The first time Ken Boulden saw Rockwood, he couldn’t imagine that he would ever officiate at weddings inside the 19th-century Rural Gothic mansion and on its grounds.
Back in the 1970s, Boulden, now the New Castle County clerk of the peace, was the county’s public information officer, and he visited the site several times with County Executive Mel Slawik and other officials as they discussed what they might do with the property that was deeded to the county in 1974 through a Court of Chancery ruling.
“It was empty, vacant, in shambles,” Boulden says. “It was probably getting ready to fall down around itself.” Boulden wasn’t a decision-maker at the time, but he had a good ear. “There must have been a hundred ideas.”
Might it become a county conference center, like the state-owned Buena Vista, another historic 19th-century mansion south of New Castle? Could it be an official residence for the county executive, like Woodburn, the governor’s residence in Dover? Perhaps Rockwood could serve as an office annex for the young but growing county government, then cramped in a wing of the Public Building on Rodney Square, with its Planning and Public Works departments housed in separate quarters on Kirkwood Highway.
“It was like a blank canvas,” Boulden says. “We realized we could do anything we wanted.”
But Rockwood’s design made it a poor fit for any of the uses that were discussed. And so it became a museum.
The choice was made not so much because the county had a master plan but because Rockwood came already furnished, filled with tables and chairs, sofas and beds, portraits and place settings. Those items, however, remained the property of the Hargraves family, the heirs of Joseph Shipley, the mill owner and merchant who built the mansion in the 1850s, and his grand-nephew, Edward Bringhurst Jr., who moved into the home in 1891. That was one of the conditions of the will of Nancy Sellers Hargraves, Rockwood’s final resident. (Joseph Shipley was the great-grandson of William Shipley, who arrived in Wilmington in 1735, purchased property in what is now known as the LOMA district downtown and moved his family into a house near Fourth and Shipley streets, which was named in his honor.)
The county hired a manager and a gardener to get the place in order, and made the mansion available for meetings of community groups. However, it was in no position to start purchasing the furniture, especially when the Hargraves family insisted it would accept nothing less than the values set by a high-priced New York appraiser.
Grayce Hess of Chadds Ford doesn’t remember the date, only that it was some time in 1976. Hess, who had been a tour guide at Winterthur for about 15 years, got a call from a friend. “She said, ‘Grayce, I’ve just been to a meeting at a fantastic place that has your name written all over it. You’d better get down there. They have no volunteers.’”
She drove over to see for herself, knocked on the door and met Alan Degas, who had been recently hired by the county to oversee the mansion. After Hess introduced herself and mentioned her Winterthur experience, Degas promptly invited her to join a tour being led by a part-time employee.
No sooner had the tour begun than the Rockwood phone rang, and the tour guide asked Hess to answer it. She ran through the downstairs, following the ring until she found the phone, took down a message and returned to the tour group, which by now had moved upstairs. The phone rang a second time; again the guide asked Hess to take a message. When a third call came in, Hess headed downstairs once more, took the message and heard a knock on the door. It was Degas, with another group of visitors, eager to take a tour. Since the guide was still upstairs with her group, Degas asked Hess to show the visitors around.
“I gave a tour by looking at the furniture, not even knowing who had lived here,” Hess recalls. “It was pure B.S. for an hour in a house that I really didn’t even know.”
But Hess would soon learn much of the house’s history. “It was fascinating,” she says. “It was an incredible place, but it was dusty, dirty and in need of great help—and it didn’t have any volunteers.”
Within a year, Hess would become the first vice president of the Friends of Rockwood, a volunteer group she helped create. For 20 years, the Friends would grow steadily, becoming as much a part of Rockwood’s fabric as the damask on its walls. A succession of county executives welcomed the Friends’ presence, largely because the executives had priorities they considered far more important than tending to an aging mansion that just didn’t seem to jibe with their plans.
“The people in the administration were tickled to death,” says Boulden. “They wanted someone to guide it, to take care of it.”
That’s just what the Friends did. They recognized the uniqueness of Rockwood, a Rural Gothic villa in an area dominated by 19th- and 20th-century interpretations of French architecture, a one-of-a-kind conservatory, and a house furnished with English, Irish, Continental and American decorative arts spanning three centuries and a succession of family owners. Volunteers went through boxes of old letters and typed summaries of their contents, helping guides to better tell the stories of the Shipley and Bringhurst families. For some, it must have seemed that they represented the next generation of those families, and they wanted to keep that history alive. As people learned about the house, they loved it, they wanted to be part of it, a former Friends member says.
