In 1651, Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (Now New York City) sent a flotilla of eleven ships down the coast into the Delaware River where they established Fort Casimir. Sweden had colonized the river back in 1638 and the colony of New Sweden seized the lightly garrisoned fort in 1654. The next year Governor Stuyvesant sailed back down with seven ships and 317 soldiers. The Swedish settlers surrendered without a fight.
Pouring more resources into the settlement this time the trading post soon grew to more than 200 people and was named New Amstel. Dutch rule was to last less than a decade more, however. In 1664 the British overwhelmed the Dutch in New Amsterdam and the stubborn peg-legged Stuyvesant was forced to cede all Dutch land to England.
In 1681 William Penn, a devoted Quaker and one-time prisoner in the Tower of London was presented with a massive land grant from King Charles II to repay a debt of £16,000 owed to Penn’s father. He was now in possession of much of present-day Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Penn came to survey his new land in 1682 and on October 27, first set foot in America in New Castle. He stayed a day before hurrying up to Philadelphia.
For more than 150 years New Castle thrived as a trading center and the second-largest town on the Delaware River behind Philadelphia. Delawareans, however, chafed under strict Quaker rule and in 1702 what would become Delaware was granted its own government under Pennsylvania law and was called “The Lower Three Counties.” New Castle was the capital city but after the governor was kidnapped the capital was moved further inland.
The business district was leveled by fire in 1824 and although the town was quickly rebuilt it was dealt a more lethal blow two decades later from which it could not recover: the main overland rail route bypassed New Castle in favor of Wilmington. Cut off from the commerce that followed the iron horse, a secluded New Castle began a long, slow decline. As commerce and people departed town, the historic brick buildings remained. The preservation movement in America began in the early 20th century and New Castle was rediscovered in the 1920s. In 1924 “A Day in Old New Castle” began a tradition of touring the town’s colonial homes and gardens. Unlike many colonial towns, New Castle is neither reconstructed or a preserved historical district. It is a fully residential town roughly five blocks wide by two blocks long. On this one day, residents open their private, historic homes to the public for tours.
Our walking tour of this authentic Colonial town will begin at the southeast corner of Second and Chestnut streets, near the site of the original Fort Casimir. There is a small park here and on-street parking...
Fort Casimir Site
southeast corner Second Street and Chestnut Street
Well not quite the site of the original Dutch fort from 1651. That would be under the tidal waters of the Delaware River some 100 yards east and a little ways north of the stone marker that was placed here in 1905. After the English conquered the Dutch in 1664, the Dutch readily agreed to remain and live under English law, just as the Swedes had lived under Dutch law. Fort Casimir was destroyed by the British in 1670.
WALK OVER TO THE DELAWARE RIVER.
Delaware Memorial Bridge
These are the longest twin suspension bridges in the world. The first Delaware Memorial Bridge, 440 feet above the water at its highest point opened to traffic on August 15, 1951. It took $44 million to build. By 1955, nearly 8 million vehicles were crossing the bridge each year—almost double the original projection. As a result, talks about building a second bridge were soon underway, and a twin span was dedicated in 1968. Although the bridges look identical, those in the know can tell the difference. Today, more than 80,000 vehicles cross the twin spans on their combined total of 8 lanes daily. The largest single day of bridge traffic saw 72,249 private and commercial vehicles cross the bridge one-way on November 29, 1998. The bridge is a lasting memorial to those soldiers who gave their lives in World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm. Each year on Veterans Day, a special ceremony is held at the Bridge War Memorial, which overlooks the Twin Span.
WALK SOUTH ON THE STRAND, THE STREET THAT FRONTS THE DELAWARE RIVER (the water will be on your left).
William King House
100 The Strand at northwest corner of Harmony Street
This attractive frame house with a southern feel dates to the 1850s but the lot is most notable as being the spot where Governor Francis Lovelace constructed his mansion in the 1670s.
Charles Thomas House
southwest corner of The Strand and Harmony Street
This imposing double-entrance late Georgian style structure was built in 1801 as a hotel. It later became the Parish House for the Immanuel Episcopal Church. Look up to see the fanlight over the entry door. The denticulated cornice is a 1913 addition during a wave of nostalgia for the Colonial era in America.
The William Aull House
53-55 The Strand
This is an authentic early American house from the 1780s. Details to check for include a stone belt course separating the first and second floors and twin arch fanlights over the double entrance.
