Tucked away off Pennsylvania Avenue just two miles from downtown Wilmington sits a wonderful oasis, a neighborhood far removed from the one you left behind. A residential community of 208 homes, Wawaset Park rose eighty-seven years ago on the former grounds of the state fair.
What’s so special? Start with a rich mix of architectural styles set back from the road creating a park-like open and spacious look. Then there is the lovely canopy of October Glory and Red Sunset sugar maples that overhang the narrow streets. Sidewalks come alive with walkers and their potpourri of canines. Turn of the century streetlamps glow after a snowfall, reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
But Wawaset Park’s charm is much more than the architectural gems and natural beauty. It’s a place where neighbors feel connected to one another and feel a sense of belonging. Ellen Slade moved to Delaware in 1970 in search of her ideal neighborhood. A new friend drove her through Wawaset to show Slade where she had grown up. Half way through the tour, Slade burst out: “Wow, this is it!”
“It’s built on human terms, the close proximity allows you to really get to know your neighbors,” says Slade, a former English teacher at the Tower Hill School. “I love looking through the wavy glass of my upper story windows out across to the slate roofs, and the twists and turns of unusual rooflines. I love how all sides of our houses are just as interesting as the front. I’ve been here 33 years in three different homes. There’s a different house for each stage of one’s life.”
The midway point between the du Pont family homes near Hagley and the Du Pont Building downtown, the story of Wawaset Park dates back to the 1850s when it was home to the Delaware State Fair. By the 1890s the property hosted fancy horse shows and matinee horse races at Wawaset Driving Park. It attracted famous trotters such as Wert Willis, Stoeckles and other top-flight competitors from all the eastern hot beds of harness racing.
Today, the grand old racetrack can be visualized on a stroll along the oval-shaped paths of Nottingham and Blackshire roads that circle the inside of the park. A couple of hitching posts still remain and occasionally a time-worn horse shoe is dug up. Continuing Wawaset’s rich racing tradition, resident Rick Porter’s Rockport Harbor was one of the top three-year old colts in 2005 until he was sidelined with an injury.
In the early 1900s the grounds hosted Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, an outdoor extravaganza that dramatized a buffalo hunt with real buffalos, an Indian attack with real Indians, and at the climax, a redo of Custer’s Last Stand. Half circus and half history lesson, the show also headlined sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull. Following the performances throngs of people marched over to the Columbus Inn for three-cent pints of beer and hours of rollicking music.
The end of the Fair Grounds era coinicided with the close of World War I and the explosive growth of the Du Pont Company. Facing a serious housing shortage in Wilmington, they bought the small tract of land that sat on the western edge of the city and hired Baltimore architect Edward L. Palmer, Jr. to design a novel neighborhood for its key executives. Deeply influenced by Frederick Olmsted, America’s leading landscape architect and city planner, Palmer radically broke away from the standard grid system architects popularized in the early 1900s.
Instead, Palmer proposed a planned community that stretched two city blocks wide by five blocks long, blending 50 town homes, 56 duplex houses and 101 single-family houses. Not your typical housing mix. What it fostered, however, was a small town feel. Most of the residents understand not only their own needs, but also those of their neighbors.
One dominant home style is the steeply pitched roof, gabled Georgian that showcased the love of craftsmanship, intricate design, and numerous decorative elements. Other architectural styles scattered throughout the park include brick 1920s houses with Gothic, Tudor Revival and Mediterranean influences as well as the traditional Colonials.
Inside you’ll find plaster walls, well-worn banisters and smooth hardwood floors. Custom crown moldings, enticing fireplaces and built-in bookcases create a house that feels sturdy, one built to last forever. Interiors were designed with cross-ventilation for hot summer days. Most homes feature back gardens with lovingly tended plants, shrubs and flowers, also sprinkled with bird feeders and bird baths, garden sculptures. Bricked patios provide ample room for outdoor entertaining.
Palmer also devised a network of curving streets conforming to the natural contours of the land rather than rather than a gridiron layout typical of most city residential areas. Built before cars were omnipresent, the narrow streets, sharp corners and stop signs were designed to slow cars. One car can’t pass without another driver having to pull over.
Palmer’s greatest contribution, however, was the inclusion of land use restrictions with each property deed. The strict building and maintenance provisions were aimed at preserving for orginal and future residents the integrity and attractiveness of Wawaset’s architectural concepts.
Roderick Welles moved here at age seven in the early 1940s, his days spent riding his bike and playing stickball. He left in 1956, but returned with his wife Sue thirty years later.
“I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle,” says Welles with a laugh. “Physically the neighborhood is still the same place. We now live in the house where my best friend grew up. I like having the appeal of the city, but you’re not of it. It’s five minutes to downtown, yet ten minutes to the country. It’s been fun to see it change, getting younger people all time. A lot of folks would like to live here.”
Like most historic neighborhoods Wawaset has an active neighborhood association that is well versed in home preservation and other city issues. Each year there’s a New Resident’s Party and Spring Garden Tour as well as old-fashioned get-togethers such as the Bedford Court Summer Picnic, a Halloween Parade and Christmas Tree Lighting where Santa often arrives in a convertible.
Amazingly, Wawaset still has an original settler. Back in 1919 Bill Rankin was born in the second floor bedroom at 1104 Greenhill Street. (His father paid $8,000 for the home.) Rankin recalls ice being delivered several times a week by horse drawn wagons and peering out the living room window at clusters of cows and work horses at the farm across the road.
“The neighborhood’s always been a hidden treasure, with quiet, nice people,” says Rankin, who lives with his daughter’s family in the original home. “I hope our family will always own this home. I remember walking to Tower Hill and as a teenager I worked with a team of draft horses haying and plowing the farm’s fields. There have been so many wonderful memories.”
In 1986 Wawaset received the recognition it so richly deserves: entry into the National Register of Historic Places.
“House by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character,” observes Rankin. “The architecture and landscaping of America's historic neighborhoods reflect the character of our communities. There aren’t many that are better than this one.”