Historic Thomas England House demolished

SMYRNA — In 2009, the Delaware State News quoted former Thomas England House owner George “Dusty” Rhoads:

“It will probably be here another 300 years, unless someone knocks it down before then.”

He couldn’t have known at the time, but it appears that the house would only make it another 8 years.

Now, someone is indeed knocking it down.

According to the Kent County Planning office, a demolition permit was issued on June 5 to the property owner, Liborio III, LLC, to take down the structure at 1165 S. Dupont Blvd., in Smyrna.

Efforts to reach Liborio III, LLC, before press deadline Friday were unsuccessful.

Despite being granted a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 the county was unable to hinder the landowner’s plans.

County planner Betsy Caufield, who specializes in historic preservation, noted the county did try to dissuade the action.

Demolition of the historic Thomas England House began on Friday in Smyrna. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Unfortunately, the National Register of Historic Places does not obstruct property owner rights to demolish a structure,” she said. “The property owner was provided with tax incentive pamphlets on both the state and federal level and was discouraged to pursue demolition due to the house’s significant history and status as a National Register listed property.”

According to Ms. Caufield, the Thomas England House was able to be officially documented by individuals from both the county and state historic preservation office who were able to enter the house prior to its demolition.

Kent County Commissioner P. Brooks Banta, in whose district the historic house was located, wasn’t pleased with the choice. He believes county residents suffer when a historic building is demolished — even though it was within the property owner’s rights to do so.

‘A horrible thing’

“It’s a horrible thing to do without at least consulting with people in the area who have patronized the house and made memories in it over the years. I know calls were made asking the owners to think twice, but nothing came out of it,” said Mr. Banta.

“The house was even allegedly part of the Underground Railroad — there’s an enormous amount of historical value there. It’s a sad state of affairs when exquisite properties like this one get demolished.

“I understand money and profit, I was in business. I get it. But at the end of the day, what does that do for the citizens?

“Unfortunately, we have no authority over that.

The Thomas England House has a storied past. The land was deeded by William Penn to Thomas England in 1709 and was then sold to James Morris in 1711.

It wasn’t until the late 1730s or early 1740s when the home was built on the property.

The “Greek-Revival” front with columns and temple-fronted architecture was added to the home when George Wilson Cummins owned the property in 1853.
The entire building was made of brick, with not a single 2-by-4 in the structure.

According to Mr. Rhoads, who bought the property in the late 1980s and ran it as a restaurant until he died in 2012, the exterior walls were three bricks wide and the interior walls were two bricks wide — all brought over from England, France and Germany by ship when it was built. The roof was supported by thick oak beams.

Former Smyrna town manager Dave Hugg, who now serves as acting director of planning for the city of Dover, said there were proposals a few years ago to try to annex the ailing historical house into the town from the county.

“There had been a few overtures to the town about annexation and discussion about what could possibly be done with the property, but it never really went past discussion,” he said.

Landmark building

“Personally, I think it’s a shame. It was a landmark building for the Smyrna area for decades. Normally what National Register status gives you is protection against publicly funded projects, so if DelDOT were going to tear it down for an interchange, there is a whole set of reviews that have to be done by the secretary of the interior.

“The preservation ordinance really doesn’t have any teeth unless public money is involved somehow.”

Marisa Reeder, granddaughter of Robert Fagan Sr., who owned the house before Mr. Rhoads, is one resident who will miss the house.

“I was a small child when he owned it. We would play in the cornfields that surrounded the building and my older cousins would help out around the restaurant,” she said. “It made us sad and frustrated that such a beautiful building was allowed to degrade over time like that, but now it’s gone.

“You cannot replace history like that,” she added.

Ms. Reeder said her grandfather owned the building from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, running it as a restaurant and living in a home adjacent to it.

“His son, my uncle, Robert Fagan Jr., was a chef there at the restaurant,” she said. “My grandfather was a prominent restaurateur — he owned and operated many restaurants in his time throughout the state, but he resided in Smyrna during that time.

“He was the owner in 1982 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The register noted that the Thomas England House was one of only two temple-front, Greek revival pieces of architecture in Delaware. The other was torn down years ago, so Thomas England was the only one left in Delaware.

“It’s incredibly sad and, for us, it’s personal. Our family made memories in that building. We all have stories from our time there. Even if we didn’t have personal connections to it, I would still be sad. A place like that feels like a part of the community. It’s always been there, in that spot on (Route) 13.”

Before Mr. Fagan owned the building, it was run as a candy shop known as Candy Manor. Mr. Rhoads bought it after the Fagans and kept it as a restaurant by the same name because it was well known in Smyrna.

Mythology and tales

Through the building’s many owners and iterations, it started developing its own lore — a lot of it with questionable veracity. Mr. Rhoads claimed that he’d heard stories about it being a brothel at one point. When it was a sweets store called the Candy Manor, a rumor held that the shop employed five women who lived in the upstairs of the mansion rent free.

“If you inquired about a large amount of white fudge it got you to the second floor,” Mr. Rhoads said in a 2009 interview. “It was before my time, but a lot of older gentlemen knew this place.”

Perturbed by the unfounded rumor, family of the previous owners came forward to debunk it. The son of the former Candy Manor owner, Norman Johnson, set the record straight shortly after the 2009 article. His mother, Naomi, rented the apartments above her candy business and there were no illegal activities taking place on the property, he said. Apparently, this paper had already addressed the slanderous rumors years before in a 1968 article headlined “Candy Manor: No ‘Action,’ Just Candy”

Police were called to Candy Manor, the story said, after a man entered the home, demanding “some action.”

The story stated: “Mrs. Turner (business owner) told this newspaper that enemies had been spreading falsehoods about her business for many months, saying it was a house of ill-repute. This harassment has caused her great anguish, causing her to lose business and making it difficult to keep help. There have been instances, said the candy store owner, when drunks have come on the premises waving money and asking about girls.

“State Police report they have been aware of these stories, but their investigations indicate the rumors are absolutely false.”

Mr. Rhoads also indulged the tales about the house being a stop on the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves heading to New York would hide in secret rooms and stairways.

“Some of the rooms are so secret, unless you knew the building you wouldn’t know they were there,” Mr. Rhoads said.

The house even had ghost stories. Mr. Rhoads claimed that a ghost named “Isabelle,” who was murdered by her sister in an alleged lover’s quarrel years ago roamed the halls of the house.

“Everybody knows about Isabelle. There’s lots of little ghost things,” he said.

A Native American woman who was attending a party told Mr. Rhoads that Isabelle wasn’t the only ghost in the building — there were actually many spirits who gathered there.

As of Friday afternoon, crews were actively dismantling the structure and only the face of the old building remained standing.

Legends and tall tales aside, it’s verifiable that the Thomas England House itself is on its way to officially becoming a ghost of Smyrna’s past.

Katie Kazimir and Ali Cheeseman contributed to this report.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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