George Read II House
42 The Strand
George Read was a lawyer and signer of the Declaration Of Independence. His son, George Read II, was also a lawyer and followed his father as United States attorney for Delaware but he was not the great achiever his dad was. In fact, he was not well liked and considered pompous. As if to prove his detractors correct, Read the younger set out to build the largest house in Delaware in 1801. He wanted the best of everything so even with skilled local craftsmen and abundant building materials nearby he built a wharf out front of the homesite and brought everything down, including 250,000 bricks, from Philadelphia. When completed the 22-room, 14,000 square foot mansion the total bill was $11,000 - more than $2 million today. At the time this was a bad neighborhood; a wharf district when the Delaware River came right up to the edge of The Strand. Two doors down a brothel was operating. Most of the fine homes in town were built a block back on the The Green. When this house - one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the country - things changed. Notable features include the monumental entrance with grand fanlight above and glazed panels at the sides; two similar broad windows on each side of the the Palladian window on the second story and a balustraded platform extending along the ridge of the roof stopped by chimneys in pairs at each end. The dentils in the roof cornice show the lighter and more refined appearance of the Federal style that followed Georgian architecture in New Castle. The garden at the Read House was installed by the second owner, William Cooper, in 1847. Designed by Robert Buist of Philadelphia, this garden is still intact after 150 years and ranks as the oldest surviving garden in the region. Encompassing one-and-half acres, the garden is divided into three sections: a formal parterre flower garden, a specimen garden filled with exotics and native favorites, and a large fruit orchard and kitchen garden with rows of pear trees and grape vines framed by clipped boxwood hedges.
24 The Strand
The Dutch-period dwelling that stood here until being consumed in the conflagration of 1824 was owned by another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas McKean, who rented it out. The new brick building served commercial duty in the 1800s, the final business tenant being a newspaper printer.
27-33 The Strand
These handsome brick rowhouses were built after the Great Fire of 1824, tapping the Federal style that was beginning to give way to the Greek Revival emergence. Note the rhythmic pattern of the marble steps; finer stones like marble and limestone were often imported for use in detail work in New Castle. The paired, exterior louvered doors seen here can be seen across town. These types of doors were products of the humid summers of Tidewater, Virginia and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. They found favor in country homes around the Mid-Atlantic region but were virtually unknown in towns. No one knows why they graced so many New Castle front doors. The development of the screen door brought their use to an end in the mid-1800s.
river side of The Strand
Packet boats from Philadelphia landed here to meet stage coaches and railroad traffic from Frenchtown, Maryland, chief line of communication from north to Baltimore and South. Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Sam Houston, Louis Napoleon, and Stonewall Jackson, among many others, all passed this way. One of America’s earliest Ivory Soap advertisements can still be seen painted on the brick wall in the alley. Great Conestoga wagons hauling grain and loaded with goods for western-bound pioneers once rolled through here.
Samuel Couper House
14 The Strand
One of the few remaining smokehouses in New Castle survived the Great Fire of 1824 and is at the back of this house. This store was a ship chandler’s shop in the 1800s. The building has been heavily re-done; the windows filled in what was at one time a recessed porch. The brick breezeway leads to the back garden.
8 The Strand
This is the oldest house on the block, with roots in the early 1700s. Notable architectural details include the wooden front door and a pent roof over the first floor that is a popular feature found on Colonial Pennsylvania buildings. Richard McWilliams was a later occupant of the house who married Zachariah Van Leuvenigh’s daughter, Mary. Van Leuvenigh was chief magistrate of New Castle during the American Revolution.
Gunning Bedford House
6 The Strand
Built around 1760, this was the home of Gunning Bedford, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Revolutionary War and 11th governor of Delaware. Later, Caleb P. Bennett, the 29th governor of Delaware lived here as well. In between, George Read II lived in the house while his mansion was being built down the street. The elevated front entrances here and at the McWilliams house next door demonstrate how the street elevation was lowered when the Strand was leveled in 1804.
Old Farmers’ Bank
4 The Strand at northwest corner of Delaware Street
This building was constructed as a branch of the Farmers’ Bank in 1845. The bank was established by an act of the General Assembly in 1807 and operated until 1978 when its assets were acquired by Girard Bank. Prominently wrapped in stone quoins, the brick building was designed in the newly evolving Italianate style being championed by John Notham of Philadelphia. Look up to see short chimneys on the roof, an indication that New Castle residents were beginning to use soft coal to warm themselves in the winter rather than hard anthracite that required more expansive fire boxes.
TURN LEFT ON DELAWARE STREET AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO THE DELAWARE RIVER.
