Throughout the Colonial era, Sussex County business was conducted in Lewes. But in 1775 the boundary settlement with Maryland added wide southern and western chunks of land to the County, leaving the people there, accustomed to nearby county seats in Maryland, as much as 40 miles from the coastal seat of government. Two petitions signed by 979 inhabitants of Sussex County were presented to the General Assembly praying that the county seat would be removed from Lewes and be more centrally located.
On May 9, 1791, the commissioners met at the house of Abraham Harris and negotiated the purchase of 50 acres from him, buying also 25 acres from Rowland Bevins and one acre from Joshua Pepper. The 76 acres were located in what was locally known as “James Pettijohn’s Old Field.” The land was surveyed by Rhoads Shankland, who divided it into lots which were sold to defray costs associated with the establishment of the town. The most prominent feature of his design was this Public Square, known today as The Circle. The town was eventually laid out in a circle one half mile in all directions from The Circle and it was governed directly by the legislature until the mid 1800s. the Sussex County seat was named Georgetown in honor of George Mitchell, for several sessions Speaker of State Senate and prominent member of commission appointed to lay out the town.
The town developed slowly around the Sussex County Courthouse. Government was the main business in Georgetown and brick-making and tanning hides became the first small industries.
The Junction and Breakwater Railroad from Harrington to Lewes was built through Town after the Civil War and in 1917 the first 20-mile stretch of the paved du Pont Highway was completed between Georgetown and the Maryland line, furhter opening up the county seat to travelers.
This walking tour will begin in the cultural heart of Sussex County, the Public Square designed by Rhoads Shankland more than 200 years ago, known today as The Circle...
center of Bedford Street and Market Street
In the beginning the Circle, the symbolic heart of Sussex County, was intended to mimic Dover’s public square, The Green. Instead it evolved into a traffic roundabout and park inside the courthouse square. Since 1792 the Circle has been the site of Return Day, a uniquely Delaware tradition. The State Law in 1791 dictating the removal of the County seat from Lewes required all votes to be cast in the new County Seat of Georgetown on election day. The same voters would “return” two days later to hear the results - hence the name Return Day. Through the years, even as the oral declaration was rendered obsolete, Return Day morphed into a cookout where heated political differences would melt away in the barbecue sauce. In the tradition of the 19th century food booths, ox roast sandwiches are distributed to the throngs attending Return Day at no charge.
INSIDE THE CIRCLE, BEGIN WITH THE SUSSEX COUNTY COURTHOUSE (SOUTH OF EAST MARKET STREET) AND TRAVEL CLOCKWISE - OPPOSITE TO THE FLOW OF TRAFFIC.
Sussex County Courthouse
1 The Circle
This has been the site of the house of Sussex County justice since the government settled in here in 1791. The original courthouse was sold in 1837 and hauled to its current location on South Bedford Street (moving buildings around town was a relatively common occurrence in the 1800s before the era of indoor plumbing and electrical wiring, as long as you had a strong ox team). Funds for the new courthouse were raised in a lottery and plans were contributed by nationally celebrated architect William Strickland. Strickland was the country’s leading cheerleader for the Greek Revival style but there wasn’t enough money to execute his vision so a more restrained Federal-style building was erected. The Ionic portico and cupola-topped tower didn’t come along until 1914.
Old Georgetown Post Office
2 The Circle
Mail in Georgetown was filtered through 33 separate postmasters and post offices in homes and businesses around town until this post office was constructed in 1932 using Depression-era stimulus funds. The price tag was $63,452. The government facility was mothballed in the 1990s and purchased by Sussex county to host its council business.
Old Farmers Bank
13 The Circle
Farmer’s Bank was chartered in 1807 and a fine brick structure built in 1852. It was still doing business when this Neo-Georgian structure was raised in 1971. Farmer’s assets were acquired in 1981 and mellon Bank moved in two years later.
