After periods of Swedish (1638), then Dutch (1655), then British (1664) colonization, the area stabilized under British rule (with Quaker influence) and was granted a borough charter in 1739 by the King of England which changed the name from Willingtown (after Thomas Willing, the first ‘developer” of the land who organized the area in a grid pattern like Philadelphia) to Wilmington, presumably after Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, a favorite of the King.
From the granting of the charter until the Revolution, the town developed steadily into a prosperous business and residential community. During the Revolution, its milling industries, geographic location, key leaders and resources made Wilmington particularly strategic. Topography and soil conditions affected the residential development pattern in the City. Wilmington lies at the fall line that separates the flat coastal plain from the hilly areas to the west. East of Market Street, and along both sides of the Christina River, the land is flat, low-lying and marshy in places. The west side of Market Street is hilly and rises to a point that marks the watershed between the Brandywine and the Christina Rivers. This watershed line runs along Delaware Avenue westward from 10th and Market Streets. The hilly and therefore healthier west side, was more attractive for the original residential areas such as Quaker Hill, developed beginning in the mid 18th century.
During the Industrial Revolution era Wilmington products included ships, railroad cars, gunpowder, shoes, tents, uniforms, blankets and other war-related goods. By 1868, the city was producing more iron ships than the rest of the country combined and it rated first in the production of gunpowder and second in carriages and leather. The modern age of Wilmington began in 1905 when the DuPont Company’s headquarters came downtown.
As an historically conservative city, Wilmington generally adopted architectural “high styles” about a decade after the style was introduced. Nonetheless, the city has a fine collection of extant buildings, displaying popular styles from the Revolution through late 20th century. Federal, Queen Anne, American Four Square are found in quantity; examples of Second Empire, Richardson Romanesque, Italian Villa, Greek Revival, Georgian, Art Deco and International Style punctuate the urban landscape. The vernacular row house makes up many of the stable neighborhoods, augmented by stylistic detailing from the high styles of its period of construction.
This walking tour will begin in the heart of the city around Rodney Square...
bounded by Market, King, 10th and 11th streets
A reservoir capable of storing one million gallons of water stood on this hilltop for half the 19th century. The public square, mostly hardscaped today, dates to development in the area in 1917. The equestrian statue of patriot Caesar Rodney, famous for his desperate night ride from Dover to cast Delaware’s vote for independence, was rendered in bronze by James Edward Kelly, known for his depictions of Civil War heroes. Unveiled in the 1920s, the statue was chosen to appear on Delaware’s state quarter in 1999.
Public Building of the City of Wilmington
1000 King Street, east side of Rodney Square
This block-swallowing granite building was raised in 1916 to house City Hall and the Wilmington courts. Architect Henry Hornbostel, who spent much of his career populating Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with classically-influenced buildings such as this one, drew up the plans that feature a parade of Corinthian columns linking the two branches of city government. The public servants departed in the early 2000s and the monumental space has been converted to office space.
Wilmington Public Library
10th & Market streets, south side of Rodney Square
Books were lent in Wilmington as early as 1788; Edward Lippincott Tilton, a New York architect who specialized in creating libraries, designed this Beaux Arts book depository in 1922. Tilton trained in the shop of the Gilded Age’s greatest architectural firm - McKim, Mead and White. The classical confection is framed with engaged Ionic columns and a frieze of golden terra cotta chases across the front edge. Sculpted owls of wisdom squint from second-story perches.
1007 N Market Street, east side of Rodney Square
The DuPont Building, the heart of Delaware’s seminal company, spreads across an entire block and, although it appears seamless, was actually built in six phases. Clad in brick and gray stone, it was begun in 1905 and completed in 1931, The first section was at the Tenth and Market corner, utilizing an Italian Renaissance design. The first expansion in 1913 brought the Hotel DuPont and the Playhouse, still the town’s leading guest house and theater a century later
U.S. Post Office, Court House, and Customs House
1100 N Market Street, north side of Rodney Square
The federal government went on a building spree during the Great Depression of the 1930s to kickstart the nation’s economy. A.D. Irwin and A.O. Leighton provided the classical revival design for the new post office that was completed in 1937 and filled out Rodney Square. Irwin and Leighton started their firm in 1909 building military bases and the company is still in business today. After the mail stopped being sorted here the space was outfitted for use as a bank.
