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Old Town Hall

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1798–1800, Peter Brynberg and John Way. 1926–1927 restored, Edgar V. Seeler. 1964–1966 restored, Whiteside, Moeckel and Carbonell, with Lee Nelson and Henry Judd. 512 N. Market St.
  • Old Town Hall

Along with Philadelphia (1787–1789), Lancaster, Pennsylvania (1795–1798), and New Orleans (1795–1799), this is one of the oldest surviving town halls in the United States. By the 1790s, fast-growing Wilmington had a population of 3,000 and needed a new governmental facility. French immigrant Pierre Bauduy was long credited with the design, without much evidence. Documents point instead to major roles played by council members Brynberg and Way. A near-copy of Philadelphia's Congress Hall, the edifice cost $4,400 and hobbled the town's budget for years. Atop the brick, five-bay, Federal-style edifice with stone stringcourse, panels, and central pediment, a rooftop walkway looked to the river; a tall cupola made the building the most prominent in town for half a century. Quaker miller Joseph Tatnall donated the English-made clock and bells. Inside the building, the spacious main room occupied 2,000 square feet with four central Doric columns with their own entablatures supporting a ceiling seventeen feet high. This room saw elections, town meetings, and trials, as well as a popular ventriloquist (1817), a steam locomotive that visitors could ride (1831), and Henry Clay briefly lying in state (1852). The three upstairs chambers included the Long Room at rear, a meeting place for the town council and rented out to every kind of organization. The Marquis de Lafayette was hosted here in 1824. Outside the Town Hall, a garden of lombardy poplars and elms added a touch of civic gentility. Wrongdoers feared the place, as the cells under the building's rear bow were infamously unheated (until 1845).

The Town Hall was Victorianized and given a taller cupola in 1875. Abandoned in 1916, the building's future was uncertain, and within a year it bore signs, “Subscribe Here to Save the Old Town Hall,” “The Center of the Patriotic and Civic Life of Wilmington for Nearly One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years.” With the help of Pierre S. du Pont, the Historical Society of Delaware bought it in 1917, and a decade later it was restored to its original appearance (based on an old photograph) to serve as the Society's headquarters. Philadelphia architect Seeler was an appropriate choice; a former employee of Frank Miles Day, he had worked with Charles A. Ziegler on the restoration of Congress Hall in 1911, which Day had advocated. A document room was later added (1938, Massena and du Pont), and there have been several renovations.

Writing Credits

Author: 
W. Barksdale Maynard
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Citation

W. Barksdale Maynard, "Old Town Hall", [Wilmington, Delaware], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/DE-01-WL19.

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of Delaware

Buildings of Delaware, W. Barksdale Maynard. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008, 98-99.

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