Delaware City shares several architectural characteristics with other small historic boomtowns that ceased to grow after their initial development. Like other boomtowns, it is a planned town. The developer planned the town as the whole, with a substantial gridded network of streets. The plans proved to be more extensive than was realistic, and the entire grid was never constructed.
The buildings at the center of the town were all built within a short time period, and reflect the architectural styles that were popular when the town was founded. Delaware City’s architecture reflects the Greek Revival style that was in vogue in the early years of the 1830s and 1840s, although the buildings were often modified in the following decades. Construction after the 1840s was in the then—popular Italianate style. There is vacant land within the original street grid because growth occurred slowly after the initial burst of development. As a result, there is often a mixture of styles for buildings constructed at different times within a single block. Also, older buildings were sometimes replaced with newer ones as the town grew. Finally, there is a mixture of stylistic ornament on individual buildings, a Greek Revival building with Italianate brackets, for example, especially on commercial buildings, as owners remodeled to add the latest fashionable styles to their shops.
The design standards for Clinton Street Historic Commercial District set standards for restoring the historically significant architectural identity of Clinton Street in a way that supports and promotes its use for contemporary businesses. The first step in developing such standards was to determine the historic architectural character of the street by conducting a survey of Clinton Street from Harbor to Front Streets.
Two things were considered in this survey. First, buildings on commercial thoroughfares evolve and change over time so what one sees in the present day is often a mixture of old and new, original and altered buildings. This is especially true of commercial buildings in which merchants have modified their storefronts, often more than once, to reflect the latest marketing approaches. Architecturally, historic retail buildings often have “split personalities,” with the upper floors retaining their original historic appearance, while the first floor has been modernized and lost its original appearance. This means that historic research must be conducted on each building to determine its original appearance and how it was modified over time.
The second aspect to be considered is that towns develop through time, spanning different eras marked by changing tastes in architectural character. In order to develop design standards, a decision must be made about which period best represents the history of the town. For example, Delaware City developed in the late 1820s and 1830s as a port town, but by the late nineteenth century, it became an important transportation terminus of not only the canal but also the railroad, farm to market roads, and even a trolley line to New Castle and Wilmington.
The majority of buildings in the business district were built between 1831 and 1870. The early part of this construction period represents Delaware City’s initial settlement, when the canal brought travelers and associated commerce into the area. In the latter part of this period, Delaware City was incorporated and experienced growth in industry. A gristmill was built in 1859 and a stamped tin and ironware factory was built in the corner of Clinton Street and Fifth Street. Over the next five years the factory was converted to manufacture fertilizer, and finally into canning a strong fishing industry, based on the harvesting of sturgeon for caviar. (This caviar was then shipped to Russia to be canned and labeled “imported” before returning to the U.S. market.)
Historically, Delaware City’s commercial area featured both residential and commercial uses. Historic maps show that there were sometimes alleys or passageways between buildings. Comparison of Clinton Street today with historic maps and photographs reveal that some buildings have been demolished or replaced, creating gaps in the streetscape (such as the empty lot between 46 and 52 Clinton.) However, most buildings were developed to fill the entire width of the building lots. As buildings were constructed at various times and in various styles, neighboring buildings either butted against each other or had very little space between them. In the case of the Delaware City Hotel and the Old Robinson Hotel, adjacent lots and buildings were consolidated behind one façade, creating the appearance of a larger building. The tightly—packed blocks give the Clinton Street Commercial District its dense, urban feel.
The organization of the facades for commercial use represents a second—generation use for most of these buildings. Based on a study of commercial buildings by architectural historian Richard Longstreth, commercial buildings can be classified according to their form and appearance, and these classifications include the one-part and two-part blocks.
The most common type of building in small town business districts is the one-part block, composed of a one or more-story building used entirely for commercial purposes. A building constructed prior to 1900 in the one-part block composition often represents a change of use in which a house was converted into a commercial building. A one-part block is not necessarily one-story tall – it can be taller. A one-part block might be two or more stories tall, with a unified façade. There is no architectural or ornamental difference between the first floor and upper floors.
The two-part block contains commercial functions on the first floor (block one) and residential or office units (block two) on the upper levels. There is an obvious change in appearance between the first and the upper floors. The conversion of a two-or-three-story house to commercial use often entailed altering the first floor for business use (adding doors or display windows), and creating one or more residential apartments or offices upstairs. The two-part block possesses a strong visual division between the first floor and the upper levels by a change of architectural ornament, building material, trim work, signage, or an awning.
Historic photographs of Delaware City’s commercial area indicate that merchants often constructed porches or awnings at the ground floor of their buildings, thus creating a two-part box configuration. Besides extending retailing space out onto the side walk, these overhangs also provided shade or shelter to passers-by. Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century photographs show porches and awnings on 54, 70, 72-74, 76, 78, 80, 82, and 86 Clinton Street, illustrating that such features were a popular part of the historic streetscape.
A majority of the commercial buildings located along Clinton Street follow the two part block composition. Two-and three-story buildings were constructed or renovated to have retail space on the first floor and residential or office units on the upper floors. Combining uses in single buildings came from a European tradition where merchants consolidated business and living quarters into two-and –three story buildings. The two-part commercial block composition is prevalent in the years between 1850 and 1950 in towns across the nation.
Based on these two typical compositions for commercial buildings along Clinton Street, the style of individual buildings changed over time with the application of decorative or functional details applied to the front facades. These details included bands of small third tier windows in a Greek Revival building or bracketed, Italianate-style overhangs. Regardless of the style, the underlying composition of the two-part block with its strong horizontal first level, typically a storefront topped with one or two stories of residential-scaled window openings, remains consistent.
The architectural style of a building is defined by its date of construction, its ornamental detail, and its shape and form. A variety of styles are apparent on Clinton Street, including Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate. Italianate is the most prevalent style, followed closely by Greek Revival. These buildings were designed and built not by architects, but by local builders and property owners who melded tastes and traditions that, while strongly influenced by Georgian and Federal styles, also incorporated newer architectural styles such as Greek Revival and Italianate. In the context of establishing design standards for buildings in Delaware City, this means there are few, if any, buildings that are purely one style. Rather the buildings more often incorporate evolving, transitional building styles.
On the basis of this survey, two major periods of construction can be identified for the Clinton Street Commercial District. The first begins in the very late 1820s and runs to 1850, including buildings constructed during the early development of the town in the Federal and Greek Revival styles. The second major period extends from 1850 to 1900, when Delaware City experienced growth related to industry. Primary architectural styles for this period are known as the Romantic Revival styles. The following section describes these styles and their characteristics specific to Clinton Street.
In Chapter V of this manual, buildings on Clinton Street from Harbor to Front Streets are classified by composition and style so that common traits can be recognized for each type, and appropriate recommendations are listed for each. Although individual buildings along Clinton Street may exhibit aspects of severe different styles, each building is identified accordingly to the style that is most dominantly expressed its form, mass, and architectural detail. For example, buildings with third tier windows are classified as Greek Revival in style, while buildings with strongly bracketed cornices fall under the Italianate style.