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New Castle

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This time capsule of a riverfront town (pop. 4,862) was founded by the Dutch in 1651 as Fort Casimir, later New Amstel; its current name dates from the British takeover in 1664. The fort has long since vanished, but Dutch dikes are obvious at Wilmington Road (Broad Dyke) and 2nd Street (Dyke Street, terminating in Foot Dyke north of town). This was the first community in Delaware deliberately laid out, with Front Street, or the Strand, paralleling the busy waterfront and a Green two blocks inland. One stepped-gable Dutch house, the so-called Tile House (1687), survived at 54 the Strand as late as 1884. A handful of extant buildings have been attributed to the late seventeenth century, including the Dutch House (NC7), William Penn Guest House (206 Delaware St.), and Rosemont House kitchen wing (110 Delaware St.), but all of these may possibly be early eighteenth century.

William Penn landed in America at New Castle in 1682, and the Court House he established here (first edifice, c. 1689; see NC16) formed the eighteenth-century seat of government for Pennsylvania's “Three Lower Counties,” today's Delaware. Tradition holds that the Court House cupola was appointed the center of the twelve-mile circle drawn as Delaware's northern border (1750), a circular boundary unique in America. (The circle was difficult to draw and came out somewhat irregular.) At the heart of town lies the Green, overseen by the Trustees of New Castle Common, an institution unique to this place and dating back centuries. By 1704, the Common consisted of 1,068 acres outside of town held in trust for the community; today these lands have been sold or developed, and the trustees manage the endowment. The trustees planted trees on the Green in 1807. The seventy-five elms added in 1851 grew to huge size and were an unforgettable feature of New Castle until killed by disease.

English-born Philadelphia architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe—who lived for a time on the Strand—was commissioned to survey the streets, a project carried out in 1805 and resulting in an ink-and-watercolor depiction of many of the buildings in town, drawn by his twenty-three-year-old assistant, Robert Mills, later a famous architect in his own right. This Survey of New Castle offers a level of architectural documentation rivaled by few American places of the period. Two versions survive, one at the Delaware Public Archives (DV15) and the other at the New Castle Historical Society (NC19). They record the appearance of the community before a disastrous fire burned the southern half of the Strand in 1824. Its houses were promptly rebuilt in Federal style.

In time, New Castle's outlying districts became industrialized. New Castle Manufacturing Company (active 1833–1857) was the only Delaware firm to make locomotives, of which one survives, Memnon (1848, B&O Railroad Museum, Baltimore). Late-nineteenth-century commerce mostly bypassed the center of New Castle, although a general prosperity was suggested by the Opera House (1879, Theophilus P. Chandler Jr.), which has lost its attractive tower. Wild West Show star Annie Oakley and opera singer Enrico Caruso once performed here. A restoration of the building's sheet-metal cornice in 2003 involved microscopic paint analysis to ensure accuracy of color for repainting. The old part of town mostly slumbered until its rediscovery by tourists in the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, a process of gentrification had begun that continues to this day.

New Castle has fascinated generations of architectural historians. Philadelphia antiquarian John Fanning Watson twice paid historical visits in the 1820s to the Tile House. Souvenir bricks from that building circulated widely in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Early-twentieth-century photographers recorded the town's architecture extensively, and a 1926 issue of White Pine was devoted to it: “There are few communities to-day which have retained their early American flavor as completely.” “A Day in Old New Castle” debuted in May 1924 as a means to raise money to repair Immanuel Church (NC10), with 800 visitors each paying fifty cents to tour historic homes and buildings. From this beginning—sometimes said to be the first “open house day” anywhere—grew the largest such event on the East Coast. The Baltimore Sun newspaper said in 1932, “For architects, especially, it is a field day. They come from Boston and New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to take notes on design and detail; everywhere they may be seen sketching.” National Geographic in 1935 called New Castle “one of the most charming old towns in the United States . . . entirely unspoiled and ‘unrestored.’” By that time, a local historical society was thriving. The following year saw publication of the WPA guidebook New Castle on the Delaware.

Prominent Wilmingtonian Colonel Daniel Moore Bates campaigned in the 1940s for turning the town into a second Colonial Williamsburg, but little came of this, thankfully, as many nineteenth-century buildings would have been demolished under the plan generated by Boston architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn. The town's quaint courthouse square appeared on the cover of Saturday Evening Post in March 1962. The First Delaware Preservation Conference, organized by architects Al Kruse and Robert Raley for the AIA, was held in New Castle the following September. In 1967, New Castle was named a National Historic Landmark. The town celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2001.

Writing Credits

Author: 
W. Barksdale Maynard

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