End of Delaware Street
The wharf on the property to the left was the site of William Penn’s landing. The Great Fire of 1824 started in the rear of the old Jefferson Hotel that stood here and was swept up The Strand by the wind, leaving the main part of town toward Delaware Street unharmed. The ice piers visible in the water were built in 1803 to protect the harbor from ice floes. They were the first such structures installed in the Delaware River.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK INTO BATTERY PARK.
New Castle and Frenchtown Ticket Office
The New Castle-Frenchtown Turnpike that followed an old Indian trail 16 miles to the Chesapeake Bay, was a boon for New Castle after the Revolution. By the 1820s rails had been laid strong enough for horses to pull carriages along the route. In 1832 the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad(NC&FRR ) became one of America’s first iron horses. The small structure, now whitewashed and stripped of its functional trappings, is actually the nation’s second-oldest railroad building. The ticket office was moved to several locations around town after the demise of the NC&FRR and landed here in the 1950s.
WALK BACK TO THE STRAND BEHIND THE TICKET OFFICE THROUGH THE PARK.
Van Leuvenigh House
2 The Strand West at southwest corner of Delaware Street
The core of this brick house was constructed in 1732 with a Dutch-inspired gambrel roof that calls to mind the sway the town’s founders still had in New Castle. Common stone was not widely used for construction in New Castle; here you can see a foundation of rubblestone. The owner was Zachariah Van Leuvenigh, that chief magistrate of New Castle during the American Revolution.
TURN LEFT ON DELAWARE STREET.
110 Delaware Street
The Colby House dates to the early 1700s; the facade features a three-deep brick belt course and a block cornice. It carries the name of its restorer in 1936, Miss Ruth Colby.
117-125 Delaware Street
This is Delaware’s oldest rowhouse block, built as speculative housing in 1803. The stone string courses add a touch of style to the 200-year old rental properties.
130 Delaware Street
A Federal townhouse, circa 1850, that has been turned into a bed & breakfast. This side of the street was used as a set in the Oprah Winfrey production of Beloved. The entire street was covered with dirt and imitation cobblestones laid down.
William Penn Guest House
206 Delaware Street
The houses dates to 1682 and tradition holds that William Penn himself stayed in the house when he spent his night in New Castle but that is probably not the case. The bricks in front have been replaced but the sides are the oldest surviving brick walls in New Castle.
Old Town Hall
Second Street and Delaware Street
The three-story high brick square building with white tower and cupola was erected in 1823. It served as a headhouse for the stalls of the town market that operated to the rear. Farmers paid in the archway to sell their wares under cover; others set up for free. The market was held as early as 1682 and to make it successful buying and selling elsewhere in town was prohibited on market days.
Old Court House
north side of Delaware Avenue
The Colonial court house that dominates Delaware Street is one of the oldest public buildings in the United States. The building was raised, burned, reconstructed, added on to three or four times, and covered with stucco in the 1840s. The construction phases for the Court House were (1732, central block; 1765, east wing; 1801 extended east wing; 1845 west wing) The exquisite brickwork is Flemish bond where the stretchers and headers alternate along each course. The cupola marks the center of “the 12-mile circle” that was drawn when Delaware broke away from Pennsylvania in 1702 to mark the boundary with its mother colony. The resulting curved border between Delaware and Pennsylvania is unique in all United States boundary-making. What is less known is that the arc does not stop at the Delaware River but is in fact a full circle that reaches across the water into New Jersey and there is actually a small part of land on the New Jersey side of the river that belongs even today to the State of Delaware.
WALK DOWN THE GREEN BETWEEN THE COURT HOUSE AND OLD TOWN HALL.
Old Sheriff’s House
adjoining Court House on Market Street
This Italianate brownstone was constructed in 1858 on the site of an earlier jail and debtors’ prison. Outside the jail to the rear stood the gallows and a whipping post. Public floggings took place in New Castle every Thursday at “Red Hannah” (a colloquial name for the whipping post, said to have originated by black convicts who “hugged Red Hannah” -- the red-painted post -- when undergoing their lashings). Flogging with a prescribed number of lashes using a cat-o’-nine-tails “well laid on the bare back”, applied by the superintendent of the county jail, continued in Delaware into the 1940s although public displays like New Castle’s “whipping day” were halted decades earlier.
William Penn Statue
Head of the Green
The statue of William Penn is by Charles C. Parks, a noted Wilmington sculptor, who completed the work in 1984. Penn is depicted holding water, turf, and the key to the city in one hand and a twig in the other to symbolize the breaking off of tiny Delaware from mighty Pennsylvania. The Green, now canopied under luxurious shade trees was an open area laid out by Peter Stuyvesant in 1655. Standing here in the early 1800s the fenced-in area would have had sheep grazing inside.
