Historical Society encouraging effort to document old homes

By Lynn R. Parks

Determining the age of a house isn't always easy. Some members of the Seaford Historical Society got a lesson in just how difficult it can be Monday when Robin Krawitz, architectural survey coordinator with the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office, accompanied them on a walking tour of one block in downtown Seaford. Krawitz guessed that the house at 121 S. Conwell St., just down from the Seaford Museum, was built in the 1920s, maybe even later, based on its colonial revival elements. But when Robert Seiler, who owns the house, emerged to talk with the group, he brought with him a picture of the house, taken in the 1880s. "There have been substantial changes to this house," said Krawitz, looking at the picture. Gone is the home's original two-story front porch, replaced by a small porch in the colonial revival style. Two side porches have been added, one enclosed and the other screened-in, old windows have been removed and more windows have been put in. On the other hand, Krawitz told Phillip Gallagher, who owns the house at 120 S. Conwell, just across the street, that his house is older than he thought. With what she called its "wonderful Italianate brackets" just under the eaves and a Nanticoke River-facing side porch tucked in under the second story, she guessed that the house was built in 1880, about 20 years earlier than Gallagher thought. "That porch is very rare," she said. "Most of them have been enclosed." The workshop with Krawitz, attended by seven people, was sponsored by the historical society to demonstrate how to identify and document old houses. The historical society will sponsor a second workshop on Saturday. "We will learn how to collect basic information about a building and how to write it down in a standardized way, so that you have the same kind of information about every building," Krawitz said at the start of the workshop. Historical society member Anne Nesbitt said that the organization is interested in collecting information about Seaford's old homes. For now, the historical society is focusing on documenting houses in the immediate downtown area, along High Street from the railroad bridge east to Market Street and from the Nanticoke River to Poplar Street. "We really don't want to establish a historic district," she said. "But we need to call attention to the historic aspects of Seaford." Krawitz said that it is important to document old architecture, to determine what makes communities unique. "A lot of newer developments look like they could be built in Anywhere, USA," she said. "Unless we value and protect what makes us different, all our communities will end up looking the same. We will end up living in homogenous neighborhoods." And there are aspects of old Seaford architecture that differentiate it even from other Sussex County towns, Krawitz said.

For example, "there are a lot more Italianate aspects here than in any other Delaware town," she said, perhaps inspired by the nearby Ross Mansion, what she called an "over the top" example of Italianate architecture, popular in the mid 19th century. Several houses on South Conwell Street, all much less grand than the Ross Mansion, nevertheless have Italianate features, "kind of an homage to the fashion of the day," Krawitz said. During the workshop, Krawitz looked at seven homes, on High Street and South Conwell Street. At each house, she helped a member of the historical society to fill out a one-page form describing the basic elements of the house, including roof design, number and type of windows and number of chimneys. The form also included space for a map of the area, to pinpoint where the house is, and an area to describe any features of note. At the house at 202 High Street, formerly a doctor's office and now home to the Open Cupboard natural foods store, those features of note included the arrangement, or "bonding pattern," of bricks that make up the structure's walls. This home's particular bonding pattern  six rows of "stretchers," or bricks laid out with their long ends exposed, then a row of bricks laid so that their short ends show  was typical in the 19th century, Krawitz said. Even so, she estimated that the house was built in the early 20th century. Across the street, at the corner of High and South Conwell streets, is Act II florist, in what Krawitz called a "fabulous" building. The building is a shingle-style bungalow, she said, common in the 1880s in New England and on Long Island. "I have never seen another example like this in Delaware," she added. Of note are the building's Palladian windows, one on each end of the gable, the paired brackets under the eaves and the copper half-circle gutters. "Now that's the appropriate way to put up gutters," Krawitz said. Behind the Act II building, on South Conwell Street, is the home of Two Cats in the Yard shop. Richard Hall, who owns the building, participated in the workshop and told Krawitz that he believes that the house was built in the 1860s  based on its architecture, Krawitz estimated its construction date at 1830 to 1860. The porch, she said, was probably added in the 1880s. Of note is its pyramidal roof with a small, square platform at the peak. Krawitz said that originally, the house probably had a cupola, a hallmark of Italianate architecture. The house at 111 S. Conwell St. also had Italianate features, including decorative brackets under the eaves and a decorative front door surround. "There is a lot of original fabric here, a lot that has not been changed," Krawitz said.

For your information: The Seaford Historical Society will hold a second workshop on documenting old houses Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Seaford Museum, High Street. Robin Krawitz with the State Preservation Office will again lead the workshop. Participation is free and lunch will be served. For reservations, call Anne Nesbitt, 628-7788.

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