The city of Wilmington has paid $900,000 for the elegeant Gibraltar mansion on Pennsylvania and will work to preserve it for future generations, Mayor Mike Purzycki announced Friday.
There are no definitive plans at this time for the property, Purzycki said in a press release.
The property, the focus of both commercial and cultural interest for decades, hasn’t been able to find a workable development project, despite intense interest in the grounds, which include gardens laid out in between 1916 and 1923 by famed female landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin.
It was built around 1844 by John Rodney Brincklé, grand-nephew of Caesar Rodney, who signed the Declaration of Independence and was Delaware’s first governor.
Brincklé named it Gibraltar because the property overlooked Wilmington in an allusion to the Rock of Gibraltar, a limestone is a monolithic limestone promontory located in the British territory of Gibraltar, a limestone cliff that juts out near the Mediterranean.
A press release from the city called Gibraltar, which sits on six acres, “one of the most significant properties in Wilmington. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a list of places the U.S. government says are worth protecting and preserving.
“For too long, well-intended neighbors and other interested parties have not been able to see eye-to-eye on what to do with this property, but everyone seems to agree on one thing—Gibraltar should not be allowed to further deteriorate,” said Purzycki. “City residents should understand that after decades of neglect we are at a crossroads when it comes to Gibraltar. Either we commit to preserving it or it will inexorably rot beyond salvation.”
Purzycki said he was following in the steps of former Mayor James Baker who, as a chronicler of local history, also believed that the deteriorating property at 2505 Pennsylvania Avenue, should be preserved.
He said he wanted to see the 19th century country estate “fully restored so that it can be enjoyed by future generations of City residents and visitors.”
The mayor, who lives next to Gibraltar, said he’s watched its decline for years.
“Some have suggested a personal conflict of interest. There is none,” he said. “Much as I’ve done throughout my career on the Christina Riverfront and as mayor in preserving neighborhoods, this is about giving new beauty and purpose to part of our City and its history.”
The money for the purchase was provided by the Delaware General Assembly after the Mayor traveled to Dover to present the importance of saving Gibraltar.
He called the purchase price a bargain — especially for six acres in one of the city’s highly desirable upscale neighborhoods.
As part of the deal, the city also transferred a City street bed, which will require City Council approval, to the former owners of the estate, Gibraltar Preservation Group LLC.
Gibraltar has been transferred to the Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Landbank with which the City will work.
Purzycki said he has some ideas about how the property could be used and plans to explore them with city council members, neighbors and other interested parties.
Gibraltar once was 80 acres and was most recently owned by Hugh Rodney Sharp and his wife, Isabella Mathieu du Pont Sharp. It was renovated in 1915 by Philadelphia architects DeArmond, Ashmead and Bickley.
The house’s interior decor includes Colonial Revival and Italianate
Sharp died in 1968 and the estate was inherited by his son, Hugh Rodney Sharp Jr., who died in 1990 but had not maintained the badly overgrown gardens.
The estate was put up for sale after his death and was saved from demolition after a campaign by local people and Preservation Delaware. The Delaware Open Space Council bought the development rights to the property and the Sharp family donated the estate to Preservation Delaware. The gardens were opened to the public in 1999.
Prior to settlement of the purchase, the city has been allowed on the grounds to trim trees and overgrown vegetation and make some improvements to the mansion and outbuildings.
So far, the city has spent $250,146 on improvements. Before and after photos of this work can be seen here.
Here are a few.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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