Old Presbyterian Church
east side of the Green on Second Street
The earliest church building in New Castle was believed to have been erected on this site by the Dutch in 1657 and the lawn is thought to have served as a burying ground. In 1707 it was replaced by a brick, one-story church that was used until a modern Gothic-style Presbyterian worship house sculpted in brownstone was built next door in 1854. Following World War II the congregation decided to raze the “new” church and restore the more fitting building standing today. Note the clipped jerkinhead hoods on the Dutch gambrel roof.
west side of the Green on Market Street
The one-and-a-half story brick building was commissioned by the United States in 1809 to stockpile ammunition when the threat of war with England loomed menacingly. The Arsenal wasindeed used during the War of 1812 and again in 1846 at the outbreak of the Mexican War. Soon thereafter it was discovered that the land on the Green, including the Arsenal, could not legally be sold so a new deed was drawn up that prohibited the storing of ammunition without the town’s consent. The Federal government then gave the building to the town. In 1852 a second floor, with cupola, was added and the original wagon entrances at each end closed off. Windows were installed and The Arsenal began a second life as an academy for high school students. New Castle High School was closed in 1930 but remodeled to serve as an elementary school. Beginning in 1963 the Arsenal was outfitted as a restaurant.
TURN RIGHT ON HARMONY STREET.
Rodney Willis House
126 Harmony Street
This is a more modest townhouse from the early 1800s. The Federal-style building shows off movable louvers and shutters emblematic of that period.
Rising Sun Tavern
118 Harmony Street
The front section dates to 1796; the two-room section in the rear was added a few years later. The small window on the side was installed to serve unruly travelers who were not welcome inside. Note the horsehead hitching post at the curb. The simple box cornice devoid of ornamentation is the most common type of roof treatment found in the New Castle Historic Area.
TURN AROUND TO RETURN TO SECOND STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Bull Hill House
northwest corner of East Second Street and Chestnut Street
Ephraim Bull built a small house next to this one in the 1820s and operated this building as a restaurant and milk depot. In the 1970s it was converted back to a residence.
166 East Second Street
This is an example of an early 1900s multi-family unit.
207-217 East Second Street
Here is employee housing from the 1880s that Elihu Jefferson constructed for workers toiling in his two riverside warehouses. Each unit gets progressively wider as you look from left to right.
HEAD WEST ON CHESTNUT STREET (away from the river) AND TURN LEFT ON EAST THIRD STREET.
James W. Foster House
159 East Third Street
This is what New Castle would look like if none of its Federal-style homes from two centuries ago were never restored.
40 East Third Street
This eight-sided brick confection came from the pen of Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, one of America’s leading Victorian designers. Architects would create octagons in the quest for additional light flowing into the interior space. The first books were lent from here in 1892. Look up to see a decorative chimney that was a playful part of the Victorian architect’s playbook.
Old Dutch House
32 East Third Street
Once thought to be the oldest surviving houses of the original Dutch settlement but that has been disproved. A log house stood on the property in the 1680s and this brick house may date to the 1690s but whatever the reality it is a prototypical simple Colonial Dutch house with severely sloping roof around a central heat source. The house was purchased in 1937 by the Delaware Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, and restorations done. Today Dutch House operates as an historic house museum and is furnished with a remarkable collection of Dutch Colonial artifacts.
Gemmill House (John Wiley House)
18 East Third Street
This is a Georgian-style townhouse from the first years of the 19th century. It boasts a center chimney and 12-over-12 windows. The pedimented entrance is a highlight.
George Rodney House
16 East Third Street
Twenty-eight year-old George Brydges Rodney, a cousin of Delaware Patriot Ceasar Rodney, and three years removed from law school, built this well-proportioned brick structure as his home and office in 1831. A decade later he would begin the first of two terms representing Delaware in the united States House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party.
8 East Third Street
The finest houses in town were built opposite The Green and the Dorsey house from around 1800 is no exception.
Kensey Johns, Sr. House
2 East Third Street
Kensey Johns was born in Maryland in 1759, in the family that would one day become famous for Johns Hopkins and his university. He was a minuteman during the American Revolution and later practiced law for over a decade. In 1798 Johns became Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, a post he held for thirty years. He lived until the advanced age of 89 which means he had nearly 60 years to enjoy this exquisite Federal house that was built in 1789.
CROSS THE STREET INTO THE GREEN.
