Can a piece of Landenberg history be saved?
By Richard Gaw
Speculated to have been built in the 1700s, the Middleton Homestead now sits forlornly and completely unoccupied on a 14-acre plot at 503 Newark Road in Landenberg.
By virtue of the overgrown trees and unkempt yard that encircle it, the house, garage, carriage house and barn seem strangled by neglect, but the presence of property plot signs indicate that there is a larger force at work now that threatens its survival, and it's spelled P-R-O-G-R-E-S-S.
The property and its buildings are wedged into the corners of an L-shaped, seven-lot subdivision of homes currently being developed by Wilkinson Homes, and as the builder's website depicts, Middleton Crossing offers new homeowners the opportunity to live in their custom-made dream home.
The planned development is marketed as being in the perfect location – close to neighboring towns and the Kennett Consolidated School District, and with prices that range from $539,900 to $649,900, homeowners will get to choose from a series of eight sophisticated floor plans – traditional, classic or manor – that sport names like Bradbury, Waterford and Waterford Grande.
In short, it's country living in the signature Wilkinson style, where luxury gets to buddy up against the rugged landscapes and open fields that still dominate the town. For the better part of three decades, it's a concept that has created some of the most luxurious homes in southern Chester County and helped turn Landenberg from a sleepy rural outpost into one of the county's most desirable locations to live and raise a family.
Yet, it's also a narrative that has accused Wilkinson Homes, fairly or unfairly, of force-feeding a modern residential imprint onto a once unblemished landscape, repeatedly, with only a deferential regard for history. While the builder has cooperated in saving some old structures around New Garden Township during the construction of its developments, some homes have been torn down.
Wilkinson Homes has not been the only one on the hot seat; those with an eye toward historic preservation in the community have accused the township's board of supervisors of having what local historian Dr. Margaret “Peg” Jones called “an abysmal record” of saving historic homes and properties.
At the moment, the Middleton Homestead qualifies itself to take center stage in this on-going struggle between progress and preservation.
Now, all three entities – the builder, the board and the township's Historical Commission – form a triangle of emotions, agreements and proposed legislation that will determine whether the Middleton Homestead will continue to stand as an emblem of Landenberg's past, or be razed to the ground.
A marathon, not a sprint
In short, the fate of the old home rests on a collection of ideas and crossed fingers, the process of which is more likely to be a marathon that a sprint, and the first step in what may save the historic property is coming from an unlikely source: Wilkinson Homes.
At a supervisors meeting on Dec. 18, 2017, the Historical Commission proposed that the Middleton Homestead be deeded off and sold as a separate two-acre parcel, in order to attract a buyer who could invest the time and money to maintain the historic home. In response to the Commission's appeal, Wilkinson representative Bill Romanelli told the board that the builder would be willing to find potential solutions for saving the home. Romanelli had personally met with the Commission a month earlier, a meeting that Jones described as “very amicable,” and one meant to reach compromise, she said.
“We're willing to talk,” Romanelli told the board at the December 2017 meeting. “I know that everyone thinks we're here to tear down homes, but if there's a solution that's not going to take an extra year or two years, we will consider it.”
Soon after, Romanelli met with New Garden Township Manager Tony Scheivert and township solicitor Vince Pompo, to discuss Middleton Crossing, where they reached a cooperative agreement that stated that once the property goes on the market, there will be an 18-month window of time for it to be sold to an interested buyer. If there is no buyer in that period, Wilkinson will pursue a demolition permit from the township for the home.
Originally, the home and the entire 14-acre plot was listed for $700,000 by Fox-Roach in Hockessin, but the listing was pulled in July 2018, and on Sept. 15, the property was purchased by Middletown Crossing, LP on Sept. 15, 2018, for $550,000.
The home is expected to go on the market soon, Romanelli told the Chester County Press, and will be sold “as is,” meaning that there will be no renovation to the home's current condition. The exact listing price for the home has yet to be set, but Romanelli said that Wilkinson representatives plan to meet with any buyer who places a bid on the home prior to purchase, in order to assure that the new homeowner will keep up the appearance of the home.
Although the home has not officially been put up for sale, Romanelli said that the home has been shown informally to several interested parties.
While the sale of the Middleton home and its two-acre lot would ultimately save a historical treasure and earn Wilkinson Homes high praise, it's likely to be a challenging sell and require a sizable hunk of cash to renovate. The home shows the wear and tear of vacancy and age; there is cosmetic decay, mold, asbestos around its interior; it's in dire need of an exterior paint job; and its essential heating and electrical units need upgrading.
However, the “bones” of the home showcases what remains an architectural design of historical grandeur. In a detailed study about the home and the property written by David Hawk of the township's Historical Commission, the original two-story stone house built by James Hall sometime between 1783 and 1796 (according to tax records housed in the Chester County Archives) remains largely intact. Developed in six periods of construction, there are two corner fireplaces on the first floor, and the original log ceiling joists in the home's basement are still clearly visible. The home also features some original wooden floor planks, and the latticework stairway rails that lead to the second floor are in near-perfect condition. The stone wall built during the third phase of the home's restoration is a key feature of the kitchen, and the home is designed with 18-inch-deep windowsills.
While the home earns high marks for its country charm and sound structure, estimates on what it would cost to make the needed upgrades before it could again be occupied is anyone's guess. Early in 2018, a local businessman kicked the tires on buying, restoring and converting the home's spacious interior for the purposes of re-selling it for profit, but backed out when the cost estimates for renovation exceeded his budget.
