Moeckel Carbonell, one of the oldest architectural firms in the U.S., closed its doors on the Wilmington Riverfront this week, leaving copiers, furniture and thousands of stunning architectural drawings behind.
R. Thorpe Moeckel, a former principal at the firm who left in 2006, said his understanding is the firm would open at another location, but his former partner Harold E. Judefind Jr., now the sole principal at the firm, did not return calls.
Operating in Wilmington since 1909, Moeckel Carbonell’s works include duPont mansions, the Central Y, Brandywine school buildings, grand homes in Wilmington’s Highlands, iconic buildings dotting Wilmington’s Market Street and the Delaware Public Archives with its circular glass entryway.
Harold E. Judefind Jr., now the sole principal, left in July, according to landlord Louis B. Rosenberg, president of Mitchell Associates. “He was the guy who was trying to keep it going. It’s a shame. They started in 1909,” Rosenberg said. “He was the last man standing.”
Moeckel said Judefind plans to continue the firm: “It’s my understanding the firm is still continuing, albeit in a very different way. It’s my understanding that he will continue to practice as a sole practitioner,” said Moeckel, another of the landlords. “Whether or not he keeps the name, I don’t know.”
The firm once had about 40 employees in its Riverfront office in a historic building facing the front door of the Delaware Theatre Company.
Beginning Monday, employees from Delaware Junk Removal carried out furniture, equipment and thousands of architectural drawings for Delaware buildings such as Christiana Care, Columbia Gas, Calvary Episcopal Church and the Delaware Historical Society.
Moeckel said they retrieved many records before the clean-out crew arrived. “Most of the historic aspects of the firm’s records have been retained. We were able to glean a lot of the historic drawings, and UD is taking a look at those,” he said. “The others were surplus materials we had to get rid of as landlords.”
Piles of drawing and models headed for the landfill in a pickup. Larry Hultberg of Delaware Junk Removal said drawings still in boxes were stacked to the ceiling along an entire wall of one room.
Rosenberg said he called Hagley Museum to place them, but Hagley wasn’t interested. Jill MacKenzie of Hagley confirmed that the museum turned down the drawings. “As a nonprofit with limited storage space for collections, whenever we are offered a collection our curatorial staff talk about the collection and weigh it against resources,” she said, adding that Hagley has many similar local architectural drawings in its collections that would be used for the same purposes.
“We have the utmost respect for Moeckel Carbonell. It was a business decision that was based on a number of factors,” MacKenzie said. She said she did not know whether Hagley’s new business model, called Hagley Heritage Curators, was a factor.
The new model offers storage space and curatorial services to companies wishing to store collections with research value if they are willing to pay a fee for Hagley’s services.
Buck Simpers, principal in Buck Simpers Architect & Associates, said market for private industry architecture in Delaware is “weak” and “hurting.”
“Private industry work is just not there,” Simpers said. “It’s state construction that’s going on. School work is going on. But private industry? I mean, what’s going on? You’ve got private construction behind the Wanamaker building. CSC is building a new corporate headquarters on Route 48 and Centreville Road. That’s the only thing I know that’s going on. You just don’t see cranes going up. “
Simpers said Buccini/Pollin is the only developer driving private construction in the city currently: “The Buccini boys are drafting their own marketplace, serving as a lifesaver for the City of Wilmington. They know how to raise their own capital and they know how to create their own projects. Wilmington should be on its knees thanking them. They’re bringing dollars and jobs into the City of Wilmington. If you’re looking around, they’re they only ones doing something. Everyone should thank Rob and Chris Buccini and Mike Hare because they’re basically driving the private economy for our city.”
Simpers said Wilmington will need major change to revive private construction in town: “If we can get Mike Purzycki in here as mayor of the City of Wilmington, the only one of the candidates who has ever built anything, if we can get a candidate in there who actually knows how to built something, it might work.”
Speaking from his office on Justison Street on the Riverfront, Simpers said, “Sweet Lord, this place was a swamp down here when he started. Please, give him a chance to take that into the core of the city and the peripheries.”
Phillip R. Conte, principal in Studio JAED and president of the American Institute of Architects’ Delaware chapter, said the architectural business in Delaware has hills and valleys in this economy. Publicly funded projects rely on life cycle, and work in that area is usually predictable, he said, but privately funded projects depend on less predictable factors such as sudden growth or an exodus in a particular area.
The AIA’s national forecast shows overall building-construction spending growing about 6 percent this year and staying in that range for 2017, with commercial construction being the strongest performer this year and institutional sectors growing next year.
The forecast said presidential elections do generally tend to depress economic growth because many investors are reluctant to move on projects because policies may change, and the level of election uncertainty is unusually high this year, so it is likely to depress investment even more.
Still, the AIA’s New Design Contracts Index, which measures new projects coming into architectural firms, is strong, indicating firms are increasing their backlog of projects.
On the Riverfront, Catherine Wood, who works in an office in the same building at Moeckel Carbonell, watched as workers dumped oversized watercolor and pencil drawings into a pickup bound for the landfill Wednesday. “Living in Wilmington and just knowing Moeckel Carbonell and the buildings they built downtown, you feel just the impact of another longstanding firm that’s gone. Growing up in Wilmington, I saw that name on signs. I remember going into Berger Brothers and they had framed the elevations of Moeckel Carbonell’s different buildings, stores on Market Street and everything.”
Moeckel Caronell started as Walter Stewart Brown in 1909, became Brown & Whiteside Architects in 1910, became G. Morris Whiteside in 1932, changed to Whiteside, Moeckel and Carbonell in 1956 when the fathers of the last partners worked together, became Moeckel/Carbonell & Partners in 1979 and segued to Moeckel Carbonell Associates in 1984.