neighborhood is as steeped in history as any other on the East Coast. The architecture is a very visible reflection of that fact.
The neighborhood’s aesthetic centers on a Quaker meetinghouse that was erected in 1816. Here you will find plenty of red brick masonry and three-story row homes with elaborate cornice brackets. According to the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation, the architecture spans three centuries and many styles, including Colonial, Federal, Georgian, Georgian Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Neo-Gothic and Victorian Styles.
If you find yourself in Quaker Hill, make sure to check out notable structures, including the Cathedral of St. Peter, the city’s first Catholic church, which was built in 1818; West Presbyterian Church, a brick and brownstone treasure built in 1871; and several homes along West Street, including numbers 507 through 515, gorgeous Neo-Gothic and Italianate homes that retain their original wrought iron porch supports. Number 301, built in 1750, is one of the oldest structures in the city.
“Quaker Hill is one of the earliest and most historically rich neighborhoods in the city,” says city planner John Kurth, an authority on local architecture. “It can sometimes be hard to tell from just looking at the facades of these buildings what period they are from, since so many of them have been added on to and changed. But when you really get inside, you can see the history there.”
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One of Wilmington’s most storied and recognizable neighborhoods, Trinity Vicinity grew out of industrial necessity. The city’s population swelled by almost 30 percent between 1870 and 1880, so more homes were needed. In 1870 the Rev. Patrick Reilly partnered with Dr. Philip Plunkett and William Russell, a team later to be known as Reilly, Plunkett, Russell & Co., to sell several building lots on the block bordered by West 10th, North Madison, West 11th, and North Jefferson streets—the neighborhood of Trinity Episcopal Church. Though no original residential structures remain, plenty of architectural evidence of the neighborhood’s rich history still exists.
“Wilmington has a lot of vernacular row homes that were interpretations of the popular styles of the late 1800s, back when the architecture profession didn’t exist like we know it today,” says Kurth. “Universities such as Yale and Harvard were churning out architects left and right, but you mostly had master carpenters putting up street after street, sometimes 25 or 26 houses at a time. A good example of that would be the Trinity Vicinity neighborhood.”
Keep an eye out for cross-gable and mansard roofs, both of which are signature design flourishes of Trinity Vicinity.
Union Park Gardens
Since it was designed in 1918, Union Park Gardens has been an architectural Mecca for casual observers and experts alike. According to resident authors John and Rosemary Krill of the Union Parks Gardens Neighborhood Association, this intimate enclave contains structures that hearken back to English cottages.
“The architects working in this style were aiming for what they called ‘a simple dignity and beauty,’” the Krills write in their “History of Union Park.” “They were trying to reform the excessive decoration of the Victorian Era and, for their day, these garden suburbs were quite avant-garde.”
While it may not strike many as so revolutionary today, Union Park Gardens still maintains the heart of its original intentions. The streets were designed to look like an English village, with homes that vary in style, size and structure. Homes were developed in clusters, built with materials from stucco to brick. Architects worked to create “interesting corners and vistas,” according to the Krills, which can be appreciated to this day.
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Bordered by Rodney Street to the west, Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, Jackson and Van Buren streets to the east, and 10th Street to the south, Cool Spring finds its beginnings in the early 19th century. Much of its architectural distinction, however, comes from the innovations of Edward Johnson, who, around 1889, began using rough-faced brick instead of the more popular pressed brick commonly used on residential facades. According to Kurth, many attribute Johnson with being the first to implement this now-popular rough brick style, which can be seen throughout Wilmington.
One thing is certain: rough or pressed, there is plenty of brick in the neighborhood, both in the slate-roofed homes and on the sidewalks.
There are many beautiful Queen Anne homes and, in some cases, carriage houses. Many of Cool Spring’s most noteworthy structures are attributed to Johnson, including the homes of William Kennard at 1105 N. Broom St. and Charles S. Gawthrop, district manager for the American Foundry Corporation, at 1109 N. Broom St.
Another impressive residence is that of Charles G. Beadenkopf—who owned a large tannery once located on the corner of Fourth and Monroe streets—at 1103 N. Broom St., Kurth notes. The home was built by John A. Healey in 1917.
