Posted by: japotts | September 15, 2014

1973: The Society Opens Its New Library Building

In 1973, the Society finally got to realize its long-held dream of more space with the opening of its new research library in the former Artisans Saving Bank at 505 North Market Street. At the Board of Directors Meeting on March 21, 1973, the President, Walter J. Heacock, announced that renovations to the new building were substantially completed and that a reception and preview for contributors to the Renovation Fund would be held on April 1st. On April 17th, the Society held its 109th Annual Meeting in the new space (even though renovations were not yet fully completed) so that the President could take the opportunity to thank everyone who was involved in the project.

At the Executive Committee meeting on May 23, 1973, the President was finally able to report that the temporary quarters the Society had been occupying at 509 North Market Street had been vacated and that the move to the new building was complete, with Executive Director and his staff now located in “much improved offices.” Thus, the resolution adopted the previous year to “convert the premises to a library, reading room and administrative offices” had come to a satisfying conclusion and the Society was glad to be able to embark on the next stage of its organizational life. The handsome building continues to welcome researchers today.

Library interior

The interior of the Society’s new library in the former Artisans Bank building (DHS photo collection)

Posted by: japotts | September 12, 2014

1972: An Important Bayard Family Gift

The year 1972 was a busy and productive year. At the Board of Director’s Meeting on February 9, 1972, the President announced that the settlement had been completed on the new building at 505 North Market Street and that renovations were underway to transform it into the Society’s new library and administrative offices. This was also the year that the Society received the gift of a very fine Chinese carved ivory presentation cup that had originally been given to Secretary of State, Thomas Francis Bayard (1828-1898), by the first Chinese Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States. This gift from Robert H. Richards, Jr., a former president of the Society, was announced at the Annual Meeting on April 11, 1972.

Thomas Francis Bayard was born in Wilmington on October 29, 1828 to James A. Bayard, Jr. and Anne Francis. The Bayard family had a starred history in Delaware. Thomas Francis Bayard’s father and grandfather had both been U.S. Senators and his great-grandfather, Richard Bassett, had also served as Governor of Delaware from 1799-1801. Thomas Francis Bayard continued this family tradition, entering the U.S. Senate in 1869 and serving until 1885, when he resigned to become Secretary of State during the Cleveland administration. As Secretary of State, one of the issues he faced was that of unrestricted Chinese immigration into the United States, which he (like many Americans) generally opposed. It was probably during negotiations for the treaty of March 12, 1888, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for a period of twenty years, that he acquired this cup during diplomatic gift exchanges with the Chinese minister, Chang Yen Hoon. Although from a rather dark period in American foreign policy, this fine piece still stands out as an eclectic high-light of our collections.

Bayard cup

Carved ivory presentation cup given to Thomas F. Bayard

Posted by: japotts | September 10, 2014

1971: The Society Purchases the Artisans Savings Bank Building

Artisans Savings Bank

The Artisans Savings Bank on Market Street, Wilmington (DHS Photo Collection)

In 1971, the Society’s search for more space finally came to an end with the purchase of the former Artisans Savings Bank building at 505 North Market Street. This purchase would be the successful conclusion to several years of searching. Other candidates included the Old Customs House on King Street and the Mullins Building on Market Street.

At the Executive Committee Meeting of May 19, 1971, the Society looked at the possibility of purchasing the building in conjunction with plans to create a “historical enclave” (later Willingtown Square) in the 500 block of Market Street to save several Colonial buildings slated for demolition as part of urban renewal, noting that “the Artisans Building would probably be useful to the Society if the enclave project did not materialize.” At this same meeting, the Society voted unanimously to obtain a 120-day option to purchase the building at a price of $190,000.

By July, the Society’s President, Charles Lee Reese, Jr., was able to announce that “the officers had executed the contract for the purchase of the Artisans Savings Bank at the price of $185,000.00 after receiving a grant from the Longwood Foundation of $150,000.00 with the additional grant of $70,000.00 for needed improvements.” With that, it was unanimously agreed to accept the grant, approve and ratify the purchase contract, and launch the Society into a new stage of development.

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The Apollo 11 replica space suit

The excitement of the Space Race had captured the entire nation’s attention during the 1960s, and by the end of the decade, the triumph of the July 20, 1969 moon landing meant that America entered the 1970s brimming with optimism about the Space Program’s future. The Historical Society of Delaware was no exception and celebrated in March with a special exhibit in Old Town Hall entitled “Steps to the Moon” that focused on this momentous event.

