Rockwood Estate Historic District receives update in the National Register listing

The Rockwood Estate Historic District, located in New Castle County in north Wilmington, was originally listed in the National Register for Historic Places in 1976, but this year received an updated listing thanks to years of work by Rockwood volunteers. Rockwood is known as Delaware’s best-documented Gothic Revival mansion and features the state’s only known original attached 1850s conservatory.

The original nomination provided basic information about Joseph Shipley (1795-1867), a native Delawarean and successful Anglo-American merchant banker and founding partner of the William & James Brown & Company of Liverpool, England; George Williams, the English architect who designed the house in a Late Gothic Revival style with an attached glass-enclosed conservatory; and information about horticultural activities. The original listing concentrated on the construction of the house built between 1851 and 1854.  

This image shows the historic Rockwood mansion.

The estate, originally established by Shipley during the 1850s, remained in the hands of the Shipley family and subsequent relatives associated with the Bringhurst and Hargraves families for 120 years. In 1972, Anna “Nancy” Sellers Hargraves directed in her will that Rockwood be conveyed to a charity for “the enjoyment and enlightenment of the present and future generations.” The estate was conveyed to New Castle County in 1973 and was dedicated as the Shipley-Bringhurst-Hargraves Museum.

Today, the 73.48-acre recreational park and museum that includes the Shipley mansion is known as Rockwood Park and Museum, which has been owned by New Castle County since the 1970s. 

Under the guidance and direction of staff from the State Historic Preservation Office, volunteers undertook a multiyear process to review deeds, wills and probate records, U.S. Census records, historic maps and newspapers, agricultural census records, Shipley-Bringhurst-Hargraves family papers housed in special collections at the Morris Library at the University of Delaware, miscellaneous architecture and history publications, as well as family correspondence and photographs in order to complete an amended nomination and document different aspects of Rockwood’s history, including information about those who worked and resided on the Estate. The information compiled established statewide significance and furthered understanding of the estate.

Volunteers’ work expanded the social history of the site with biographical information about individuals, including immigrants and free African Americans, employed by Joseph Shipley and his relatives, who owned and occupied the premises for 120 years.

The amendment includes an updated inventory of 41 cultural resources including ancillary buildings, structures and sites as well as documentation that justified the expansion of the period of significance from 1851 to 1939. Their enhanced research chronicled the physical evolution of the house during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and enumerated examples of character-defining features including Brandywine granite with contrasting quoins window and door surrounds, paired and elongated windows and triple diamond-shaped clustered chimneys; 

The work of volunteers also enhanced the information about the Shipley and Bringhurst family’s gardening practices, which represent Gardenesque and Colonial Revival practices including specific references to surviving historic plantings and chronicled construction, gardening and agricultural activities associated with Shipley and his sisters and subsequent relatives who occupied Rockwood during the period of significance 1851-1939.

Completion of this project complemented Delaware’s Statewide Historic Plan, “Partners in Preservation: Planning for the Future,” by encouraging a government entity to preserve its historic properties and nominate them to the National Register of Historic Places. 

The amended nomination was reviewed and approved by the New Castle County Historic Preservation Board and the Delaware State Review Board for Historic Preservation. The National Park Service officially listed the Rockwood Estate Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places on April 19, 2023.

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