“This was a very proud, mostly Irish community that saw generations passing down their homes from one generation to the next,” Kurth says of Forty Acres, another neighborhood dominated by rows of Italianate architecture. “Even today you find a lot of families still there passing their houses down to younger generations.”
Forty Acres has seen perpetual development since it was first designed in the late 1800s. Spurred by its location relative to the center of the city (and its bustling commerce), Forty Acres could be considered an extension of Wilmington’s “street car suburbs,” Kurth says. The period between 1876 and 1885 saw particular growth, with 132 buildings going up. This included a portion of the Hartmann & Fehrenbach’s Brandywine Brewery, several stores and the carpentry shop of Samuel J. Newman & Company.
“Even during the Great Depression, area builders and contractors were busy in the Forty Acres neighborhood,” writes Kurth. Of special note is St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church.
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Bordered by Woodlawn, Pennsylvania, and Greenhill avenues, Wawaset Park is quite unique in that the entire neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The area was formerly the ground of Schuetzen Park, a horse racing track that later became an auto racing track and fair grounds. It was purchased by the DuPont Co. in 1917 and developed into the close-knit family community it is today.
“The homes look like they are straight out of Dickens’ London,” says John Rago, director of communications and policy development for Mayor James Baker. “Wawaset has some very unique, very expensive, very historic homes, and it has always been one of the most desirable places to live in the city.”
The street design and deviously jaunty rooflines may have something to do with people’s associations with Old London. Instead of running in neat north-south, east-west lines, Wawaset’s byways are curvilinear, flanked by Tudor cottages, Georgian mansions and Gothic revival manors. It is often looked upon as a suburb within city limits, and much of its aesthetic uniformity is attributed to the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, considered by many to be the father of landscape architecture.
There is enough architectural charm and history in this neighborhood to fill an entire book, as Brandywine Village is one of Wilmington’s most enviable and picturesque communities. One of the neighborhood’s most notable features is its recently renovated merchants homes on North Market Street, beautiful stone structures that soar above the sidewalks, as well as several Gothic revival and Georgian structures.
“Brandywine Village is very old and very interesting,” says Kurth. “There are some remnants of 18th-century architecture here, with large bay windows, slate roofs and some great homes along Buena Vista Street.”
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When it comes to Trolley Square, architectural variety is the neighborhood’s most noticeable feature. Most of the homes were built between 1870 and 1900, so they’re older than those of the adjacent Highlands because developers such as James DeVou and Joshua Heald developed a streetcar line there before it was extended past the neighboring Highlands.
“Two generations of one particular family stand out in the historical research I have done, that of Joseph R. D. Seeds and his son William,” says Kurth. “Joseph was a self-trained master builder and architect, while his son went on to actually get an architectural degree after programs began popping up in the U.S. in the 1870s.” In Trolley, you’ll see plenty of their Queen Anne-style homes. One notable property: The art studios of famed Brandywine School illustrator Frank Schoonover. They still stand proudly, high above Broom Street.
This neighborhood is one of Wilmington’s most architecturally intriguing, as its residents have been historically wealthy, resulting in some remarkably—and remarkably large—homes. There’s plenty of Gothic revival, French Gothic, and baroque design, as well as a few eccentric mission-style and English Tudor homes. Big turrets, Dutch gables, local stone, interesting masonry (herringbone patterns and corbelling), magnificent landscaping, and mature trees dominate.
“As for the architectural style of these homes, there are several styles represented, but Colonial Revival, Tudor and late Victorian styles predominate,” says Kurth. “Lots that weren’t sold by the late 1800s often times contain Colonial Revival-styled homes, such as most of 14th and 17th Street between Woodlawn Avenue and Mount Salem Lane.”
Kurth notes that the Spruance home at 2507 W. 17th St. is a “great example of the Colonial Revival style designed by Charles Barton Keen of Philadelphia, noted as one of the most prolific architects of the late 19th- and early 20th-century country house design.’” Other prominent firms from Philadelphia were often commissioned for these large homes, which often cost between $18,000 and $25,000. A typical East Side or West Center City row house from 1905 cost between $3,000 and $6,000.