The exhibit looked at the history of the Apollo 11 mission, the Dupont Company’s contributions to the Space Program, and the development of space rockets leading up to the Saturn V used by NASA’s Apollo (and later Skylab) programs. The exhibit seems to have garnered a very positive response, with the Annual Meeting Minutes of April 14, 1970 reporting that: “The response from the public to the space exhibit was overwhelming, and our visitors numbered 200 every day. It has been gratifying to receive letters from our visitors praising the quality of the displays and the guides’ knowledge.”

Interestingly enough, at this same Annual Meeting, the Space Program was still very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the world watched the near-catastrophe of Apollo 13 unfold in real time. It was a big enough deal that the Society’s president called for those present to observe a moment of silence for the astronauts involved. Fortunately, this mission ended with the safe return of the astronauts to earth. The Society also ended its year well with the donation of a replica space suit from ILC Industries in Dover (maker of the Apollo 11 space suit).

Posted by: japotts | September 5, 2014

1969: An Important Silver Bequest

In 1969, the Society was bequeathed a fine silver commemorative tea and coffee service, along with other Danby family items, from prominent local and Princeton graduate, Henry Gregg Danby (1883-1968). Danby was a local businessman who was involved with various enterprises, including the Wilmington Candy Company and the New Jersey and Wilmington Ferry Company. The set had originally been a retirement gift to his father, John Henry Danby (1853-1921) from the Union National Bank of Wilmington, Delaware to commemorate fifty years of service to the bank from 1870-1920.

This bequest was important to the Society because it came from a family and business that both had deep Delaware roots. Henry’s mother, Georgine Gregg Danby, was the only surviving daughter of William Henry Gregg, the president of a prosperous carriage making company located at 8th/9th and Orange Streets in Wilmington. His great-grandfather, John Danby (1788-1857) was a Wilmington cooper who had made barrels for the DuPonts. The Union National Bank of Delaware for which his father had worked for so many years was chartered on February 15, 1839 and began life as the Union Bank of Delaware. In 1865, it became certified as a national bank and changed its name to the Union National Bank of Delaware. The bank would later be acquired by Wilmington Trust in 1943. The Executive Committee unanimously agreed to accept this bequest at its January 23rd meeting and the service would later become part of the exhibits in the museum in Old Town Hall.

Danby silver

The Danby silver service set (DHS collection)

Posted by: japotts | September 3, 2014

1968: A Newly Restored Old Town Hall Re-Opens its Doors

As the Vietnam War raged, America’s Space Program kicked into high gear, and the Beatles topped the charts, the Historical Society finally celebrated the completion of its four-year-long Old Town Hall renovation project. Those who had contributed financially to the project were invited to an exclusive preview on March 31, 1968 and, in April, the Society was once again able to hold its 104th Annual Meeting in the building after several years of wandering. The meeting included a special program presented by consulting architectural historian, C. Lee Nelson, on the history of the building and high-lights of the project.

Despite this initial triumphant beginning, the Society still found itself beset by growing pains and the pressing need for more space. This lack of space forced a renewal of the lease on the temporary quarters at 509 North Market Street for another year as the Society once again considered acquiring the Old Customs House on King Street for use as a library and staff offices.

Another pressing concern for the year was how to re-open the freshly-renovated Old Town Hall as a public museum on a full-time basis. The Board of Directors wrestled with this problem for the remainder of the year, but remained hopeful for the future, noting that “efforts should be made to accomplish such expanded use in future years or as soon as the Society’s income permitted such use.”

Old Town Hall

Old Town Hall from Market Street

The Society’s extensive Old Town Hall restoration project enters a new phase as work moves from the exterior to the interior of the building. Having previously decided to do all of the interior restoration under one general contract, the Society is now faced with having to raise additional funds in order to complete the project as planned. Fortunately, an offer of $37,500 from Henry DuPont comes to the rescue, on condition that the Society raise the matching funds before the end of the year.

A fund drive was formally announced to the membership at the April 18th Annual Meeting and by November, the President was able to report that it had gone well enough that the full scope of the project was expected to be substantially completed by the end of the year. At the Annual Dinner Meeting on November 14, 1967, the Society’s President formally thanked all present and reported that:

“The restoration of our Society’s headquarters at the Old Town Hall is proceeding on schedule. It appears that the building will soon be available for us. The interior has been restored to reflect as closely as possible the interior of the hall as it appeared when it was opened in 1799. Those, who have seen it, are loud in their praise of the beauty of the rooms in regard to their proportions and their color décor. The lightness and spaciousness of the late 18th century architecture is once more underscored by this restoration.”

