Wawaset Park Historic District
The Wawaset Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†]
The Wawaset Park Historic District is located on the western edge of the city of Wilmington, Delaware. It is bounded approximately by Greenhill Avenue, Woodlawn Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and a property line between 6th and 7th streets. The terrain is nearly flat, although it is one of the higher elevations in the city. The Wawaset Park Historic District is a residential area, most of which is occupied by Wawaset Park, a 1920s housing development. The buildings standing today are essentially the first to be built here. The only earlier development was a fairgrounds and horse racing track. A small stream, Silver Brook, once traversed the area and has long since disappeared from view.
Wawaset Park, originally developed by the DuPont Company, is a planned community in a park-like setting. Landscape architecture is an important element here, and the curving streets were planned by Edward L. Palmer in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted. Within the formal boundaries of Wawaset Park a large oval is set within the rectangular exterior boundaries. The oval is punctuated by three small circles on which there are rowhouses or "group houses." Within the oval there are four short curving streets, Coverdale Road, Saymoure Road, MacDonough Road, and Ridgeway Road. An extension of 11th Street, in the fashion of the city's old grid plan, cuts through the Park in a straight line; however, it has a wide landscaped median here.
The Wawaset Park Historic District is located in a section of the city which is primarily residential and far from the downtown commercial area. The general appearance of the Wawaset Park Historic District is more suburban than urban. The Wawaset Park Historic District includes 211 units. There are 321 contributing buildings (110 of which are garages) and only four non-contributing buildings. The non-contributing buildings are in that category simply because they are not fifty years old. However, in a few more years some of them will be old enough to be contributing. A fourth house is almost new. The only other non-contributing buildings are a few garages. The landscape itself is also a contributing site.
Wawaset Park is significant for its landscape architecture, designed by E.L. Palmer in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted, and for its architecture, a collection of mostly "Period" houses. The neighborhood's curving streets and attention to natural contours are unlike most of the developments in Wilmington and other cities prior to the early twentieth century. The Wawaset Park Historic District is also significant for its association with the expansion of the E.I. du Pont de Nemours Company's workforce after growth of the company's business during World War I. In 1918 du Pont purchased the tract of land that had previously been the state fairgrounds and horse track with the intent of developing a residential community for its executive staff. Du Pont planned to offer the houses for sale to the public as well, but only on a secondary basis, as the company employees were experiencing a severe housing shortage.
Many of the houses in Wawaset Park were designed by Edward L. Palmer and are what we would today call period houses. Some dwellings are Tudor cottages; others are brick Georgian mansions. The smaller group houses contain some elements of the then out-of-date "Picturesque" and Gothic styles. They are clustered in small rows and initially sold for $6,000 plus about $1,500 for the lot. The larger semi-detached and detached houses had prices ranging from $9,000 to $20,000 plus the lots. The company offered employees the opportunity to purchase houses and lots for a 10% down payment with a ten year mortgage at 5%. Expensive at the time, each house, whether fully attached or detached, was constructed as part of a unique "suburb set within the city," providing its residents with the privacy of the country and the convenience of the city in an Olmsted-type landscape designed by E.L. Palmer.
The DuPont Company probably chose Palmer to plan the community based upon his work in Baltimore. For example, Roland Park in Baltimore is a typical Olmsted influenced Palmer design with special attention paid to aesthetics for the benefit of future generations. Curvilinear streets wind around hills; pine and oak trees shade large single family dwellings of various designs. An equal amount of open space in parkways complements shaded walking paths throughout the neighborhood. Roland Park bears a striking resemblance to Olmsted's landmark suburban development Riverside, Illinois, planned in 1868.
The preliminary report for Riverside submitted by Olmsted, Vaux, and Co. reveals the philosophy behind the Olmsted school of landscape architecture. "We cannot judiciously attempt to control the form of the houses which men shall build, we can only at most take care that if they build very ugly and inappropriate houses, they shall not be allowed to force them disagreeably upon our attention when we desire to pass along the road upon which they stand."
Olmsted intended to concentrate planning efforts on street layout, plantings, and use of open space in an effort to make a city residential area pleasing to the eye, rather than creating a dull grid of streets whose only virtue was easy access to city businesses. He used the same philosophy in his designs of Central Park in New York, Jackson Park in Chicago, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal. He wished to implement in planned residential communities a civilizing effect.
