By Lynn R. Parks
Loss of 180-year old house 'is like an old friend dying'
Lawrence is no more. The unique 19th-century Greek-revival mansion in Seaford was demolished early Monday morning, bringing to an end an eight-month effort to save it. "This is like an old friend dying," said Dottie Johnson, who lives next door to the Lawrence site on alternate U.S. 13. A tearful Johnson said that when she looked out her window early Monday, what had been Lawrence was just a cloud of dust. The pillars fell down at about 6:30 a.m., she said; by 8:30 a.m., the building was completely gone. "It was a shame they could not save it," said Seaford Mayor Ed Butler. "A piece of our history is gone." "A significant part of Seaford's history for 180 years has been destroyed by people who owned it for only a little over two years," said Seaford Historical Society spokeswoman Anne Nesbitt, in a press release sent out Monday. William Allen, a native of Seaford and the architectural historian for the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, spoke about Lawrence at a January meeting of the Seaford Historical Society. He said Monday that Seaford is forever changed with Lawrence gone. "Seaford is diminished by the loss of this house," he said Monday from his Washington, D.C., office. "Lawrence was historic and beautiful and the loss of that in the town is tragic. Lawrence is irreplaceable." Allen, who told the members of the historical society that he had loved Lawrence since he was a boy, said Monday that there was no reason for the demolition. "Seaford is not Manhattan," he said. "It is not so crowded that new building has to come at the expense of the finest building ever constructed near the city." And he added that this kind of demolition has become increasingly rare. "As a nation, we have gotten a lot better at finding ways to keep fine old buildings," he said. "It is shocking to have lost such a fine building as Lawrence. We just don't see that any more." Lawrence, which was on the National Register of Historic Places, was one of just two examples of temple-front, Greek-revival architecture in Delaware. The other, the Thomas England House, near Smyrna, is a restaurant.
Not an easy decision
Joy and Gary Hill, owners of the Lawrence property, obtained a demolition permit from the city of Seaford on May 23. The property was annexed into the city in May. Joy Hill said Monday that tearing down the old building was not a decision she and her husband made lightly. "This is a sad day," she said. "It's a shame, but this is how it worked out." Hill said that she and her husband decided to tear down Lawrence after hearing rumors that an effort was under way to get some kind of legal protection for the house. "We just felt that we were pushed into a corner," she said. "People were trying to decide what we could do with our own property. People forced our hand. This is not what we wanted to do." Nesbitt said that she was not aware of any effort to legally restrain the Hills from demolishing the house. "We hadn't gone that far," she said. Several months ago, Preservation Delaware offered to the Hills a grant of $25,000 to repair the roof of the structure in return for a preservation easement on the property, which would guarantee that Lawrence would not be demolished. This offer was refused. Most recently, a group of people interested in saving Lawrence had formed a limited liability corporation, Lawrence Investors LLC, that on July 12 made an offer on the house and the five-acre parcel on which it sat. The property had been for sale since late last year, for $995,000. Lawrence Investors offered the Hills $650,000. Nesbitt said that the group planned to put a new roof and new coat of paint on the dilapidated mansion, clean it up and then resell it.
"We thought, if it was just cleaned up a little bit, someone would buy it," Nesbitt said. Nesbitt said that she presented the offer to the Hills' real estate agent, Terry Scott with Callaway, Farnell and Moore, Seaford. "I was told that the Hills would take nothing less than $900,000," Nesbitt said. Hill said that the group's offer never evolved into a formal bid on the property. Even if it had, she added, there were contingencies in the offer that would have made it unacceptable. According to the offer, while Lawrence Investors would have paid for a termite inspection, the Hills would have been required to pay to get rid of the termites, if any were found. In addition, Lawrence Investors would have 120 days to study the condition of the house and to find funding for the purchase and renovation. "There were so many contingencies that we couldn't accept," Hill said. Nesbitt said that the Lawrence Investors would have been willing to negotiate the specifics of the offer, but the Hills "never gave us that chance." For example, the number of days that were to be left open for the study could have been negotiated, Nesbitt said, as well as who would pay for termite treatment. "They didn't give us any opportunity to negotiate at all," Nesbitt said. Hill declined to say how much the demolition cost. But she said that she expects that the cost of the Lawrence parcel will go up, to help them recover that cost.
No documentation, no salvaging
Nesbitt, who said that until Monday morning she had hope that the house could be saved, expressed regret that representatives with the University of Delaware were not able to get into the house before its demolition, to photograph its features. "We at least wanted to get it documented before it came down," she said. "Now, it is too late." Hill said that when she and her husband bought the house in 2005, they allowed representatives of Preservation Delaware into the house, to document its features. "It had already been documented," she said. "We felt that the University of Delaware thing was just to buy time." In any case, she added, "it just wasn't safe to have a lot of people traipsing through." In the several months that the house was empty, it had deteriorated, she added. "There was a lot of mold all over the walls, and parts of the roof had caved in," she said. Nesbitt also said that it was a shame that Lawrence's original features, including molding, hardware and its glass doorbell, were not salvaged before the demolition. "We salvaged a little bit of the house," said Joy Hill. "But we felt that we had a deadline. We were not able to get out as much as we wanted." "Perhaps more support and pressure from statewide and national preservation organizations might have helped save this historic landmark," Nesbitt said in the press release. "The local preservationists had made every possible effort to save the Lawrence house." Lawrence was built in 1845 by Charles Wright, who was a ship captain and farmer. Wright, a slave owner and southern sympathizer, was active in politics and attended the Democratic National Convention in 1852 in Baltimore. Allen said at the January meeting of the Seaford Historical Society that Lawrence was "the finest building ever built in Seaford." "It is one of the principal buildings that I remember admiring every time my parents drove by," he added. "I didn't know why I thought it was handsome; I just knew that it was. I looked at it and it agreed with me." He was not alone in believing Lawrence to be the best building in Seaford. The house appears in several books about architecture and history of Delaware, including a 1926 book called simply "Delaware" and compiled by the state Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Markets. In that book, Lawrence is pictured as one of the five finest houses in the state. A picture of the house shows the estate's original boxwood garden, which at one time was in front of the house. "Lawrence is a very significant building," Allen told the historical society. "It is significant architecturally. It is significant because of its association with Charles Wright, who was an important member of southern Delaware economic and social history. It is significant because it is the ancestral home of Wright Robinson, the great Seaford historian. It is essential to the community and it is essential to the state that we save it." On Monday, Allen said that he will never drive by the Lawrence site again. "I'm going to make a point of never going by there, ever again," he said. "It is too heartbreaking."
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