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