The Friends, besides offering tours, sponsored special events, exhibits and other programs, and generally did whatever the county and the museum director asked, right down to dusting the furniture and washing the conservatory windows. Rockwood was important to them because its residents had been multiple generations of a single family, and all of the furnishings were those that they had acquired for their personal use over the years—unlike Winterthur and other venues, where only portions of the furnishings, if any, were used by the actual residents. Simply put, the Friends believed that the preservation of a historical building like this was important, and would benefit Delawareans for years to come. So coupled with the letters and diaries of family members left with the property, the Friends were able to piece together and share with those interested a family history from the 1850s into the 20th century.
To raise money to purchase the furniture from the Hargraves family, the Friends held flower sales and art sales, and then a picnic right after the Fourth of July to mark the birthday of Edward Bringhurst III, who grew up at Rockwood in the late 19th century.
Looking for a bigger, better fundraiser, the Friends organized their first Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Festival in 1983. In the early years, former Friends president Chris Hutchinson recalls, the event featured bicyclists on 19th-century high-wheelers, glass blowers, Civil War re-enactors, a dunk tank and lots of children’s games. Its popularity soared. By 1997, it had become a two-day event, drawing more than 18,000 visitors and netting about $50,000 a year.
At its peak, it took 400 to 500 volunteers to pull the festival together. “We even had a couple that came from New Zealand to volunteer for three years in a row,” Hess says.
As part of their cooperative arrangement with the county, the Friends took over maintenance of Rockwood’s Gardener’s Cottage and the Porter’s Lodge. In return, they were allowed to rent the two outbuildings and add the income to their treasury.
In contrast with other “Friends” groups throughout the county, like the library backers who raise money to buy more books and meet other needs, the organization developed an outsized presence at Rockwood.
“It’s a different history, a different relationship,” says County Councilman John J. Cartier, whose district includes Rockwood, because “for many years, they kept it afloat” while county officials in the 1980s and 1990s viewed the place as “a white elephant.”
Cartier’s characterization of the county administration’s stance on Rockwood is hardly unique. Others interviewed for this article said county leaders considered Rockwood a “money pit,” a “sinkhole” and an “albatross.”
According to budget summaries provided by County Executive Tom Gordon’s office, the county spent a little more than $3.3 million on repairs and improvements there from 1975 through 1997, an average of about $150,000 a year. Those figures do not suggest wasteful spending, but it was considered somewhat excessive for a small museum that attracted few visitors other than during the Ice Cream Festival and occasional special events. Rockwood, while unique to the area, couldn’t compete with Winterthur, Longwood, Hagley and Nemours, all boasting the homes of the 19th- and 20th-century du Ponts, and all supported by comfortable endowments.
Some of that began to change in 1997, when Gordon began his first term as county executive. And so did the role of the Friends.
It is Gordon’s view that the Friends were running the show at Rockwood, and that they were content to keep it as a museum displaying the Shipley-Bringhurst furnishings for a relatively small audience. “We had to open it up to the public,” says Gordon. “It can’t be run by a private group.” In 1998 Gordon took over the Ice Cream Festival from the Friends, transforming it from a fundraiser into a community celebration, using county employees to eventually build it into an even larger extravaganza, featuring fireworks and performances by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. To Gordon, the change was all about “creating value,” growing visitors at Rockwood to justify the money the county was spending there. “Eventually, we had 80,000 people here, but we didn’t do it to make a profit,” he says.
Then, in 1999, with major renovations about to begin, the county ordered the Friends to leave Rockwood—and to take their furniture with them. They paid to keep the furniture, including pieces still owned by the Hargraves family, at a mover’s warehouse in Newark, and moved into temporary offices at the Edgemoor and Claymont community centers. Essentially, the furniture had to be removed for renovations, and since the Friends owned the furniture, they were responsible for moving it on their own, as well as for paying storage costs.
Gordon’s administration went ahead with improvements. Spending during his first two terms, which ended in January 2005 and included construction of a new Visitors Center, topped $15 million. His goal was to create more traffic by bringing more visitors to Rockwood.
In 2004, the Friends transferred ownership of the furniture to the county, along with six acres along Shipley Road that the Friends had purchased in the 1980s to round out the estate’s grounds.
When Chris Coons became county executive in 2005, the Friends returned. But membership, which once approached 500, had fallen to 100 or less, according to June Zappa, the current Friends president.
