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Twilight of an Icon

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Illustration by Jacqui Oakley
www.jaquioakley.com

 

A horse-drawn carriage clatters past Dover’s 1728 Ridgely House on its way to the Old State House in Dover. Students in colonial dress circle a Maypole, weaving patterns with pink and blue ribbons as a harpsichord, recorder and strings resonate in the background.

On this sunny Saturday, thousands are turning back time during an annual celebration of the state capital’s history. The event is known as Old Dover Days.

In sharp contrast, a sequel is about to open on North State Street as, the very next day, a trackhoe takes a massive bite of the former Blue Coat Inn, making the roof buckle and cave.

Call this event Old Dozer Days.

At the controls is Mike Zimmerman, owner and developer of the property. Dressed in a red windbreaker, plus his signature shorts, sandals and shades, Zimmerman and his machine quickly turn the old restaurant on Silver Lake—a place where nearly everyone in Kent County has dined at one time or another—to rubble.

About 20 spectators pay homage to the place. Among them are commercial Realtor Phil McGinnis, past Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce chair John Friedman, Dover City Councilman Reuben Salters, Torbert Funeral Chapels director Gary Wallick and Bill Shaffer, a former owner of another past icon, the Dinner Bill Inn.

Some spectators take photos or record video. Most reminisce about the restaurant—the scene of family celebrations, post-legislative camaraderie and fine dining for special occasions. Known across Delmarva, the inn once hosted astronauts, David Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon’s daughters.

This scene repeats across the state as the often-controversial choice of razing or restoring iconic, yet not always historic buildings—Newark’s old Stone Balloon, Wilmington’s historic Columbus Inn—recurs. While some applaud the changes as progress, others lament the loss of each place’s unique significance, places where memories were made.

Revered restaurants, schools, churches, businesses and homes are all facing a change of menu. Condos will replace the Columbus Inn. Other buildings have gotten new uses, like Rehoboth’s old Seahorse Restaurant, which was converted to an office building some years ago.

Zimmerman is replacing the former Blue Coat Inn with a new structure. “I am going to do a first-class building. This will be one of my signature projects,” says Zimmerman.

And why not? Even Zimmerman’s family has its attachments to The Blue Coat: Among other things, his brother Robert and Robert’s bride, Jean, held their wedding reception there.

Everyone, it seems, has a memory of some such special place. So when they disappear, they take a bit of the community with them.

 

Tradition and setting are still synonymous with the Blue Coat, which was a family affair. Judge Ernest V. Keith’s daughter, Marlene Koutoufaris, her husband, John, and their sons ran the inn. Keith’s wife, plus son Roger and family, handled Delaware commemoratives, giftware and year-round Christmas villages at the Stable Shoppes.

The family purchased the former home and stable in 1966. They painstakingly decorated and transformed both structures with the help of architect George Fletcher Bennett. They scoured the county to find the materials that gave the inn its rustic charm.

As people watched the demolition, they shared memories of the Blue Coat in its prime. Cathy McCall Lord of Dover recalled April 12, 1996, when she wed Steve Lord in the lakeside gazebo as 200 guests watched and a bald eagle circled overhead. “It must have been a good omen,” she says. “We’ve been happily married over 10 years.”

That gazebo had once been the cupola of the Old State House, which was salvaged when the structure was restored.

“Getting married in the gazebo had been my dream since I was a little girl,” Lord says. “Of course, Steve and I were sad to see the Blue Coat come down, but we wouldn’t have missed watching. I went to all my homecoming and pre-prom dinners there.”

Lord also celebrated her parents’ 30th anniversary, her mother’s 50th birthday and her own anniversaries there. “We loved every room in the inn,  as long as you could see the water,” she says. She rescued a blue shutter from the wreckage so she could convert it to a coffee table.

One woman reminisced about her collection of 20 blue china Delaware commemorative plates from the Stable Shoppes, which she had received as annual gifts from her husband. Another explained how her daughter began making yearly treks to the Stable Shoppes in first grade to buy a pewter necklace for the mother’s Christmas stocking. The tradition continued through her college years, and the mother’s collection now numbers 15 pendants.

 

Such memories bring thoughts of other changes. George H. Jones, a retired attorney whose office was once on The Green, grew up on

State Street

. He recalls watching westerns at the old Temple Theater, now the Army-Navy Store, 50 years ago. He also ushered at the Capitol Theater, now the Schwartz Center for the Arts.