Olmsted's Riverside was a landmark venture in landscape architecture and community planning. A century later the suburb still maintains its rural character despite the onslaught of twentieth century automobile culture. Its curved streets and contoured lawns are now copied in almost every American suburban development. However, the same quality of design is a rarity, only visible in the work of his followers such as Edward Palmer.
As the architect for the Roland Park Company from 1907 to 1917, Palmer designed a number of houses there and was responsible for the community's controlled development. From 1918 to 1952 Palmer was a consulting architect for the Roland Park Company and as such was a member of its committee on approval of plans for the developments of Guilford, Homeland, and Northwood in Baltimore, as well as for Roland Park. Roland Park, precursor of Wawaset Park, was not the first planned residential community in the country, but it was certainly among the first in the region. The Roland Park Company established many standards concerning lot size, street size, landscape architecture, and deed restrictions, which would be adhered to in future developments such as Wawaset Park.
The Roland Park Company was formed in 1891 by local Baltimore businessmen and interested parties from outside the region. Their basic aim was to oversee the planning of a community for wealthy Baltimorians wishing to reside in a convenient rural atmosphere. Roland Park was located within easy access to the Lake Roland elevated railway which provided quick transportation into the city. In addition the Baltimore Country Club established in 1898 by the same group of investors was also close. Roland Park developed into a picturesque suburb, with certain strings attached, however.
The Roland Park Company wrote many protective restrictions into the property deeds. Some restrictions applied in certain sections while others did not. Many prospective residents protested the lack of freedom those deed restrictions imposed, although it became an integral part of the planned community concept and was adopted later in Wawaset Park. To enforce adherence to the restrictions, The Roland Park Civic Association (which was first a group of volunteer firefighters organized to protect Roland Park, which was out of city jurisdiction) became a governing body.
Despite the similarities between Roland Park and Wawaset Park today, it is likely that other communities closer to home also influenced du Pont's plans in building this community. In fact, Olmsted had influenced the planning of several other areas of Wilmington through his correspondence with William Bancroft concerning many projects during the late nineteenth century. Bancroft, a generous Quaker philanthropist, contributed a large amount of acreage for development of the Wilmington Park system. Brandywine and Rockford parks, the city's largest, were planned by the two together. Bancroft knew the terrain, and Olmsted knew the art of designing space into scenic city parkland.
In addition to being instrumental in Wilmington's parks, Bancroft also established a real-estate firm called "The Woodlawn Company" for the purpose of improving worker's housing. In these and other residential developments, Bancroft used Olmsted's ideas in drawing deed restrictions for planned communities. Lot size, set-back, and property-alteration regulations helped give an Olmstedian flair to new residential developments. The housing boom during and after World War I saw a number of attractive planned communities erected, such as Union Park Gardens and an area near Rockford Park even before Wawaset was drawn up on paper.
Bancroft purchased a large parcel near the Brandywine River of which he gave a portion to the city to create Rockford Park. When he gave the land to the city Bancroft placed many restrictions on the housing that would eventually develop along Red Oak Road, Willard Street, and other areas near the park. These restrictions included limited building height, minimum cost for houses, maximum fence heights, and minimum set-backs from streets and rear property lines. Bancroft also required approval of plans before construction began and prohibited livery stables, wooden houses for more than one family, and drying of laundry on roofs. These restrictions were imposed on purchasers of residential lots in Wilmington before 1900.
The DuPont Company's growth played a major part in the development of planned communities in Wilmington during and after World War I. Although the Company endured several leadership squabbles in the first decade of this century, it survived and profited immensely during World War I. When Pierre S. du Pont succeeded T. Coleman du Pont as President of the Company in 1914, he negotiated a hard bargain with the Allies, charging 30 percent more than he charged the U.S. government, "justifying the price on the grounds that the enormous orders forced him to expand the company's production facilities with no guarantee that this huge capital investment would be redeemed when the war ended." By early 1916 du Pont had built sixty million dollars worth of new facilities. Gross sales were 1,130 percent higher than they were in the years before the war. Such an increase in productivity was unexpected, and required an increase in the number of employees from just over 5,000 to more than 60,000. The result was a housing crunch that called for construction of more residential communities immediately.