The Brick Hotel
18 The Circle
The existing structure was built in 1836 by Joshua S. Layton and Caleb B. Sipple, builders of the Sussex County Courthouse across the Circle, replacing a frame Public House that stood on the site. It became known during the Civil War as The Union Hotel when it was a favorite lounging spot for staunch supporters of the federal efforts to keep the country together. Southern sympathizers favored the neighboring Eagle Hotel. The hotel closed in the 1950s, a victim of the migration of automobiles to the interstate highways. The building did lackluster duty as a bank but faced a date with the demolition crew in the 1990s when a grass roots campaign spared the Brick Hotel which has re-emerged as an inn and restaurant.
The Paynter House
26 The Circle
Constructed in the early 1800s, the house was occupied by the Paynter Family which included physicians, a bank president, and a Delaware Supreme Court Justice.
The Mansion House
28 The Circle
The core of this building in the back is believed to have its toe in the 18th century. The front was crafted in a Greek Revival fashion after the 1830s and picked up an upper-story mansion roof in the victorian age. One of the holders of the deed here was Charles Sudler Richards, who served as Delaware Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court.
Court of Chancery
34 The Circle
Throughout the 1800s a company wishing to incorporate had to obtain a special act by its state legislature. In 1899 Delaware adopted a general incorporation act that simplified the process and began attracting businesses across the country to come and file for incorporation. Through the years the state built up a deep, well-developed case law that cemented its reputation as the home of incorporation. The Court of Chancery that adjudicates corporate lawsuits became so busy it received its own building fronted by Doric pilasters in 2003.
Old Fire Hall
37 The Circle
Georgetown purchased its first fire-fighting apparatus in 1831. The Georgetown Fire Company was organized in 1903 and settled into this building in 1930. The company moved on to more spacious digson South Bedford Street in 1966.
39 The Circle
Dating back to the 1820s the Rising Sun tavern did business on this site. The current building began life in 1921 as a Neoclassical vault for the Delaware Trust Company. It was later owned by Wilmington Trust which turned it over to the town in 1965. It has since emerged as town hall.
LEAVE THE CIRCLE VIA WEST MARKET STREET, BETWEEN THE BRICK HOTEL ON YOUR LEFT AND FAMILY COURT ON YOUR RIGHT.
Dr. Joseph B. Waples House and Office
4 West Market Street
Constructed in the 1800s, the eye-catching house and office belonged to the town doctor, Joseph Waples.
104 West Market Street
Built in 1809 by Judge Peter Robinson, the Georgian-influenced residence has served as the home of several judges, State Supreme Court Justices and two Delaware Secretaries of State.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS A HALF-BLOCK TO FRONT STREET AND TURN RIGHT ONTO SOUTH FRONT.
Stephen Green House
8 South Front Street
The oldest section of the house dates to before 1810 and in about 1868 a three-bay section was added. Green was a physician and served as Justice of the Peace in 1836 and 1851.
The Benton Harris House
14 South Front Street
The front section of the house was constructed in 1795 by Georgetown’s first storekeeper. When he became postmaster in 1799, the mail was distributed from the Harris shop as well.
The Sorden-Rollins House
103 West Pine Street; southwest corner of South Front Street
The core of this house was raised in the 1790s; its Greek Revival appearance today is from later improvements.
TURN RIGHT ON WEST PINE STREET AND WALK A HALF-BLOCK.
109 West Pine Street
The cornerstone for the Georgetown Armory was laid in 1940 and the brick building with limestone trim features an Art Moderne sensibility.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON WEST PINE STREET TO CROSS BACK OVER SOUTH FRONT STREET.
New Century Club Building
10 West Pine Street
With the 20th century approaching “New Century Clubs” were all the rage in America. Georgetown’s formed in 1898; its clubhouse was not constructed until 1926, however. Today it houses the Georgetown Library.
TURN LEFT ON SOUTH BEDFORD STREET, TOWARDS THE CIRCLE.
Old Sussex County Court House
10 South Bedford Street
So country residents would not miss the former seat in Lewes too much when the Sussex County Courthouse was assembled in Georgetown in 1791 it followed the exact dimensions of the old building. Sheathed in cypress boards, it was moved from its original Circle location in 1837 to make way for the present courthouse. After that it was used as a residence and then a printing office. Long abandoned and forgotten, the structure was purchased by the State of Delaware and restored in 1976 as a slice of America’s Bicentennial celebration. It is occasionally still used by the court system.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ONE-HALF BLOCK TO PINE STREET AND TURN LEFT ONTO EAST PINE.