Old Town Hall interior 2

The interior of the Old Town Hall, 2014

Posted by: japotts | August 27, 2014

1966: Urban Renewal Offers an Opportunity

This year was one of renovations and changes for both the Society and Wilmington in general. The Society was deep into making plans for extensive, much-needed interior and exterior renovations to its Old Town Hall headquarters. Roof work had been completed the previous year and, at the April 12th Board of Director’s meeting, the Building Committee reported that a structural survey of the walls and interior had been completed and showed no major structural problems. At this same meeting, the Society voted to approve a proposal from Rupert Construction Company to go ahead with exterior repairs as recommended by a consulting architectural historian. By December, plans for interior work had necessitated a move into temporary quarters at 509 North Market Street.

At the same time, the City of Wilmington was also making plans for urban renewal projects that would change the face of the city and involve the demolition of various old buildings. In an effort to save some of them, the Society presented an extensively-researched proposal to the City Planner and Wilmington Housing Authority to have certain key examples of Colonial dwellings moved to the Society’s campus where they could be preserved. Potential candidates included the Thomas Coxe House and the Alrichs House. As the Executive Director reported at the Annual Dinner Meeting on November 15, 1966, “it is hoped that the publication of this study with the conclusions reached by both Societies may result in the preservation of some of these houses. At least it will provide a record for the future of some of these structures that were once part of the town of Wilmington.” Happily, these hopes would indeed bear fruit years later in 1976 when the Society was able to save some of these buildings to create the Willingtown Square campus currently on the 500 block of Market Street.

Coxe 1

The Thomas Coxe House at its original location at 107 & 109 East 6th Street in Wilmington (DHS photo collection)

Posted by: japotts | August 27, 2014

1965: Lydia Laird Offers the Read House to the Society

The year 1965 found the Society poised to grow and trying to navigate the difficulties of both pressing repair needs and a space crunch in its Old Town Hall headquarters. The Society spent most of the year seriously investigating the possibility of acquiring the old Customs House at Sixth and Kings Streets or building an annex onto Old Town Hall. Little did they realize, but this would be the year that the organization would begin to grow, but in a slightly different direction.

The Society ended the year on a high note at the Executive Committee meeting on November 15, 1965 when one of its Directors, Chief Justice Daniel F. Wolcott, announced that Lydia Laird had offered to bequeath the Read House, furnishings, gardens, and accompanying property on the Delaware River in New Castle to the Society, along with an endowment to operate the house as a museum. The Read house was built between 1797 & 1803 by George Read II (1765-1836; son of George Read the Signer). Lydia and her husband, Philip Dandridge Laird, were the third owners of the house and purchased it for $9,000 in 1920. As life-long history enthusiasts, the Lairds were keen to ensure that the house and its history would be preserved for future generations. The Society agreed to accept Mrs. Laird’s generous offer at the Board of Director’s Meeting on December 8, 1965. Although the Society would not actually get the house until 1975, it would later prove to be one of our most important acquisitions and a jewel of historic New Castle.

Lydia 1

Lydia Laird painted in 1927 by Charles MacLellan (DHS collection)

Posted by: japotts | August 25, 2014

1964: The Historical Society of Delaware Turns 100

The year 1964 was an incredibly important landmark year for the Society as it celebrated its 100th birthday. The organization now boasted six employees, including a Librarian and its second professional Executive Director, Mr. Dale Fields, and was looking to keep expanding both its facilities and programs. This was also the year that the Society began planning in earnest for important renovation projects to its headquarters in the Old Town Hall. One of the Society’s most important celebratory projects for the year was a special 100th anniversary issue of “Delaware History” journal that was published in April 1964 and included an overview of the organization’s history, biographical sketches of its leaders, and a list of manuscript materials in its collections.

Another cause for celebration was the acquisition of the Richard S. Rodney manuscript collection, which was bequeathed to the Society by prominent Delawarean and avid historian, Judge Richard Seymour Rodney (1882-1963). Judge Rodney, a native of New Castle, served as an Associate Judge of the Delaware Supreme Court, on the U.S. Supreme Court, and also as the Society’s President from 1943-1954. At a special dinner meeting of the Society on January 14, 1964, the Society’s President, James M. Tunnell, Jr., formally announced that “under the Will of Honorable Richard S. Rodney the Society will receive the large collection of 18th and 19th century manuscripts and books which Judge Rodney has collected over the years. Among the most important of these documents are a number which deal with George Read, one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence for Delaware. This collection will be known as the Richard S. Rodney Collection.” A fitting, well-timed, and appropriate gift from a man who was not only a history scholar in his own right, but also the originator and driving force behind our “Delaware History” journal, which continues to this day.

Rodney 1

Judge Richard S. Rodney

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