The Union Park Gardens just east of Wawaset Park at the intersection of Lancaster Ave. and Union St. grew out of a wartime boom in another industry: shipping. Although a different group of architects worked on the project (Ballinger and Perot, a nationally known architectural and engineering firm), the results were very similar to Olmsted planned communities of the previous twenty years. William P. Bancroft donated much of the land for the parkway that winds through Union Park Gardens; one of the terms of his gift was that the parkway be curving and follow the contour of the land. The Parkway was also to become a connection between two of the city's major parks, Rockford and Canby. Detached and semi-detached dwellings set some distance from the curb and with curvilinear roadways were unusual characteristics for what was originally supposed to be low-income housing. The houses in Union Park Gardens were all sold off to the public by 1922. Noteworthy in the development are the steep slate gable roofs, which were also widely used in Wawaset Park no matter what style the house was a copy of. Carol Hoffecker asserts that Union Park Gardens was a landmark development, praising its stylistic significance: "Although some aspects of the project such as the romantic features were copied by private builders in Wilmington during the 1920s, the landscape design including winding streets, staggered setbacks, and variations among housing styles completely eluded the construction industry..."
Du Pont however, was seeking housing for scientists and executive staff, not blue collar workers. DuPont was also moving into the city for the first time, becoming a large corporation under Pierre S. du Pont. The company brought in new personnel from the firms it acquired. But where would they reside?
One possible area for development was the fairgrounds between Greenhill and Woodlawn Avenues, and Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This tract of land was ideally located for white-collar employees: a street car line for quick commuter transportation downtown was within easy walking distance. The "Preliminary Information and General Description" indicated that the property was served by three trolley car lines, including West Eighth St., Rising Sun Lane, and Delaware Avenue. The area was also located half-way between the du Pont family homes around Hagley and the corporate headquarters in Wilmington, continuing the tradition of corporate leaders living near their workers and the corporate headquarters. The housing lots that Bancroft had set out near Rockford Park in what we now call the "Highlands" was already completely occupied before 1920, so Wawaset Park was indeed a badly needed addition to Wilmington's middle class community.
With various du Ponts pulling the strings, the acquisition of the property by the Company was relatively easy. At the time Alexis I. du Pont, a cousin and close friend of P.S. du Pont, was secretary of the Wawaset Park Company, which owned the land. Pierre S. du Pont, who established the conservatory and display gardens at Longwood, was known for his preference for beautiful landscapes. Before it became a housing development Wawaset Park was essentially a horse racing track. The rough terrain near it (now Bancroft Parkway) was the site of a leather factory, a large ravine, a railroad track, and other unkempt land. A picturesque residential community was much more to P.S. du Pont's liking. Old postcards of the park show hordes of onlookers watching racing events, and a grandstand with room for even more. With hundreds of animals located in such a small area, and the possibility of foul weather, it is no wonder the place seemed unsightly to those accustomed to high standards of living.
As early as 1912, the du Ponts were investigating the possible sale of the Wawaset Park property. John J. Raskob, Pierre S. du Pont's right hand man who ultimately handled his legal affairs, purchased ten shares of capital stock of Wawawset Park Company for $1,000 in July, 1912.
Ostensibly, the Wawaset Park Company owned the parcel of land in order to rent it to the Delaware Horse Show Association. The tract had long been associated with similar activities first under its old name, Schuetzen Park when the local German organization sponsored activities there and later as the site of the Delaware State Fair.
The officers of the Wawaset Park Company were Alexis I. du Pont, H.T. Wallace, A.L. Foster, T. Allen Hilles, and S.D. Townsend. The company had apparently been renting the land to the Horse Show at a loss and really had a deficit of $775.68 instead of profits of over $3,000 as shown on its books.
In a letter from Frank L. Garey of the DuPont Company to Raskob dated January 30, he stated that the land was assessed for $122,000, had been appraised by a professional at $135,000, and had a book value of $75,400 in 1917. Clearly, it was increasing in value. Within a short time after 1919 E.I. du Pont de Nemours Company had purchased the Wawaset Park property.