“We have always viewed this house as a home that somebody would buy, put a new kitchen in, paint the living room and live in it, and bit by bit, fix things, which is what most people who live in old houses do,” Jones said.
Although the potential demolition of the home is still far off, efforts to snuff out even the thought of a tear-down are underway, in the form of proposed township legislation that lay down the rules for demolition. The Historical Commission has called on the supervisors to deny issuing a demolition permit to Wilkinson Homes, and advised them to uphold the intent of the Pennsylvania enabling law, the township's Historic Preservation Ordinance and the township's Comprehensive Plan for the preservation of historic resources.
To put even more strength behind their request, the Commission sent the supervisors an amended section of its zoning laws last June that attempts to tighten the rules about the demolition of historic properties in the township, and sharpen the Commission's role in assessing demolition permits.
The amended law states, in part, that “No part of a structure of a Class I or Class II historic resource shall be demolished, including the indiscriminate removal, stripping or destruction of any significant feature, in whole or in part, unless and until the applicant complies with” various requirements spelled out by the Commission.
Further, the amended ordinance enforces the need for the owners of historic properties to maintain and repair any “building, structure, site or object where such work does not require a permit and where the purpose and effect of such work is to correct any deterioration or decay of or damage to a building, structure, site or object and to restore the same to its condition prior to the occurrence of such deterioration, decay or damage.”
In any instance where a property owner claims that the historic resource “cannot be used or reasonably adapted, or where a permit application for demolition is based in whole or in part on financial hardship, the applicant shall submit, by affidavit, facts reasonably sufficient to support those assertions. ...The Historical Commission may further require the applicant to conduct, at the applicant's expense, evaluations or studies as are reasonably necessary, in the opinion of the Historical Commission, to determine whether the Class I or Class II historic resource has or may have alternate uses consistent with preservation.”
Within 45 days of receipt of a complete application for demolition, the Commission will review the application, and give the applicant the opportunity to give reasons for wanting to demolish a historic property. Within 30 days, the Commission will provide its recommendations to the supervisors to accept the application, delay it or deny it.
Within 30 days of receiving the recommendation from the Commission, the board will vote either to approve the application, approve the application with changes, deny the application or defer its decision, affording a delay of demolition, for up to 90 days.
The Historical Commission developed the amended wording with Karen Marshall of the Chester County Planning Commission.
"We also looked at a lot of ordinances from the townships that surround us, under the advice of Jeannine Speirs, senior planner and project manager at the County Planning Commission,” said Historic Commission chairperson Lynn Sinclair. “When you read enough of them, you can see that the language is very similar in addressing different situations related to the demolition of historic structures.”
It's been seven months, and the newly-drafted ordinance has yet to receive any action from the township supervisors. Scheivert told the Chester County Press that the supervisors will discuss the proposed amendment at their Jan. 22 meeting. He said that it will then be advertised, and is expected to be completed by March 2019.
To Jones and Sinclair, that's too long a wait, and just the latest in what they believe has been a lack of communication and transparency between the supervisors and the Historical Commission.
“It's been frustrating to no end,” Sinclair said. “I spent this past weekend going through the board's meeting minutes, and I found absolutely nothing about the 18-month agreement [between the township and Wilkinson Homes], anywhere in it.”
Sinclair objected to the private meeting that was held between Romanelli, Scheivert and Pompo.
“Is that a violation of a sunshine law, to have three people talking about something in order to quell the public's excitement at a supervisors meeting, to meet in private?” Sinclair asked. “There's a hush, and nothing's been discussed with us.”
“Why the supervisors are not more sensitive to the wishes of the community baffles me,” Jones said. “These houses don't belong to the person who owns the deed. They don't belong to the Historical Commission. They belong to all of us. When people move to New Garden Township, in many cases, they move for the ambiance of the area, the sweeping vistas and the old houses on the hillsides. People value that. I have even asked newcomers why they come here. They tell me, 'Because it's so pretty.'
“I feel that the supervisors are not reflecting the wishes of the wider community. When the planners for the most recently adopted Chester County Comprehensive Plan had a community meeting, they asked people to rank various issues in order of their priority, and 'Preservation of Land and Old Houses' finished in the top two or three. The community cares about this, and I feel that the supervisors don't care.”
Jones implored the supervisors to reach out to Wilkinson Homes, in an effort to make the home more marketable, and encourage the builder to hire a realtor who specializes in selling historical homes.
An easy solution, Jones said, would be to appoint realtor Carolyn Rowland, one of the area's preeminent sellers of older homes and a member of the Historical Commission, to sell the home.
For now, the Historic Commission is playing a waiting game on the supervisors to rule on the amended ordinance, and a guessing game as to when the 18-month clock begins, pertinent to when the Middleton house goes up for sale. Along the lines of timing, would the supervisors' ruling on the amended ordinance be done in time to potentially save the Middleton house?
While the fate of a piece of Landenberg history rides on what some believe is merely a perfunctory commitment to preserving the home on Newark Road, the structure prepares for a harsh winter and endures the slow passage of time, with no planned renovations in sight.
“If the supervisors really cared about the public's opinion on our local history, they would preserve a piece of our history,” Jones said. “Once it's gone, it's gone. All of us may not still be here, but our grandchildren will still be.”
Are you interested in visiting the historic Middleton home? If so, contact Bill Romanelli at Wilkinson Homes, 302-218-7239, or email Romanelli at email@example.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.