WALK NORTH ON MARKET STREET FROM THE NORTHWEST CORNER OF RODNEY SQUARE.
First & Central Presbyterian Church
1101 N Market Street
The congregation is the melding of two historic churches - First Presbyterian from 1737 and Central Presbyterian from 1855. The current house of worship is not as historic, although pains were taken to make it look that way. The Colonial Revival meetinghouse dates to 1930 but the bricks were crafted to look as if they were fired individually by hand.
NEXT DOOR IS...
Merrick Mansion/Wilmington Club
1103 N Market Street
This is the only souvenir remaining from the mid-1800s when the streets in this area were stuffed with handsome residences of well-to-do Wilmingtonians. John Merrick, who manufactured carriages and surries, brought esteemed architect Edmund Lind up from Baltimore to design his townhouse. Lind used brownstone to implement his Italianate design that employed hefty brackets to support the cornice and is wrapped in corner quoins. Merrick was a member of the Wilmington Club which bought the building in 1900 for a clubhouse and expanded it several times. Tracing its roots back to 1855 the club boasts that it is the third oldest dining club in operation in America; only the Philadelphia Club and the Union Club in New York City are older.
RETURN TO 11TH STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
1007 Orange Street
The Nemours Building was trumpeted as the world’s largest artificially cooled office building in the world when it was constructed in two phases between 1936 and 1941. The office tower is dressed in brick, save for the limestone sheathing on the first two floors. The exterior is enlivened by Art Deco ornamentation and fixtures. Employees shuffle between the DuPont Building and the Nemours Building via an underground tunnel and an outside skywalk.
1000 N West Street, southeast corner of 11th Street
The Brandywine Building, rising 259 feet, was the last of the office towers raised in the DuPont Company’s downtown complex but it did not remain in the family long. It opened in 1970 and was sold in 1999.
Central Young Men’s Christian Association
501 W 11th Street at northwest corner of Washington Street
The YMCA movement started in England in 1844 and arrived in Delaware in 1875, although the first organization disbanded after only four years. The YMCA was back in business in 1889 and has been a community presence ever since. The building, completed in 1929, features brick upper floors over a limestone facade. Travelers would have seen many YMCAs that looked like this in the first half of the 20th century.
Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery
Delaware Avenue and Adams Street
In 1843 Samuel Wollaston began to lay off a tract of land of ten acres here for a cemetery that was organized as the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery Company on March 12, 1844. By that time Wollaston, a farmer and silk cultivator, has sold some 200 plots. The rural cemetery evolved into the resting place for many of the town’s leading politicians and business leaders, ministered to from a lovely Gothic Revival chapel fashioned from local fieldstone.
CROSS DELAWARE AVENUE.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Delaware Avenue and Adams Street
This parish was founded in 1638 with the group of Swedes that settled Wilmington. The original Swedish Lutheran church was located within the walls of Fort Christina, near the site where the Swedes landed. As more Swedes made the voyage to the new colony, a larger church was needed. The stone church built on the new site in 1698-99 is what is now celebrated as Old Swedes’. This Gothic-flavored meetinghouse was built in 1890 on plans drawn by Theophilus Parsons Chandler, a Philadelphia architect noted for his churches and country houses. That was a busy year for Chandler - he founded the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in 1890, and was its first head.
WALK SOUTH ON ADAMS STREET AND TURN LEFT ON 9TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON WEST STREET.
Grace United Methodist Church
northwest corner of 9th and West streets
Grace Church was born out of St. Paul’s Methodist Church in 1864 to establish a religious presence in “the improving western section of the city.” At the time this site was at the city limit with pastureland spreading out to the west. Wilmington-born architect Thomas Dixon, who built a busy practice in Baltimore, was selected to design the new meetinghouse. Dixon delivered a building in the High Victorian Gothic style, marked by dramatically contrasting materials - green serpentine limestone quarried across the state line in Chester County, reddish brownstone and buff-colored sandstone trim. While attractive, serpentine is not the strongest of building materials and often buildings using it needed to be supported with buttresses.
