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News Preserving the past

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Student researchers examine historic buildings in Darby, Pa.

Mollie Iker has researched the history of the Darby Free Library, believed to be only the second (after Philadelphia) free library established in the United States.

The borough of Darby in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, today looks a lot like many other small towns that once had thriving industries — in Darby’s case, textile and yarn mills — but have since lost the manufacturing base that supported the local economy.

Still, Darby’s past might provide a boost for its future, a team of University of Delaware graduate students has found during a yearlong research project in the borough of some 10,000 residents, about five miles from Philadelphia. Settled by Quakers in the mid-1600s, the community retains historic properties that help tell the story of the town, which could benefit from their preservation.

The students, all finishing their master’s degree work through UD’s Center for Historic Architecture and Design (CHAD), have conducted in-depth research on properties including residential housing, a Friends meetinghouse, a municipal building and the town’s library, believed to be the second-oldest free library (after Philadelphia’s) in the United States.

On May 21, students will present some of the results of their work at the Delaware County Historical Society in nearby Chester, describing a preservation plan for the borough and discussing the possibility of nominating some properties for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“When we first came here in August to do our fieldwork, measuring and drawing buildings, a lot of people came up to us and told us they really were excited about what we were doing because they want to see the town’s history preserved,” said Molly Iker, whose research focused on the Darby Free Library. “So I started to wonder if I could help them with a preservation plan.”

Iker and four other graduate students conducted their research as part of a capstone class taught by Rebecca Sheppard, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) and interim CHAD director, and Catherine Morrissey, SPPA research associate.

Sheppard and Morrissey are working with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College to plan the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s 2018 national conference, which will be held in the area. The annual conference includes two days of tours of nearby historic properties, and students at the three institutions are assisting with preparations.

At UD, the five students worked in Darby after Sheppard chose the borough as a research focus, largely because relatively little information was readily available about the history of its buildings. The students began their participation with two weeks of intensive fieldwork in August, recording information about selected buildings by measuring, sketching and photographing them.

During fall semester, they did further archival research on the buildings and wrote scripts that guides could use in giving tours of the town’s history. This spring, the students have continued their research, including drafting a preservation plan.

Iker is trying to link the goals of preserving historic properties with economic development for the town — preservation can attract visitors and tourists to an area — but the future of the buildings the students have researched has not been decided, Sheppard said.

“Sometimes, part of the preservation planning process is to stabilize, or mothball, properties while you conduct research, document what you have as a baseline and then decide what [officials and residents] want to do with them,” she said. “There are always choices: How much of a building do you keep untouched, and what do you change in order to make it functional today?”

The students say they made some unexpected discoveries during the course of the project. Josh Gates, for example, was researching the old Borough Hall, originally built as a school, when he noticed that trolley tracks in front of the building led to a closed-off spur. He began looking into the trolley’s history and learned that Delaware County was once home to 50 independent trolley companies, carrying everything from people to agricultural products.

For Megan Hutchins, a photo she saw of a row of now-abandoned housing piqued her interest in the sociology behind the architecture. She found that the homes, known as Fuller’s Row, had once been so close to the textile mill where the residents presumably worked that the walls almost touched.

“I picked Fuller’s Row for my research, and I really just fell in love with its story,” Hutchins said.


Travis Olson draws and documents measurements and descriptions of one of Darby's Friends Meeting Houses, where he also found graffiti inside.

Travis Olson focused on a large Quaker meetinghouse, built about 1804 as the town’s third meetinghouse, and was surprised to discover graffiti carved into some of the benches, with initials, names and dates. 

“I was curious about where else you might find this kind of thing, and so I looked at meetinghouses around Delaware County, Chester County [Pa.] and northern Delaware,” said Olson, who has since presented research papers on the subject. “And it was everywhere. Everywhere you go, you find graffiti.”

More about the Center for Historic Architecture and Design

Part of the School of Public Policy and Administration, CHAD was established at UD in 1984 as an interdisciplinary research and public service center dedicated to developing historic preservation planning policies and documenting the historic buildings that were being lost due to urban sprawl.

The center works with the master’s degree program in historic preservation, offering graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to learn how to document, research and interpret historic buildings and landscapes, laying a foundation for preserving them.

Heather Gerling, who has been researching the history of a large frame house in Darby that has had multiple types of uses (including a doctor’s office) and residents over the years, is earning a certificate in museum studies along with her master’s degree in preservation. She described CHAD as offering students flexible opportunities and practical experience.

Olson, who previously worked in historic preservation in Wisconsin and Indiana and has a particular interest in material culture, said he “interviewed all over the country” before deciding to attend graduate school at UD.

“The center here is just really amazing, and the program is broad enough to let you follow your specialized interests,” he said. “I was looking for a way to supplement what I already knew, and CHAD has been the perfect way to get great experience. It lets you get your hands on a lot of different things.”

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A team of UD graduate students has conducted a yearlong research project on historic properties in the borough of Darby, Pa., settled in the 1600s.

A team of graduate students from UD's Center for Historic Architecture and Design has conducted a yearlong research project on historic properties in the borough of Darby, Pa., settled by Quakers in the mid-1600s.

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