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3/28/2011
Despite promises, Murphy House likely to meet its demise; Saving 1840s structure too costly, Nemours says - News Journal

"That [i.e. stabilization, restoration and adaptive reuse] didn't happen," said County Councilman Bob Weiner, whose district covers the site. "The advance work was put into its preservation, but it failed. It's disappointing."

Weiner said the take-away lesson is that future preservation pacts and deed conditions must detail required preservation, monitoring, enforcement, public hearings before a sale, guarantee buyers meet in-perpetuity deed obligations and other steps to avoid losing more sites to "demolition by neglect."

"Unless people are willing to commit themselves to be watchdogs," he said, "we're bound to repeat this pattern again."


Despite promises, house likely to meet its demise
Saving 1840s structure too costly, Nemours says

Written by ROBIN BROWN The News Journal 

The fate of the Murphy House  near Rockland has deteriorated along with the condition of the 1840s-era farmhouse itself, from cause célèbre to apparently lost cause.

Its preservation has devolved into a cautionary tale showing that good intentions, promises, public trust and even deed restrictions do not guarantee an old building won't meet the wrecking ball -- even one at a prominent site tied to the du Pont family.

The Nemours Foundation bought the state-owned house across from the Alfred I. duPont  Hospital for Children in 2008 and promised to restore it. It studied the cost last year and could not justify the expense, even though a decades-old deed restriction called for exactly that, spokeswoman Grace Gary said.

"Even an organization like Nemours has to look at its expenditures at a time like this," she said, adding that every cost must be weighed against its mission to care for children's health.

The two-story, Greek Revival brick-and-stone house may be razed in months. Its last chance at survival appears to be a long-shot hope that someone will move and fix it elsewhere.

"It was a success story," said Delaware Magistrate James R. Hanby Sr., whose family has been in the area since the 1700s. "Now, it's a source of shame."

The foundation applied for a county demolition permit last November, sending the case to the Historic Review Board, a citizen panel that reviews permit applications relating to historic sites . It can hold up demotion for nine months and is doing so with Nemours' application, Chairwoman Barbara Benson said. But it can't stop the razing.

Despite pleas from Hanby, other residents and Preservation Delaware, county officials say Nemours will get the permit to begin razing Aug. 3, when the review board's hold expires.

Hanby, who helped save the house years ago, testified at a review board hearing this month to ask the foundation to find a way to keep its widely praised promise to restore the house -- or save it for better financial times . He called Nemours' reversal "a huge betrayal of trust and a huge loss to the historic fabric of Brandywine Hundred."

While praising its hospital and good deeds that include the renovation of the Nemours Mansion, Hanby said the foundation should be ashamed of breaking its promise to the community. "I understand hard economic times, but a commitment is a commitment."

Hanby served on the review board during its 1990s work with state officials and attorneys, when a deed restriction was devised to preserve the Murphy House. But officials say it can't be enforced.

Restrictions not cited as "running in favor" of anyone require no one's permission to be altered or eliminated by property owners, said David Culver, general manager  of the county Department of Land Use. Such deed restrictions often are lifted in the land-use process without problem or penalty, Culver said.

Recorder of Deeds Michael E. Kozikowski said deed restrictions typically fall to maintenance corporations and civic associations; for example, having them be responsible for limits on decks, sheds and pools.

"This is really the first time, as recorder of deeds for eight years, that we've had something like this come up," he said.

Known for its fading pink stucco, the Murphy House sits on ground littered with cigarette butts near traffic at its Rockland Road corner across from the entrance to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children.

State agencies and officials had promised since the 1990s to preserve the house and other buildings in connection with area road work. The Department of Transportation  acquired the Murphy House after performing road work on the site, a farm pared over time to a little less than an acre.

Starting in 1992, agreements involving the state and federal governments over a decade promised the state would "take steps to ensure the stabilization, restoration and adaptive reuse" of the house and to keep it in good condition. Pacts also promised its "permanent preservation covenant" would ensure all repairs and restoration met federal preservation standards.

"That didn't happen," said County Councilman Bob Weiner, whose district covers the site. "The advance work was put into its preservation, but it failed. It's disappointing."

DelDOT spokesman Mike Williams said the agency replaced the roof, stabilized the house and secured it. DelDOT couldn't afford the restoration and was pleased the foundation offered to do it, he said. Before the $10 sale, DelDOT made sure the foundation had the state's $1.2 million renovation estimate. Foundation officials did a final walk-through and agreed the house would be preserved permanently, DelDOT said.

"We thought it was in good hands," Williams said.

The state wouldn't have sold if there was any doubt the foundation could afford the restoration, he said. "They assured us that they could. They took it knowing about repair costs in that range. ... They had plans to do it and those plans changed."

The change did not sit well with Preservation Delaware's new president, Daniel R. Griffith, who had signed earlier preservation pacts as a state historic preservation planner.

He wrote to Nemours last month, asking the foundation to withdraw its demolition permit application, saying the demolition "seems to be in direct violation of the historic preservation declaration attached to the deed."

Griffith wrote to the review board that Nemours has not adequately explored alternatives to razing, should get more renovation bids, advertise nationally the building is available for relocation and offer a subsidy for its move.

The foundation had every intent to reuse the Murphy House, said Gary, executive director of the Nemours Mansion and Gardens. But, she said, "DelDOT had the building for a very long time and ... [it] became quite shabby."

Last year, the foundation hired experts to study restoration costs again. After John Milner Associates said rehabilitation, not counting major structural work, would cost $885,500 to use two floors as offices, the foundation decided on demolition, she said.

The inside would need a full rebuild because ceilings and walls have fallen, floors are bad, there is no insulation, utilities would have to be installed and a winding staircase would have to be replaced, as would the roof, she said. Gary, who worked 30 years in preservation, said DelDOT's road work also created issues with traffic and access.

At more than $485 per square foot for office space, Gary said, foundation leaders found it was "just an unfeasible amount," especially since the house's historic context was lost over time. "Choices have to be made and it's not easy," she said.

Griffith's withdrawal request was rejected as "not timely," because the foundation is beyond four months into the process, she said. The application has been in since fall, got its board review, and the foundation is following its recommendations, such as offering the house free for the moving.

The foundation accepted the board suggestion to save part of the house as a landscape feature with explanatory signage, she said, adding that the foundation has another house the family used.

At this point, Gary said, the foundation does not plan to reconsider demolition. "Our intentions were good from the start and we're still trying to make the best of a bad situation," she said.

Gary said she and foundation leaders hope the house is moved and restored. "That would be a marvelous solution," she said.

Weiner said the take-away lesson is that future preservation pacts and deed conditions must detail required preservation, monitoring, enforcement, public hearings before a sale, guarantee buyers meet in-perpetuity deed obligations and other steps to avoid losing more sites to "demolition by neglect."

"Unless people are willing to commit themselves to be watchdogs," he said, "we're bound to repeat this pattern again."

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