The poor housing market cut sharply into the county’s revenues from the real estate transfer tax. Rockwood’s operating budget was more than cut in half—from $827,000 under Coons in fiscal 2007 to $350,000 under his successor, Paul Clark, in fiscal 2012. And spending for improvements disappeared altogether.
Both Coons and Clark quietly discussed unloading Rockwood—Coons was working with Wilmington University officials, who were looking for a site in Brandywine Hundred. Clark, who worked with the state, suggested that it might make good sense for a single government entity to manage the parkland and historic sites that stretch from the Delaware River at Fox Point west to Rockwood. The talks fizzled.
Meanwhile, the Friends hoped to raise about $500,000 by approaching foundations. They planned to finance repairs for the conservatory, but had little success.
Then, in November 2012, Gordon returned to office for a third term. Both Gordon and the Friends hoped their relationship would be better the second time around. When Gordon’s election appeared inevitable, the group decided to encourage a climate of cooperation.
“It would be very helpful if we had a partnership…. I never went into this thing saying I want the Friends out,” Gordon says.
Gordon took more time than was expected to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Friends, who were prepared to give the county $100,000 for repairs to the conservatory. Some county council members said the work would be subject to the county’s prevailing wage statute, so it couldn’t be completed without supplementing the Friends’ proposed gift. Several alternate proposals were considered but, in the end, county council rejected the gift by a 7-6 vote. The rejection occurred because local labor unions started raising questions about the prevailing wage issues. (Jobs that are estimated at a certain value require the county to pay workers at the prevailing wage.) To do the job right, in Gordon’s mind, it was going to cost more than $100,000, and again, going above that number meant dealing with more prevailing wage issues. Also, if the job were done on county property, the county would have been responsible for accidents or anything that may have occurred during construction.
The following September, David Grimaldi, Gordon’s chief administrative officer, got into a shouting match with Nancy Schanes, an elderly, longtime Rockwood tour guide and Friends member, when he went into an upstairs room at Rockwood to take photos of water damage in the ceiling. Schanes confronted Grimaldi and told him he was not allowed in the room without a guide present. (Grimaldi declined our request for an interview.) Then, in October, when Schanes signed up for a bus trip with other Rockwood tour guides, an unidentified county official said she couldn’t go. Gordon then ordered that Schanes could make the trip.
At the same time, the county requested that the Friends vacate the upstairs room they had used as an office so it could be given a different historic interpretation. “It was our decision to leave,” Zappa says. “Rockwood is going in a different direction and we’ve outlived our usefulness.”
As the new year begins, the futures of both Rockwood and the Friends are at a crossroads.
Gordon feels that Rockwood can no longer function primarily as a museum that attracts a small number of visitors. Between the mansion and the conservatory, nearly $2 million is needed for repairs, and he says the only way he can secure funding from county council is by developing a plan to bring thousands of visitors to Rockwood.
Gordon isn’t sure what that plan will be, but says it will be a priority for him early this year. “I have to create programs,” he says. “I have to make this building a destination.” (He does not rule out keeping museum activities as part of the picture.) He also wants Rockwood’s open space to become a refuge for city kids seeking a haven from Wilmington’s street crime, like the more than 2,000 city children who spent time at Rockwood last summer under a parks and YMCA program.
“The Friends, they rightly say the county should support [Rockwood] because they have done a good job, and I don’t want to belittle it,” Gordon says. “I want them to be part of [Rockwood’s future].”
Gordon’s stance draws support from Delaware’s Secretary of State Jeff Bullock, who lives in nearby Brandywine Hills. Museums focusing on the mid-19th century “are just not rare enough. You need more than that to bring people to the site,” he says. “But the park is a great asset to northern Delaware, and it can be better utilized.”
But for the Friends, 2014 could well be the year its obituary is written. Its board has stopped fundraising and recruiting new members. The group is deciding what to do with the $200,000 in its treasury. One idea is to donate it to the University of Delaware, whose library houses Rockwood archives.
“The money could pay to digitize the collection, restore the old photographs, perhaps provide a grant for an intern or graduate student,” says Judy Filipkowski, a former Friends president.
“We didn’t accomplish our final mission, which was the conservatory, but we made many friends, and we all are close,” says Zappa. “We’re going to miss Rockwood. It was the glue that held us together.”
(Disclosure: Larry Nagengast was a paid public relations consultant for the Friends of Rockwood for a brief time in 2009. He has had no connection to the group since.)