Cathedral of Saint Peter
500 N West Street at southwest corner of Sixth Street
Wilmington became a stop for circuit-riding Catholic priests from Philadelphia and Maryland in the mid-1700s. In 1816 the congregation leased land on this corner from the estate of Martha Whitelock and hired a French emigrant named Peter Bauday to design the mother church for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. His Romanesque-styled church, topped with a tin roof, was dedicated to St. Peter on September 12, 1818. A series of enlargements and additions began in 1829 when the building was extended and the bell tower added.
Wilmington Friends Meeting House
401 N West Street
The Quakers in Wilmington constructed their first meeting house on this site in 1738 and a decade later replaced it with a larger building. This meeting house, built of bricks and gabled at each end, dates to 1816. Resting in the adjoining burial ground is Thomas Garrett, Delaware’s most celebrated abolitionist. Garrett is credited with helping more than 2,700 slaves escape to freedom. Nearby is the grave of the state’s most distinguished Colonial figure, John Dickinson, “the Penman of the Revolution.”
TURN LEFT ON 4TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON MARKET STREET.
Central National Bank
501 N Market Street
The Central Bank blended elements of the Romanesque and Queen Anne styles for its new vault in 1890, constructed of complementary shades of red brick and sandstone. The bank is long gone and so is much of the ornamentation but you can still look up and see four carved lion heads.
northeast corner of 5th and Market streets
The history of this corner began in 1789 with the construction of the Indian Queen Hotel, taking its name from Queen Street as Fifth Street was called at the time. The Indian Queen flourished for nearly a century until it was demolished in 1871 to make room for the new Clayton House. Noted Baltimore architects Thomas Dixon and Charles Carson won the design competition for the 100-room Victorian guest house that rivaled the finest Philadelphia hotels. Its glory days ended abruptly with the arrival of the Hotel du Pont in 1913 and three years later the Clayton was reinvented as the 2000-seat Queen Theater. The Queen screened movies until April, 1959 when it was one of the first of the town’s downtown theaters to give up the fight against television and the flight to suburbia. It dodged the wrecking ball, however, and hung around long enough to experience a multi-million dollar makeover.
Artisans Savings Bank
505 N Market Street
This splash of Art Deco was added to the Wilmington streetscape in 1930 and has been home to the Delaware Historical Society since the 1970s. The Society organized in 1864, spurred by a desire to preserve documents from possible destruction during the Civil War.
Delaware History Museum
504 N Market Street
The Delaware History Museum was a creation of the Historical Society of Delaware in 1995. The space was an abandoned Woolworth’s 5 & 10, the third largest store the chain had built when it opened in 1940. Wilmington shoppers remember the busy lunch counter that ran the entire length of the store.
Market Street Arch
between 5th and 6th streets
When French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette made a grand tour of the United States on the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution in 1824 he was feted in Wilmington with a reception and dinner. Celebratory arches were erected across Market Street for the occasion. This arch from the 1990s dates to the creation of the Delaware History Museum.
west side of Market Street
Four historic Wilmington brick buildings, dating back as far as the 1740s, escaped demolition and were trucked here in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration. Most feature Flemish-bond brickwork with alternating stretchers (long side) and headers (short side). The square takes its name from Thomas Willing, who laid out the original village between the Brandywine and Christina creeks in 1731.
Old Town Hall
512 N Market Street
Construction for a Wilmington town hall, “to be built in a plain and handsome manner,” commenced in 1798. For more than a century the brick Federal-styled building remained at the center of government and community affairs. The government departed for more spacious quarters in 1916 and the Historical Society of Delaware saved the building, later restoring it to its original appearance. Tours today visit the upstairs Long Room where the city council met and the notorious windowless jail cells below ground.
Security Trust and Safe Deposit Company
southwest corner of 6th and Market streets
Philadelphia architect Frank Furness was one of America’s most talented Victorian designers. He often made the train ride for work down in Wilmington, including the design of the Queen Anne train station itself. This is one of his creations, built for the pioneering trust company in town when it opened on November 30, 1885. Deposits were held securely in impregnable steel vault and safe-deposit boxes and the building itself was touted as fireproof. Its banking days over, in recent years the building has done duty as a charter school.
