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Wilmington

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With a population of approximately 73,000 in 2006, Wilmington is Delaware's largest city, twice as big as its nearest rivals. (Only four states have smaller leading cities, however.) Founded along the Christina River, Wilmington's history is long and colorful, going back to Swedish immigrants in the seventeenth century, followed by the English. On land west of the site of the small Swedish settlement, Thomas Willing laid out “Willingtown” in 1731, following the grid of his native Philadelphia. A brick house that once stood at the foot of Market Street and bore the date tablet 1732 was reputedly the first dwelling. Seven years later, a royal charter changed the local designation to “Wilmington,” apparently to honor the earl of that name. The market town grew rapidly. Similar to Philadelphia, Wilmington was predominantly built of brick, but blue rock was readily available, too.

Milling of grain brought wealth to Revolutionary-era Wilmington. Later, it was fortunate to lie directly along the line of one of America's first railroads, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore (1837), which triggered an industrial boom: shipyards, tanneries, carriage and railroad-car factories, and textile and flour mills. Among many nationally known firms were Jackson and Sharp (railroad cars) and Harlan and Hollingsworth (ships; WL8). Two bird's-eye views captured Wilmington's industrial heyday (1864–1865 by Edward Sachse, and 1874). If Delaware as a whole grew slowly in the nineteenth century, Wilmington experienced rapid growth, especially in the final decades. By 1900, it housed more than 40 percent of the state's population—on less than 1 percent of its land area. Civic boosters bragged of its sixty churches and an array of public buildings. Many of the proudest monuments built in this period are gone today, including the spire of Central Presbyterian Church on King Street (1856), the post office, the county courthouse, the high school, the tallest downtown buildings (Eden Hall and Equitable Building), two hospitals, and Washington Street Bridge. Somewhat more survives of the large number of nineteenth-century houses, which included handsome villas in the fast-growing western districts.

A milestone occurred in 1905 when DuPont's headquarters staff left the banks of the Brandywine and broke ground for a downtown office tower (WL32). As the company grew phenomenally, so did the city, which became the wealthiest per capita in the United States following World War I. By 1926, Wilmington's population had reached 124,000, and up to 1,363 building permits were issued annually between 1921 and 1930. Dozens of housing developments went up, often with restrictive covenants, as architectural historian Susan Chase has explored. This was the golden age for architect-designed houses, with many firms founded, but it also saw the rise of big contracting companies headed by John A. Bader, Allen L. Lauritsen, James M. Smyth, and others. Oberly Brick Company provided large quantities of brick (1889–1958), including two million burned for Pierre S. du Pont High School (WL65), built on Oberly land near the northeastern edge of town in 1932–1935. Woodlawn Trustees, Inc., a philanthropic trust, built more than 400 homes between 1903 and the 1940s for working men to rent. Wilmington benefited from an influx of Italian craftsmen, such as Frank Giovannozzi, who had run a cut-stone establishment at Teramo before immigrating in about 1914. He installed, among other projects, the 13,000 cubic feet of decorative limestone at Emalea Pusey Warner School (1928–1929; 801 W. 18th St.).

During the 1950s, Wilmington's stature swiftly collapsed as industries vanished and the population of its suburbs nearly doubled, and it ignominiously fell out of the list of American cities of 100,000 for the first time in fifty years. The DuPont Company remained, however, and, as a result, the Wilmington urban area in 1955 was the sixth wealthiest in the United States in terms of average family income ($6,900). By 1960, DuPont was the seventh largest industrial concern in the nation. Money was available for a vast rebuilding of downtown, centered on a key question broached as early as a Wilmington Chamber of Commerce publication in 1926: “‘Where shall we park the car?’—that is the burning question before the shoppers.” As an answer, in the 1960s, twenty-two blocks of the east side were leveled for urban renewal and parking lots. That same decade saw the blasting of I-95 through the densely populated western edge of downtown. These decisions have subsequently been condemned for exacerbating, not curing, the ills that afflicted the city and contributing to race riots in 1968, which were followed by a nine-month military occupation by the National Guard.

“Is Wilmington Dying?” asked the local reporter Bill Frank in 1964. Starting in the mid-1970s, however, the city showed slow but hopeful signs of recovery. Sobered after its orgy of blockbusting, it rediscovered its architectural history, establishing eleven historic “overlay zoning” districts between 1975 and 2003. DuPont shrank, but the Financial Center Development Act of 1981 brought in many banks. MBNA America, a gigantic credit card bank, built or refurbished eight large office buildings after 1994 and occupied 1.75 million feet of office space. By 2005, the downtown was enjoying a boom, and new office construction grew at a rate equaled by few American cities. Even as new corporate buildings are erected, millions have been spent converting old, empty offices into residences downtown. Between 1995 and 2003, about $1 billion in public and private money was spent to rehabilitate rundown real estate. Nevertheless, the city's population continues its slow decline and is currently lower than it was in the 1890s. Those who remain are largely poor (21 percent live in poverty) and African American. One in ten housing units stands empty, and more than 2,000 homes need major repairs. As with all American cities, Wilmington has changed profoundly over the years, building and rebuilding, growing and decaying in a pattern of ceaseless change.

Writing Credits

Author: 
W. Barksdale Maynard

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