“About 1955, Dover was a quiet little town, except on Friday or Saturday nights, Jones says. “Everybody and his brother was downtown, and you knew everyone.”

With exceptions of such stores as Forney’s Jewelers and Simon’s Bridal Shoppe, the businesses of 50 years ago—Fishman’s, Grants, Sears, Woolworth’s, JCPenney, McCrory’s and others—have closed or moved to the Dover Mall. Structures that housed Dover Hardware and Dover Newsstand have recently departed

Loockerman Street

. Long gone are Candyland, Jim and Olga Nicholas’ State Restaurant, Maag’s Sporting Goods, and pharmacies such as Pierce’s, Bryan-Hopkins and SunRay, where the popular Corner Eatery at 33 West now prospers. The World Famous Loockerman Exchange restaurant and nightspot sits on the site that was once an A&P and a Braunstein’s.

Newark could tell the same tale. So, too, Rehoboth Beach, Wilmington’s

Market Street

and others.

Susan Masten, now of Milford, recalls dining at all the recently departed inns—the Columbus Inn, the Blue Coat, the Seahorse, and the Dinner Bells in Dover and Rehoboth. Each left a mark on her. Each closing left a little hole.

“When I see [places] from my childhood disappear, I have an empty feeling,” Masten says. “There is not the same gentle, genteel or tranquil setting anymore. I think of some of the things my granddaughters will never see. So much of my growing up had nothing to do with things but with the quality of living and relationships. Even being close to your grandparents is not common, so as you start to have grandchildren, you think, ‘What would I like for them to experience? What things are important?’”

In search of tranquility, Masten always gravitated to waterfront spots. “We’d go to the Seahorse or the Dinner Bell and afterwards watch the ocean and the sunset,” she says. “When I was a child, we’d head for the Rehoboth bandstand for Sunday concerts and a stroll on the boardwalk. It was a social event. You always ran into people you knew.”

The original bandstand has been replaced, though it remains a bandstand. Yet the sea may be changing, says Carol Everhart, president and CEO of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce. As iconic places fade away, she says, iconic events become more important in uniting communities and making memories.

The Carey family, for example, holds an annual reunion that includes a luncheon and visit to historic Carey’s Church in Sussex County. Carey’s Camp near Gumboro, on the National Register of Historic Places, also figures largely in the family legacy and visits. Helen Carey of Ellicott City, Maryland, a genealogy buff, edits the family newsletter and website, like many who unite and preserve the heritage of dispersed families in this digital age.

The area’s numerous parks, meeting sites and other attractions are ideal for the growing number of family reunions, says Kent County Tourism director Cindy Small. Museum revivals are providing another way to capture the past. Fay Jacobs, director of

Rehoboth Beach Main Street

, cites as an example Rehoboth’s new museum. “Rehoboth is a living, breathing thing,” Jacobs says, “and evolution provides brand new icons.” She predicts that Rehoboth’s new 10½-foot bronze dolphin created by Edmund Silver will become one of them.

Similarly, Dover’s First State Heritage Park, comprised of several historic sites, is thriving. And people are preparing for another of those iconic events: the 75th Old Dover Days, when the late leader of a charge to save the Old State House on The Green in 1910 will be honored.

More recently, the Friends of Old Dover and Dover natives such as Joe Maybee, a past president of the friends, have lobbied successfully to preserve structures such as the Rose Cottage, W.T. Smithers and various Colonial homes on The Green.

So you win some and you lose some. Or do you lose?

Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, acknowledges that as landmarks go, mourning the Blue Coat is like mourning the death of a friend. Yet there are financial factors to consider in preservation and restoration, so she advocates balanced judgment.

“I think we’re creating a fusion of the old and new,” Diogo says. “We all have to be cognizant that in order for us to maintain the lifestyles we enjoy here and the quality of life, we have to be receptive to some change. I think we have to take things on their merits.”

“When a place goes, it takes a little something away from Old Dover,” says Councilman Salters. “But younger folks are coming in with new ideas and new construction. They are not going to be satisfied with throwing [the past] away. They remember these things and will blend some of the old and new. It’s important to know your past and where you’ve been.”

That blend is apparent at the former Blue Coat site today. The venerable gazebo, scene of countless celebrations, still stands at the edge of Silver Lake. Despite nearly 75 offers to buy the structure, Zimmerman elected to refurbish it so that lakeside weddings may soon resume.

 

 

 

 

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