"The man behind the scene" is often important in historical events, and this was apparently the case in the development of Wawaset Park. Frank H. McCormick, who was a special assistant for the DuPont Company had the task of making a survey of the housing needs and desires of company employees. McCormick had previously lived in a house designed by the architect Edward L. Palmer in Roland Park in Baltimore and it was undoubtedly he who brought Palmer and du Pont together and who influenced the company's selection of Palmer as the architect and planner for Wawaset Park. McCormick was to remain a strong influence in the Park.
Construction in Wawaset Park actually began in early 1918, and the first resident had moved in by Christmas of the same year. Plans for the tract of land had been completed long before the property was actually transferred, so building occurred quite rapidly. The preliminary information first printed in March of 1918 indicated that the company had contracted for the construction of 100 houses. Close to 250 lots were drawn on a blueprint of the development, but many houses eventually occupied more than one lot.
The Company obviously thought that the development would be very popular. They built the attached or "group-houses" as they called them first; additional houses were to be semi-detached or fully-detached. Purchasers of group houses were to be given a choice of lot by a lottery; they could choose their lot in the order in which their names were drawn. The purchasers of semi-detached and detached houses had a choice of lots on which they could locate their houses "provided that the selection meets with the approval of the, architect and the company and complies with restrictions."
The offering of lots in Wawaset Park may have been less successful than the company had anticipated. Only a month after printing their preliminary offering, the company notified its employees of a reduction in house prices for the first 125 sold. The company actually sold 94 houses in their first offering; thereafter, construction proceeded at a more gradual pace.
The initial buyers might have been disappointed with the original landscape architecture. Contemporary photographs show a lack of trees, shrubbery, and natural contours. The earliest houses appear quite barren in their surroundings, void of any true "period" character. Extensive landfill and plantings must have been planned because the tract of land is indeed quite flat and ordinary, a difficult subject for a landscape architect from the Olmsted school to transform. Silver Brook, a small stream, originally ran through a section of Wawaset Park, but its size ruled out integration into the landscape plans. Planners must have been aware of the problems caused by the barren landscape and lack of variety in the terrain because the smaller houses were constructed first.
By the time the City Directory of 1921 was printed, most of the 95 houses sold in the first offering were finished and a few remained vacant. Most of these were group or rowhouses, with a few semi-detached and fully detached houses. For example, the group houses on Bedford Court (2-30 Bedford Court) were all occupied. About half the residents in this section were employed by DuPont, while others were with other companies such as Bethlehem Steel and Atlas Powder. Some of the larger houses were finished as well, with their occupants having more administrative positions with DuPont or other companies.
An early photo taken by the DuPont Company shows houses on MacDonough. Walter S. Carpenter, treasurer of the company a member of the du Pont family through marriage, listed his address as 2403 Macdonough Road. 1101 Nottingham Road was occupied by a Mr. Hamilton Bradshaw, "assistant Director" of DuPont. Also on Nottingham Road at the northeast corner of 11th Street is a gigantic brick house (1103 West 11th Street) that was built by Charles W. Warner, president of Charles Warner Company, the descendant company of a very old Wilmington company. The firm had started out operating boats between Wilmington and Philadelphia and then diversified into the production and sale of gravel, cement, and other construction materials. It eventually supplied much of the concrete for the DuPont Company's new building.
Today Wawaset Park is primarily a group of what we would call "Period Houses," copies of much earlier styles. However, the Group Houses might almost be called Picturesque, or slightly-out-of-date for their time with their high roofs, jerkin heads, and even some porches. The plans that the company offered for detached houses also contained some elements of the Picturesque. These houses had many of the classical and other elements associated with earlier American architecture: the Dutch gambrel roof, the Georgian entrance with panelled door enclosed in a one-bay porch, double-hung sash with many lights, classical columns, gable roofed dormers, and Palladian windows. The individual houses offered by the Company were designed by Edward Palmer as were the group houses. While the finish and trim might differ from house to house, the interiors of any one model were the same, and all models were fairly similar.
On December 29, 1921, less than two years after the DuPont Company had published its preliminary description of Wawaset Park, Rokeby Realty acquired all the empty lots. It was Rokeby Realty which then sold the balance of the lots.