Mullins Clothing Store
southeast corner of 6th and Market streets
Mullins was one of Wilmington’s most fashionable clothing stores when it operated on Market Street. It was converted to apartments in the mid-1980s and is now a dormitory for the Delaware College of Art and Design. On the south side of the store building is a “ghost sign” remembering Mullins on the bricks.
TURN RIGHT ON 6TH STREET AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO KING STREET.
Old Customs House
King and 6th streets
The federal government established a presence in Wilmington in the 1850 with this customs house. It was the first project tackled by Ammi Young as Supervising Architect of the Treasury and he tapped the then emerging-Italianate design being championed by Philadelphia architect John Notham. Young used three-foot thick walls and iron fittings to make his building fireproof. He would springboard from Wilmington to become one of the most influential of the Treasury Department’s lead architects.
RETURN TO MARKET STREET AND TURN RIGHT, CONTINUING NORTH TOWARDS RODNEY SQUARE.
Delmarva Power and Light Company
600 N Market Street at northeast corner of 6th Street
As telephone and utility companies expanded in the 1920s and 1930s they required larger and larger buildings. Many adopted the Art Deco style for their burly headquarters such as Delmarva Power and Light Company did here, infusing its design with Aztec motifs. The utility also operated as a fancy retail space with large ground-floor windows and a sleek, futuristic showroom. The building now rests on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1997 this has been the home of the Delaware College of Art and Design.
Reynolds Candy store/Cavanaugh’s Restaurant
703 N Market Street
When it opened in 1928 Reynolds was one of America’s premier candy stores where patrons could satisfy their sweet tooth with hundreds of varieties of hand-made confections. The candies were crafted on the upper two floors. The soda fountain was the talk of the town - a full 25 yards long and capable of handling two hundred hungry office workers in a single sitting at lunch. The building, crafted in the Italian Renaissance style with terra cotta outside and rich hardwoods inside, is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Reynolds Candy Co. closed its store in 1971 and the old shop continues to house long-time tenant, Cavanaugh’s Restaurant.
Grand Opera House
818 N Market Street
Cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material in the United States following the Civil War. It was easy to form into decorative facades, quick to assemble and inexpensive to create. Seldom was cast iron used to better effect than by Baltimore architects Thomas Dixon and Charles Carson, who gave Wilmington the third-largest stage in the United States with the Masonic Hall and Opera House in 1871. In those days an “opera house” was a catch-all for all sorts of live entertainment from lectures to school graduations to wrestling matches to even an occasional performance of opera. The first motion pictures screened in the city were shown here in 1896 and for most of the twentieth century the Grand was operated exclusively as a movie theater, run by Warner Brothers from 1930 and eventually closing in 1967. When it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places the French Second Empire-influenced structure was touted as “one of the finest remaining examples of 19th century cast iron architecture in America.” A meticulous restoration has returned the Grand Opera House to its past majesty and status as the town’s leading performance venue.
Wilmington Savings Fund Society
838 N Market Street at southeast corner of9th Street
The Wilmington Savings Fund Society took its first deposits in 1832 in a rented room next to Town Hall. The community bank did not get its own building until moving to this corner in the 1890s; the current Neoclassical vault dates to the 1920s. The thirteen engaged limestone columns parading along 9th Street were modeled after the Tower of Winds in Athens, Greece.
Delaware Trust Building
902 N Market Street at northeast corner of 9th Street
Alfred I. du Pont’s bitter feud with his cousin Pierre over the direction of the family business spilled onto the streets of downtown Wilmington in 1921 when he constructed this Beaux Arts-inspired 14-story home for his bank, Delaware Trust, as a counterpoint to the DuPont Building on the next block. The office tower still heeded to the convention of the earliest skyscraper builders of designing the tower to resemble a classical column with a defined base (the limestone base punctuated by monumental arched entrances), a shaft (the unadorned central stories) and a capital (the decorative upper stories). One thing that was novel in the construction of the Delaware Trust Building was one of the country’s first underground parking garages.
CONTINUE ON MARKET STREET TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT ON RODNEY SQUARE.