Quaker Hill celebrates its past and future

Built in 1865, the former home of lumber merchant Joshua Simmons’ family is one of Quaker Hill’s many historic properties.

By Christine Facciolo
Special to Delaware Business Times

Bayard Marin likes to draw comparisons between himself and Founding Father John Dickinson. Both boast connections to London’s Middle Temple. Both have a scholarly interest in the concept of due process and the administration of justice. And both spend a lot of time in Quaker Hill: Marin in his law office at 521 West St., and Dickinson in the nearby Friends Meeting House Burial Ground.

Brushing the edge of downtown Wilmington, the Quaker Hill neighborhood boasts as rich a history as any city on the East Coast. “We have Revolutionary War history, we have constitutional history, we have Underground Railroad history,” said Marin. “Philadelphia brags about Benjamin Franklin but Dickinson had every bit the stature of Jefferson, Madison and Adams, and we’ve got him here.”

Marin is president of the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation, which he helped establish in 1993. The Foundation has worked to promote Quaker Hill’s history as well as its importance in Wilmington’s economic development. Marin sees Quaker Hill — between Tatnall and Jefferson streets — from Second to Eighth — as an important link between the Riverfront and the revitalized Market Street Corridor.

“There are a lot of people who want to live in historic homes and who want that style of life in an urban setting that is close to amenities that you find on Market Street or on the Riverfront,” he said. “All of these things contribute to each other.”

Indeed, few areas in Delaware have a history as rich as the 24 square blocks that make up Quaker Hill. The city of Wilmington grew out of Quaker Hill when the Shipley family built the first Friends meeting house there in 1738. Quaker families established businesses on Market Street and built heavily in the area. By 1816, they had constructed a third meeting house which still sands at Fourth and West streets.

Residential growth brought churches like St. Peter’s Cathedral and West Presbyterian as well as more housing. Most of Quaker Hill’s buildings date from 1830 to 1870 and exhibit an interesting array of architectural styles.

For 40 years during the 1800s, abolitionist Thomas Garrett worked with Harriet Tubman, bringing 2,700 slaves on the Underground Railroad through his home at Fourth and Shipley, then on to Philadelphia and freedom.

The rapid growth of the 19th century did not last. Advances in transportation encouraged movement beyond the city. By the 1940s the once grand mansions were divided into apartment buildings. The riots in 1968 accelerated the exodus, and Quaker Hill found itself abandoned and crime-ridden.

“What was once the wealthiest area of the city was now one of the poorest,” said Marin.

But Quaker Hill has endured, thanks to a renewed interest in historic homes and committed homeowners like Sean Reilly.

Reilly, who has lived for 35 years in a house that was once part of the Underground Railroad, remains optimistic about Quaker Hill. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “With all the new things that are happening investment-wise on Market Street, it’s all positive news. Quaker Hill is just so loaded with history and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to live here. And it’s beautiful.”

Marin also credits the city’s efforts to reduce crime in West Center City of which Quaker Hill is a part. “The current administration is doing a good job,” he said. “Recent statistics show a dramatic decrease in crime and we need that because I know people who are afraid to come into the city at all.”

Marin established the foundation to counter the negativity and to acquaint people with the historic treasure that is Quaker Hill and believes he’s succeeding, albeit slowly. “Twenty-five years ago if you asked someone about Quaker Hill they might have said that it’s that place west of Market Street,” he said. “Now more people know about Quaker Hill — but still not enough.”

The foundation’s work includes workshops, lectures, seminars and historic programs geared toward school-age children. Many projects are carried out in partnership with other organizations. “We work with other groups in doing programs which results in a mutual benefit as well as making the programs much broader and more effective,” said Marin.

The foundation places special emphasis on the Underground Railroad Workshop for children which was recently retooled to better serve the youth demographic. “I had the notion that there were children who might find enrichment programs cost-prohibitive,” said foundation executive director Ashley Cloud.

This year the foundation went directly to Stubbs Elementary and hosted the fifth-grade class, offering a comprehensive educational experience. Plans are underway to expand next year’s celebration of Harriet Tubman Day on March 10 through the entire month, which is also Women’s History Month.

“A lot of amazing people did great things in Wilmington, in locations that the kids probably walk, bus or ride their bikes by every day,” she said. “I want to give them a sense of pride but also the educational background of knowing the history of where they live.”

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  1. Congratulations to the Quaker Hill Historic Preservation Foundation for 25 years of celebrating and promoting Quaker Hill and Wilmington history! Keep up the good work!

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