Local builders, some of whom are still the area's leading builders, purchased many of the lots and built houses on speculation. Builders with the names Haddock, Di Sabatino, Eckman, Gooding, and others built semi-detached and single houses. The semi-detached houses, of course, tended to be speculative ventures. In some cases individuals purchased a lot for construction of a custom designed house. Among the custom houses were 2400 West 11th Street, designed by Alfred E. Ives for Crawford H. Greenwalt, who would eventually become President of the DuPont Company, 2310 Ridgeway Road built by Gooding apparently for himself, and 732 Nottingham Road built for Clarence Underwood.
The DuPont Company's Preliminary Information published in 1918 outlined the restrictions by which all house construction in the development must abide. In 1919 the company published the restrictions and conditions that were to run with the deed for each lot, and it also established a Maintenance Corporation "...to provide for the maintenance of the tract in addition to that done by the City of Wilmington." The DuPont Building Corporation retained the power to enforce the deed restrictions until 1944, despite the fact that they did not own the property. At that time the entire responsibility for architectural review, enforcement of deed restrictions, and other community matters was turned over to the Wawaset Park Maintenance Corporation. Frank McCormick, the DuPont Company employee who was probably instrumental in bringing du Pont and Palmer together became the first president of the newly independent organization. The Maintenance Corporation still conducts the business of the park, reviews any architectural changes, and is responsible for enforcing the deed restrictions.
By 1930, all but a handful of the present houses standing in Wawaset Park had been built. It is doubtful, however, that the accompanying landscape appeared as it does today. With all houses in place, but no trees or substantial shrubbery surrounding them, Wawaset must have seemed crowded. Without the rolling hills of other Olmsted developments such as Roland Park, Wawaset residents could only wait for trees to grow in order to establish more private lots.
Fortunately, the elm trees planted around the park during construction grew into the "largest and finest stand of trees on the Eastern Seaboard." By 1949 there were more than 500 elm trees, many of which were over sixty feet in height. They were "famed among the nation and attract(ed) many visitors." David S. Rankin, a retired official of the DuPont Company and a resident of the park for many years, made a hobby of directing the care of the elms. Delegations of citizens from other planned suburban communities around the country came to see the elms. In Spring, the trees had purplish buds and greenish flower clusters. Motorists drove from New England, Virginia, and other parts of the eastern seaboard to look at them. "They (made) Wawaset Park more beautiful and added to the real-estate value."
However, twenty years after the Wawaset elms reached the peak of their splendor, the Dutch Elm disease decimated the stand to just a few in number. Other trees such as oak and poplar had matured by this time, so the landscape of Wawaset didn't suffer with the death of the elms, but visible historical significance was lost forever.
With the growth of scenic landscape, the "Period" architecture of Wawaset houses became more pronounced. Each lot had more privacy, and some owners even adapted their own landscape to the style of their houses. The three most popular styles used by the architects were Georgian, Dutch Colonial, and Tudor, and the most common building materials were brick, stucco, and fieldstone. As was often the case with the Period House, the interiors might be quite similar, with only the exterior exhibiting elements of the particular style the house was emulating. In Wawaset Park, some house plans are repeated several times with only a difference in trim, color, and lot location.
A picture of a Wawaset house at 2306 Ridgeway Road appeared on the cover of One two-One-Four, a local paper for the Building Trade soon after construction was finished. The house is labeled a "brick English cottage type home." The architects were Pope and Manning, who also constructed other houses in Wawaset Park.
Wawaset has maintained its character over the years through the careful considerations and efforts of the Wawaset Park Maintenance Corporation. The establishment of such an administrative body was actually an integral part of the original deed restrictions. Aside from establishing a maintenance corporation composed of residents, the deed restrictions established set backs, building codes, and limitations on street alterations, in general keeping everything true to the original plan. The maintenance corporation was formed for the purpose of approving additions, alterations, and plans for new structures according to the guidelines set by the deed restrictions. Prior approval of such plans has tended to keep houses in the "Period House" category. The Maintenance Corporation can decide on proposals through a vote by its members. The measure of a member's vote is based on how much property he or she owned.
A final note should be made about the deed restriction. For some time there existed a restriction that barred minorities from settling in Wawaset Park. This restriction was not in the preliminary information and was inserted at some later date. Under its terms, no person who was "not of the Caucasian race" was permitted to purchase property or live in Wawaset Park. A similar restriction existed in other housing developments in suburban Wilmington and existed until enforcement of Civil Right laws prohibited it in the 1960s.
