Plan to raze Longwood houses pits preservation against green space

Three historic houses on Route 1 may be facing demolition.
Three historic houses on Route 1 may be facing demolition. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 02, 2013

It's easy to overlook them: three modest two-story, single-family houses side by side just north of the Longwood Gardens entrance.

But locals say the houses - built in the early 20th century and commissioned by Longwood founder Pierre DuPont to house his employees - have historical significance, and they're fighting Longwood's plan to tear them down.

Longwood representatives say they recognize the houses' historical value but are trying to increase green space along heavily trafficked Route 1. They say the houses are expensive to maintain and would be far too expensive to move.

"Our vision is taking our core mission of horticulture and extending it to that corridor so we can restore that landscape to what it looked like in the late 19th century, early 20th century," Longwood director Paul Redman said.

But Kennett Township residents are crying foul. Locals packed a recent meeting to protest Longwood's proposed demolition permit, and the Planning Commission has recommended a stay of demolition to allow the township to come up with alternative plans for the houses.

The township Board of Supervisors will decide at its Tuesday meeting whether to grant a demolition permit.

The three houses are Class I historic structures, eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, said James Guthrie, Planning Commission chairman. He said they are some of the earliest examples of the work of architect E. William Martin, who designed a number of buildings in the area, including the University of Delaware's Carpenter Hall.

"He really put his mark on the area with his architecture and some very visible buildings, and it really started with these three bungalows," Guthrie said.

The houses once belonged to DuPont's chauffeur, director of horticulture, and private secretary, said Mary Sue Boyle, a historic-preservation consultant who evaluated the houses for the Planning Commission.

"These are really charming because they're really miniature representations of [Martin's] talent and he did so few small personal projects - that really makes these a lot more important," she said.

Guthrie said the township had a demolition ordinance but rarely used it. In the eight years since the ordinance was enacted, the Planning Commission has been able to persuade developers to preserve historic structures on their land.

Longwood, however, is a bit of a different story.

"The ironic thing about all this is that we're actually trying to create more green space," Redman said. "Over the years, Southeastern Pennsylvania has become more developed, and we have lost more and more of that green space. We want to restore that experience as much as we can."

Guthrie said the township had floated several compromises: using the buildings for residences, converting them into offices, allowing the local fire department to house volunteer firefighters there, or moving them.

"It's still controversial to tell a property owner they cannot demolish something," Guthrie said.

Redman said Longwood can't afford to move the houses but was open to the possibility if preservationists were willing to pay to have them taken off the property. Longwood Gardens already has a number of historic employee houses, he said - including the one in which Redman lives.

Township supervisors delayed any decision on the demolition proposal for 30 days at their meeting in March; on Tuesday, they will decide whether to grant, deny, or delay demolition by an additional 90 days, Redman said.

"Whatever decision the supervisors take, we'll work with them, but our preference is clear," he said.

In the meantime, Guthrie and the Planning Commission hope to reach a compromise.

"We care about our resources in the township. It's what makes locations unique and makes them home rather than the type of development you see in many places - where it could be anywhere in the United States," he said. "Our mindset is, how can we provide for the future while preserving the quality that we've traditionally had?"

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112,, or follow on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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