The long brick building flanking the north side of the Green is the Old Academy, a private school that dates to 1799. The center hall is entered through an arched doorway with fanlight under a tripartite Palladian window.
Immanuel Episcopal Church
The Episcopal congregation first gathered on this site in 1689, one of America’s oldest church organizations. The first meetinghouse here was built in 1703. In 1980 the building was heavily damaged by fire and was painstakingly restored to its 1820 design - the year the steeple was added. In the adjoining cemetery are the graves of many Revolutionary War Veterans and George Read, signer of the Declaration of Independence.
MOVE OVER TO THE CORNER OF DELAWARE STREET AND THIRD STREET.
New Castle Trust Company
220 Delaware Street
The New Castle town government operates out of this former bank. The steady march of arches around the building are indicative of the Neoclassical style that was popular across the country in the early 1900s. The bricks for this commercial Revival structure were manufactured to resemble handmade eighteenth-century brick.
David Finney Inn
222 Delaware Street
The David Finney Inn was savaged by fire in 1998. During reconstruction hidden tunnels were found in the basement. A ghost is said to haunt the third floor.
CROSS OVER DELAWARE STREET DOWN THIRD STREET.
Archibald Alexander House
26-28 Third Street
Archibald Alexander was born in Virginia in 1755 but his family moved to New Castle County when he was just a lad. A staunch Patriot during the American Revolution, Alexander signed on with the Delaware militia, the Fighting Blue Hens, but soon joined the the 10th Virginia Regiment of the Continental Army as a surgeon. After two years of fighting, he departed the army to serve as a privateer out of Norfolk. Eventually his ship was captured and he was taken prisoner, serving out the remainder of the war on a prison ship in New York Harbor. After the war he returned to New Castle and practiced medicine. He was also active in the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party, being its first candidate for Governor of Delaware in 1795. Alexander died September 12, 1822 in New Castle County, Delaware, and is one of those buried at the Immanuel Episcopal Church Cemetery. This large six-bay double house has been renovated. For most of its life the brick was covered with stucco and there was only one third-floor dormer window centered over the right house, not the four symmetrically placed dormer windows you see today.
TURN AROUND AND RETURN TO DELAWARE STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Kensey Johns Van Dyke House
300 Delaware Avenue
Built in 1820, the relatively plain entrance facade is enlivened by the unusual geometric pattern in the door and first floor window shutters. Bricks used at this time were crafted in metal molds that churned out uniformly colored blocks as opposed to the random hues of earlier hand-fired bricks.This was the home of Nicholas Van Dyke, Jr., first a United States congressman and later elected to the United States Senate as a Federalist. He died in office in 1826 at the age of 56.
Old Opera House
310 Delaware Street
In 1879 this impressive performance venue was added to the New Castle streetscape. Look up to see the tallest windows on the second floor of this Italianate-flavored brick structure. “Opera house” was a catch-all for everything from lectures to school graduations to plays from traveling theater troupes. You might even catch an opera once in a while.
Kensey Johns, Jr. House
northeast corner of Delaware Street and Fourth Street
Trained as a lawyer like his father, Kensey Johns was a two-time United States congressman in his thirties before succeeding his father as Chancellor of the State of Delaware in 1832. He served for the next 25 years until his death. This brick house, with its mammoth parapets, was built in 1823.
northwest corner of Delaware Street and Fourth Street
This New Castle landmark was constructed as the Governor’s mansion and researchers believe the ground floor kitchen may have roots back into the 1600s and be the oldest structure in town. The headers of the bricks are glazed a bluish-gray that emerges from the natural salts int he clay during the firing process. The center-hall entrance is a standout from the Georgian period. The most famous tale from this historic house took place on April 30, 1784 when George Washington attended the wedding reception of Ann Van Dyke and Kensey Johns. Chief Justice James Booth wrote at the time that General Washington kissed all the pretty girls - “as is his wont.”
Nicholas Van Dyke House
400 Delaware Avenue
This is the first of three houses built by Senator Nicholas Van Dyke, erected in 1799. With its gable and pedimented entranceway it resembles the Amstel House across the street which his father Nicholas occupied as governor in the 1780s. The family home near Delaware City was on land that became the Delaware & Chesapeake Canal. The ornament found on the front door surround is a splendid example of “punch and gouge” woodwork found throughout New Castle. Punch and gouge refers to the incised ornament made by tooling the wood with a punch and gouging chisel.
WALK BACK DOWN DELAWARE STREET TO THE STRAND AND TURN LEFT TO RETURN TO THE START OF THE TOUR.