Preserving the past is a full-time job
Jan 08, 2015 09:23PM
By Kerigan Butt
Deborah Buckson (left) and Carla Pyle in front of the Historic Odessa Foundation headquarters.
By John Chambless
There are places in Odessa where you can get exactly the same view that the town's founders would have had in the late 1700s. It's that kind of time travel opportunity that drew Deborah Buckson and Carla Pyle to the sleepy little town, and it's what brings them back every day.
Buckson is the executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation, and Pyle is the volunteer coordinator. Buckson and her assistant, Jennifer Cabell, are the only two full-time staff members for an organization that is driven almost entirely by volunteers who love the 30-acre historic parcel.
"Odessa really is this perfectly pristine colonial village," Buckson said. "What you see here is a clean picture of architectural history from the 18th century into the early 20th century."
Founded as a thriving river port, Odessa grew from the riverbank, at one point comprising three tanneries, a creamery, businesses, worker homes and stately mansions, as well as gardens that survive today. Home to several renowned colonial craftsmen, Odessa thrived until the river declined in importance as a transportation route, the railroad bypassed the town in the 1850s and people began to move away to find work elsewhere. The town's decline continued into the Depression, when its isolation and lack of commercial prospects ended up preserving the colonial buildings. No one wanted to build a new home or business in Odessa, so the old buildings stayed largely untouched.
"That's what protected the town from the urban development that you see in other historic areas," Buckson said.
In the 1930s, H. Rodney Sharp took an interest in preserving the town's history and began buying buildings, including the Corbit-Sharp House, where Sharp lived at the time. He taught at the Academy in Odessa as well. The home is now a National Historic Landmark.
"He's one of Delaware's earliest historical preservationists," Buckson said. "He's credited with the first efforts at historic preservation in Odessa. If not for him, Odessa most likely would have been lost. It was so close to complete deterioration."
In 1958, Winterthur gradually took over the historic properties in Odessa and remained in charge of the site until operations were taken over by the Historic Odessa Foundation in 2005. Since then, Buckson said, the foundation has relied on grants and donations, as well as hundreds of volunteers.
Buckson said the upkeep of six major buildings, eight outbuildings and 30 acres of property, much of it dating to the late 1700s, is a matter of constant vigilance. In the Corbit-Sharp House, she said, "the wiring hadn't been updated since Mr. Sharp did it in 1938."
In the case of the Pump House, a 1780 worker home, the cost of removing a boiler that had been added in the 1930s and installing an HVAC system spiraled into a major project costing $160,000 because of asbestos concerns and the logistics of removing the tank without damaging the home.
"The buildings are our collection," Buckson said, "and time is a major factor. It's very important to have a regular maintenance schedule for buildings. If you let it get ahead of you, it's overwhelming."
With an operating budget of some $300,000 a year, the foundation has to get creative with its grant writing and fundraising. "We are working on a five-year devlopment plan for building endowment," Buckson said. "We submit three to give grants in any grant cycle."
One of the town's biggest recent successes is Cantwell's Tavern, which sits next door to the foundation's headquarters. The restaurant has drawn consistently large crowds and has become "sort of the community watering hole," Buckson said.
"It's been an enormous help to us," Buckson said. "It was a huge financial risk for our organization. It was not a project that we were able to generate a lot of grant funding for. Many of the places where Delawareans go for grant money had seen too many failures with museums and restaurants."
The tavern was built in 1823 as a hotel and bar, and survived into the early 20th century. It was a private residence for a short time and was then used by Winterthur as a venue for exhibitions. The interior was extensively redone in the 1970s, with track lighting and carpeting on the walls to allow artwork to be displayed.
Today, the restaurant is not only a big draw to get people into Odessa, it's also a revenue resource. Historic Odessa owns the building and leases it to the restaurant's operators. Part of the proceeds then go to the foundation.
"It's wonderful from the point of view that, as a docent, you can give a tour and recommend it as a place to have dinner or lunch," said Pyle, who lives two doors down from the foundation's headquarters in a former store. As a tireless booster for Odessa, she said what she would most like to have is "more volunteers," a sentiment echoed by Buckson.
"It's such a fun place to volunteer," Pyle said, listing opportunities beyond giving tours. Volunteers are needed to work in the gardens, do maintenance, join the archeology team that's looking for the original site of the Corbit Tannery, help demonstrate hearth cooking, and bake in a beehive that will be operating this summer.
Buckson fell in love with Odessa when she married a native Delawarean in 1976 and took a job with Winterthur. "They were looking for a guiding position at the Historic Houses of Odessa," she said. "I was hired for the Brick Hotel Gallery of American Art, which at that time housed the Sewell C. Biggs collection of American art. I had a background in art history. Later, I took on guiding responsibilities for the historic houses as well."
When her children were young, Buckson lived in the Collins-Sharp House for seven years. "In 1976, Odessa was very small," she said. "There were a lot of older, local names still here. It was a very agricultural area, and there were probably less than 5,000 people living in southern New Castle County then. It was a very different place."
Pyle said that when she retired as a teacher in 1999, she heard from a friend that volunteer docents were needed in Odessa. She was a paid guide for Winterthur from 1999 until 2003, when Winterthur decided to leave. "I had convinced my husband that we had to move to Odessa," she said. "So we were delighted that the Sharps were going to reopen the historic houses and they formed the public foundation. We heard that Debbie had been hired as the director and we were thrilled about that. We stepped up and asked what we could do to help.
"This is one of the few small towns that are left," she continued. "It has that sense of community here in Odessa that I had never experienced before in any of the developments I lived in. I'm a native Dealwarean, as is my husband, Jeff. He calls himself the maintenance guy. He's sort of the facilities director."
After so many years with the foundation, Buckson said she is still learning about the history of Odessa. "When you start digging in, you begin to find things," she said. "The Log and Frame House dates to 1740. It's quite a lovely early vernacular Georgian building. Its orientation is toward the water. When you look at it from the side, there's a Victorian storefront window that was added in the 19th century. But if you look at the house from the front, which faces the Appoquinimink, it has an elegant Georgian facade. We're always discovering new things about the history of Odessa."
The Historic Houses of Odessa are open March through December, Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 4:30 p.m. (Monday by reservation). General admission is $10 for adults, $8 for groups, seniors and students, free for children under 6. For a schedule of events and more information, visit www.historicodessa.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail email@example.com.