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How to dignify a once grand property?

silo of man bowing with respect

It’s easy to mentally transpose yourself to the 18th century when you’re walking down the streets of Williamsburg, VA. Everything’s beautifully restored, docents stroll about in period costume, carrying out daily life of the era. Ah!

Now. What happens when you’re confronted with an important building whose history needs to be told/shown, but that building is literally a tumble down wreck?

Sadly, this is a far more common scenario than the Williamsburg presentation. Meet Kingston-upon-Hull, named for the 12th century English town. This plantation home is near the mouth of the St. Jones River in Kent County, DE, and it’s one of the earliest brick structures in that county (land was patented in 1683).

Historians for years have admired the Flemish bond brickwork of this home, which indicated the wealth and sophistication of its owners. The popular brick pattern could be seen in the homes of the 17th century well-to-do, across both Europe and in nearby Philadelphia. Furthermore, brick was an expensive building material for that era and in this place. Most homes around were humble log cabins.

Once elegant Flemish bond brickwork, now in near ruins.

For several years after it was first built, this home doubled as the original courthouse for Kent County, before a more central site was found.

I’ve struggled for a long time with how to photograph this place with dignity. As you can see from the closeup, it’s in terrible physical shape, and is surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire coil atop it. Not very appealing visually, and it all conspires against showing the place in a good light.

The plantations of early Delaware grew first tobacco, later adding corn and wheat, as their cash crops. As you can see from the photo at the bottom of this post, corn is still a major cash crop in the area today (an illustration of corn and wheat are right there in the Delaware state seal—they’re that central!)

Right there, in the state seal!

I was hiking a path near the Kingston-upon-Hull property back in May, when I happened on that “Aha!” moment. The neighbor’s cornfield in the foreground of the old plantation house puts the structure in its original context. Yes, if you look close it’s still in pretty rough shape. But at least with the corn shoots, there’s a sense of life around the old place that suggests what its prime might have looked like a little more clearly.

This is the shot that made it into “Delaware Before the Railroads“.

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