Highfield, a 1939 four-bedroom Cape Cod Colonial cottage with wood paneling throughout, was one of many in Henlopen Acres designed and built by Wilbur S. Corkran, who liked to employ wood shingles for exterior attractiveness./Photo by Sandi Bisgood
Words By William F. Meehan III
Homes in Henlopen Acres—Delaware’s smallest incorporated town, nestled in Rehoboth Beach—were built according to its founder’s strict architectural guidelines: It must be attractive.
Nearly 100 years ago, Wilbur S. Corkran purchased the plot of land that would become the Henlopen Acres, which celebrates its 50th anniversary as a municipality in 2020. I learned about Corkran a couple of years ago while seasonally employed as the manager of the Henlopen Acres Beach Club. The club’s president, Joni Reich, and the mayor of the Town of Henlopen Acres, David F. Lyons Sr., approached me about writing a book on “the Colonel” and “the Acres,” as they are affectionately called. My original intent was to write a short history in appreciation of the beauty and charm of Henlopen Acres, but the research pointed me to the obvious story; so, I refocused on the emergent theme and ended up with a book called Henlopen Acres: The Colonel & His Vision. The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Architectural Style.”
When he purchased the Dodd family farm a mile north of Rehoboth Avenue in 1930, Wilbur S. Corkran knew the luscious blend of brine and breeze sweetened by aromatic woods lining a verdant landscape was a reason Delaware’s leading resort had become not only a popular tourist destination but also a desired location for summer residences.
Corkran had the foresight to preserve his vision for the residential park by adding a guarantee that distinguishes life in the Henlopen Acres still today: “Every essential restriction permanently protects your investment in a residence at Henlopen Acres,” Corkran wrote in a sales brochure.
Chief among the restrictions was architectural style.
Aesthetic coherence and continuity in Henlopen Acres home design were the principal concerns emphasized at the onset of communications with a buyer. The types of houses to be built, Corkran explained, will “conform to interesting architectural styles, for we feel that a desirable colony of this sort must be attractive in appearance. To this end, carefully drawn protective restrictions have been created.”
Corkran was the principal architect on most of the homes for twenty years, but buyers could employ their own designer with the understanding that they were encouraged to meet with Corkran before starting on the project. “The appearance,” Corkran stressed, “will be the principal guide in the acceptance of the plans.”
Corkran sent to new owners a “Statement of Policy” clarifying the “Henlopen Acres Architectural Style.” Pointing out that “[o]ur leanings have been toward the Colonial or early American types,” the document confirmed the single overarching concern: “We hope to achieve in the Acres a unity and appropriateness of architectural effect that will be in good taste and escape the cheap and usual clashing styles of resort houses [so that] the general picture will be harmonious.”
When there was a need to address the architectural restrictions, Corkran took prompt action, no matter where he was in the world. While in Santiago, Chile, in 1955, he drafted a seven-page handwritten letter on the Carrera Hotel’s engraved stationery denying “further construction” on a house whose owner failed to file plans “per Henlopen Acres restrictions.”
Starting in the 1950s, the Colonel and his wife, Louise, might jointly examine the plans submitted for approval, he analyzing the architecture and she the landscaping. The result, however, was always the same: “. . . and [we] are with you that it would be a very attractive layout. However, we cannot approve all of it for the following reasons.”
A prolific letter writer, Corkran was professional but blunt in his communications when discussing architectural style. In the spring of 1937, he drafted a lengthy justification for his architectural restrictions in Henlopen Acres. A homeowner proposed an exterior containing products and in a style Corkran thought “most unhappy architecturally.”
He informed the owner: “From these examples of imitation shingles I am more convinced than ever that they would not give a pleasing appearance on your proposed house . . . for they are designed for a cheaper clientele and are seldom, if ever, used on houses of better types.”
Corkran also thought the owner’s proposed Spanish architecture “considerably out of harmony” in a development of colonial rambling farm house types. Asserting his “architectural control” over homes built in Henlopen Acres, Corkran more specifically stated, “To put imitation shingles, or any shingles for that matter, on a Spanish house is little short of an architectural sacrilege.”
(From left): Corkran typically made a rendering for a homeowner prior to making the architectural blueprint.; The cover of the book.
Corkran’s ideas for interior and exterior home design were meticulous, leaving no detail to chance. Often numbering two dozen pages, Corkran’s tabulated “Schedule of finishes” for a home included closets, from the shade(s) of paint to the amount of gloss on screws, as well as the masonry requirements, from the mix of the sand to the composition of the mortar.
Daniel J. Anderson Jr., who developed Rehoboth’s North Shores community in the late 1950s, thought Corkran “a one-man band, so to speak. He was an architect and drew accurate depictions of the properties, which he then designed and built. The Colonel ran it all. He was a perfectionist.”
In the words of Dick Thompson, whose home was designed by Corkran in 1947 and includes a fireplace consisting of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse stone the Colonel hauled away in 1926 when the structure collapsed: “Each time I drive into the Acres, I am grateful to Colonel Corkran for his vision to create this beautiful neighborhood.”
Henlopen Acres: The Colonel & His Vision is available exclusively at ccpublishers.com.