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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 Darbys case, textile and yarn mills but
have since lost the manufacturing base that supported the local economy.
Still, Darbys 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 masters degree work through UDs 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 towns library, believed to be the second-oldest free library (after
Philadelphias) 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
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 towns 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 Forums 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
towns 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 trolleys 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 Fullers Row, had once been so close to the
textile mill where the residents presumably worked that the walls almost
I picked Fullers Row for my research, and I really just fell in love with its story, Hutchins said.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
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 towns third meetinghouse, and was surprised to discover
graffiti carved into some of the benches, with initials, names and
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 masters 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
doctors office) and residents over the years, is earning a certificate
in museum studies along with her masters degree in preservation. She
described CHAD as offering students flexible opportunities and practical
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.