Seaford Historical Society wants to save 'Lawrence'

By Lynn R. Parks

Representatives of the Seaford Historical Society are meeting today with local and state government officials in an effort to find a way to save Lawrence. The dilapidated 19th-century house, one of only two examples of Greek revival architecture in the state and on the National Register of Historic Places, is part of a five-acre parcel that is for sale. Asking price is $995,000. Its owners, Gary and Joy Hill, have requested that the property be annexed into the city and that it be zoned for light commercial development. The property is slowly being surrounded by development: the Herring Run Professional Park is going in to the north and Lawrence Crossing, a 355-unit condo and townhouse, is planned for 56 acres around the property. Jerry Chapman, president of the Seaford Historical Society, told society members Monday night that Lawrence, which is vacant, is suffering water damage. "Plaster on the ceiling is falling off because there are leaks in the roof," he said. In addition, the exterior paint is "in very bad condition," Chapman said. "And, we have no official inspection regarding the structure and its soundness," he added. "It needs to be examined." William Allen, a native of Seaford and the architectural historian for the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, a post he has held for 24 years, was guest speaker at the historical society meeting, held at the Methodist Manor House. He told a packed room of about 120 people that Lawrence is "the finest building ever built in Seaford." Allen said that as a child growing up in Seaford, he loved Lawrence. "It is one of the principal buildings that I remember admiring every time my parents drove by," he said. "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." Allen said that he was sad to drive by Lawrence recently and see the shape that it is in. Despite that, he added, he believes that most of the house is original. "It is like a dear old friend that has been mortally abused," he said. "I hope that the community can come together to reverse this sad situation."

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 that he believes that the concept for Lawrence came from a book, "The Modern Builders Guide," written by Minard Lafever in 1833. According to a 1969 reprint of the book, Lafever's guide "was responsible for the rapid dissemination of Greek Revival architecture in the United States." The forward adds: "Local carpenters as far south as Kentucky and as far west as Wisconsin used the book as a 'builder's guide' to construct Grecian temple-type houses and public buildings." "Somebody in that neighborhood had a copy of that book," Allen said. In fact, he said, he believes that the house shown on the book's title page was the model for Lawrence. "I don't believe that Lawrence was designed by an architect," Allen said. "I believed it was designed by Wright and his carpenter. Seaford, after all, was a good carpenter center. It was a ship-building center, and when you have ship building, you have good carpenters. I believe that that carpenter, working closely with his client, designed Lawrence, and that they used the plate in that book as their guide." Allen said that he is 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 said. "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." Allen said that the best use of Lawrence would be as a residence. But restoring it for office space, for example, or for a restaurant, what Allen called "adaptive reuse," would be in keeping with the house. The Thomas England House, the only other example of Greek revival architecture in Delaware, is a restaurant. "That kind of thing happens all the time," he said. "I don't see why it wouldn't work here." "This building is ours," Allen added. "It belongs to the community. And it belongs to a little boy in a car, with his nose pressed against the window, begging his father to slow down as they drive by."

News tips wanted
Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.