With similar architectural plans, the houses of Wawaset also have similar interiors. Most of the Tudor copies have ell-shaped floor plans with a prominent living room and working fireplace. Fireplaces had become popular again in the 1920s after having lost their appeal by the end of the nineteenth century. Dining rooms and sun porches are other important characteristics of Wawaset interiors. Even the smaller attached houses on the circles and Bedford place have sun porches. Upper-floor interiors, of course, depend on the size of the houses. Wawaset houses have always been popular for families, so even the smaller dwellings have at least two bedrooms. In addition, almost all original structures, regardless of style, have at least two and a half stories, so additional bedrooms and living space was available.
Garages became necessary with the popularity of automobiles. Wawaset was originally constructed close to existing trolley lines, but within a decade the auto was to be the only way to travel. The DuPont Company, as owner of the controlling interest in General Motors, would logically build residential areas with the option of garages for its employees. The "Preliminary Information" packet indicates that originally the cost of a garage was not included in the price of the houses, but the extra amount could simply be added to existing payments.
The Sanborn Atlas of Wilmington for 1927 shows most detached houses with garages. Today automobiles line the driveways of Wawaset homes with garages full of cars as well. The single-family dwellings all have garages within the house or in a separate structure in back of the house. Despite the narrow width of the streets Wawaset residents depend on the automobile just like residents of every other suburban community in America.
The Wawaset Park Historic District's boundaries include a few buildings on the periphery of the Wawaset Park development. These include three houses in the same styles and dates as those in the park proper. One of them, 2410 Pennsylvania Avenue, was the home of Ralph T. Ellis, a private secretary to E.I. du Pont de Nemours and is in one of the styles first offered to employees by the Company.
The Wawaset Park Historic District also includes the Wawaset Park Apartments built in 1932 by J. Frank Darling, a local developer. The apartment house is a design of architect Wallace E. Hance, who also designed several Delaware schools, Denbigh Hall apartments, and the Warner Theatre in Wilmington. Darling took advantage of the site's proximity to Wawaset Park, and Hance incorporated in his design many of the Tudor and Georgian elements that appear in Wawaset's houses.
Despite the increase in automobile traffic, the Wawaset Park Historic District is still a beautiful residential community. All the lots within the jurisdiction of the Maintenance Corporation now have houses on them or have become integrated into a neighboring house lot, and there is little available building space on the nearby streets.
The Wawaset Park Historic District is perhaps the last of the pre-auto suburbs-within-the city. It has successfully survived the transition to the automobile age and its future as tangible evidence of an important phase of the DuPont Company's expansion, as a collection of Period Houses, and as a planned community seems assured.
A most valuable source of information on Wawaset Park was Harry J. Haon, President of the Wawaset Park Maintenance Corporation who shared the data he had gathered on Wawaset Park from company records, deed records, and other sources. Mr. Haon's material included tabulation of the dates, models, and builders of houses; copies of house plans; information he had been able to obtain from company records; and his general knowledge on the topic.
Chandler, Alfred D. Jr. and Salsbury, Stephen. Pierre S. du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation. New York, Harper & Row, 1971.
Cornbrooks, Carson M., Fisher, L. McLane, and Nes, Charles M. Jr. "The Architectural Firm of Edward L. Palmer, Jr. and its Successors, 1907-1982." Unpublished manuscript: 1983.
E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, "Wawaset, A residential Development," Pamphlet No.1, March, 1918.
Franklin Atlas of Wilmington, 1936.
Hagley Accession #473, Hagley Museum and Library.
Hoffecker, Carole E., Wilmington, Delaware, Corporate Capital. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1983.
Journal Every Evening March 8, 1949.
Olmsted, Vaux & Co. "Preliminary Report upon the proposed Suburban Village at Riverside, near Chicago" 1868.
Sanborn Atlas of Wilmington, 1927.
Wilmington City Directories, 1921-1926.
† Franklyn Thompson and Priscilla M. Thomson, The History Store, Wawaset Park Historic District, Wilmington, CT, nomination document, 1985, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.