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The Stewarts of Wilmington, Del.
Ryan Donnell

Empowered by innovative resident-curatorship programs, some handy history buffs are restoring important landmarks to their original glory.


Even in this persistently bad economy and doggedly downtrodden real estate market, a listing for the house Richard Stewart lives in would surely generate serious interest. For one thing, it would be difficult to match the location of the three-story, brick, Federal-style house. Set amid nearly 2,000 acres of mostly undeveloped land in a peaceful area south of Wilmington, Del., Stewart’s home is a short distance from Lums Pond, the largest freshwater pond in the state and a popular spot for fishing and boating. Miles of hiking, biking and horse-riding trails sit right outside Stewart’s front door. Nor does Stewart need to worry about rambunctious neighbors. “It’s thousands of feet to the next house,” he says.

As if the bucolic setting wasn’t enough, the Stewarts’ home is also historic and, as strange as it may sound, well traveled. Built in 1821, the house was initially constructed to replace a tavern that fronted what was then called Old Summit Road, a popular route connecting the Southern states and Philadelphia. The house was deemed valuable enough that it was moved in the 1960s to its current location as part of a project to widen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. If a real estate agent were to set a price for this historic house with immediate access to all types of outdoor activities and within easy driving distance to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., it would understandably be steep.

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John Dudek of Massachusetts’ Bascom House
Ryan Donnell

 But no matter the asking price, it would be a heck of a lot higher than what Stewart paid to acquire the house in the first place. That wouldn’t be all that hard, given that he paid not one cent for it. That’s right: Stewart took possession of this historic gem of a house for nothing at all as part of Delaware’s ?resident-curatorship program, which is run by the state’s Division of Parks and Recreation as a public-private partnership geared toward saving historic and culturally significant buildings. In a nutshell, the program is designed to solve a problem: The state of Delaware has more than 200 buildings of historic significance located in its parks. “We can’t maintain them ourselves with our budgets; we have way too many of them,” says Jim Hall, the cultural-conservation program manager for the state’s Division of Parks and Recreation. “That said, we have an obligation to take care of them.”

To do that, Hall finds people like Stewart, an experienced contractor who specializes in commercial buildings.
“It’s a product of love, not economics.”
In exchange for a lifetime lease to live in a property rent-, mortgage- and tax-free, people like Stewart commit to rehabbing and maintaining the buildings. So while the curatorship program doesn’t require that participants shell out for a mortgage or a property tax, it is far from a free ride. Indeed, a glance at photos of the hollowed-out shell of a house Stewart moved into before he began renovating it is all it takes to realize there was a serious investment of time and money involved. “It’s a product of love, not economics,” Stewart says. “You have to want to do it and not necessarily look at the cost benefits.”

It's a good thing there are people like Stewart willing to take on the daunting and often expensive task of bringing pieces of our collective history back to life. In these days of especially tight state and local government budgets — when layoffs of police officers, firefighters and teachers are all too commonplace — this sort of public-private partnership provides an important tool for preservation, government funding for which may otherwise be at the top of the list for cuts. States like Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland all have embraced the approach of finding willing and able private citizens to become personal stewards of not just architecturally significant houses but everything from a camp built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to a sprawling estate owned by a diplomat who represented the United States at the Treaty of Versailles.