Joseph T. Adams House
12 South Front Street
Joseph T. Adams, an alderman and town commissioner, built this house in 1868. It appearance today reflects a Victorian facelift
The Old Academy
104 East Pine Street
Private school instruction began in Georgetown in 1812 and its first dedicated academy building was constructed in 1836. It was so named to distinguish is from the Masonic Hall, called the New Academy. The Georgetown School was constructed in 1885.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
122 East Pine Street
Incorporated on June 21, 1794, St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal is the oldest organized church in Georgetown. The congregation met in the Sussex County Courthouse until 1805 when a special lottery sanctioned by the State General Assembly raised $1,500 for construction of the first church, a small frame building on this site. It was replaced by a plain brick church in the early 1840s.The current Victorian Gothic church looks much as it did in the 1880s when the interior and facade were remodeledunder the guidance of Reverend Charles Follen McKim. McKim’s nephew was Charles Follen McKim, founding partner of McKim, Mead and White of New York City, America’s most celebrated architectural firm of the late 19th and early 20th century. The familial connection has raised speculation that the famous architect had a hand in the planning of St. Paul’s but, although the New Yorkers were active in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, there is no evidence of any Delaware commissions.
TURN LEFT AT RAILROAD STREET. CROSS EAST MARKET STREET, ONE BLOCK AWAY, AND TURN RIGHT, CROSING THE RAILROAD TRACKS ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE STREET.
151 East Market Street
In 1827 the Delaware Assembly authorized members of the Masonic Lodge and the local citizenry to stage a lottery for the purpose of funding the construction of “an Academy and Masonic Hall.” Land was finally purchased in 1840 and the joint-use Georgetown Academy was formally dedicated on December 28, 1842. The private school quickly gained a prestigious reputation, attracting students from throughout Sussex County. With the coming of a new public school in Georgetown in 1885, the Academy shuttered its doors and conveyed their interest in the property to Franklin Lodge No. 12. The Masons began tinkering with the original building, adding a fashionable mansard roof in the 1880s, then removing it for the classical portico seen today in 1920.
RETURN TO RAILROAD STREET ACROSS THE TRACKS AND TURN RIGHT, FOLLOWING THE TRACKS NORTH TO THE RAILROAD STATION.
Georgetown Train Station
In 1867 the first trains pulled into Georgetown and this depot, then a single story, quickly came online. The gabled upper story was added around 1912 but came down in the 1940s. The Historic Georgetown Association logged more than 9,000 volunteer hours to restore the station in 2003. Several thousand board feet of the old 1860s lumber was salvaged, the best of which was used in the restoration. Twenty-two thousand original paver bricks were used to veneer the building’s exterior and loading docks. Enough old floor joists, many of which are 135 years old, were salvaged to restore the second story. Inside are two original cashier windows, one exterior door, lanterns, calendars and other railroad odds and ends.
TURN AROUND AND WALK ONE-HALF BLOCK TO EAST LAUREL STREET AND TURN RIGHT. TURN LEFT ON RACE STREET.
Wesley United Methodist Church
10 North Race Street
Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism is most of these parts, is said to have preached in what would later become Georgetown as early as 1779, although no edifice was constructed until 1802 on West Pine Street near the Church cemetery. Two church buildings later, the present sanctuary was constructed in 1896. The parsonage was added in 1907.
North Race Street
The short block between Cooper Alley and East Market Street is framed with well-maintained examples of late 1800s Victorian architecture.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO EAST LAUREL STREET AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON NORTH BEDFORD STREET.
The Alfred Robinson House
112 North Bedford Street
Constructed on The Circle in the waning days of the 1700s, this stately frame home was moved to its present location in 1857. Legend has it that the giant Magnolia tree on the property was a gift of a wealthy sea captain in the late 1850s.
TURN AND WALK BACK TWO BLOCKS ON NORTH BEDFORD STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN THE CIRCLE.