University Center studies Ocean View history

Since September, officials from the University of Delaware Center for Historic Architecture and Design have been surveying Ocean View properties for their historical significance.
Coastal Point • JONATHAN STARKEY: The Ocean View Presbyterian Church was the first church in the area, built in 1856.Coastal Point • JONATHAN STARKEY:
The Ocean View Presbyterian Church was the first church in the area, built in 1856.

Center officials gave a presentation on Monday at Town Hall on their progress and the goal of the project.

Rebecca J. Shepard, the Center’s associate director, spoke on Monday and said that 90 to 95 percent of town’s possibly historic homes have been identified and center officials are working to “identify borders for a (possible) historic district. That’s not something we’ve really reached yet,” she said.

Sheppard explained to the capacity audience at town hall that the process starts with surveying properties within town limits. Center officials take notes of the floor plans and the outside of the home to make comparisons to state- and nation-wide trends during the surveying stage, she said.

After that process is complete, the officials will then compile a list of possibly historic properties, write a “statement of significance” (a full report on the town’s historic value) and make recommendations to council to possibly explore national registries for a historic district or even individual properties.

But to understand the historical significance of the town’s properties, the center’s officials must understand the historical significance of the town itself, Sheppard said.

That’s where the town residents come in handy.

“We want to hear from you all,” Sheppard said, urging town residents with stories of historical value or possible locations of historic properties to call her at her office at (302) 831-8097.

Lori Miller, a graduate student working on the Ocean View project, talked on Monday about the history of the town — at least the portions of which the center was already aware. She said that Ocean View — originally named Hall’s Store — can track its foundations back to the store that sat at a still unidentified location on Atlantic Avenue.

The first building in the town that the center can put an exact date on is a post office, which was erected in 1822, Miller said. The Ocean View Presbyterian Church was then built as the first church in the area in 1856, soon after the town changed its name. Unknown sources changed the town’s name to Ocean View because at that time, Miller said, the town extended all the way to the ocean — until Ezekial Evans sold the beachfront property for retreat purposes in the late 19th century.

About the same time Evans sold the property, workers started to construct the Assawoman Canal through town. The original work order from 1886 called for the canal to be dug 72 feet deep and 6 feet wide.

“The canal today is much narrower and shallower,” Miller said — a comment that drew laughs from the crowd because of the current controversy over dredging of the canal.

Original plans also called for the canal to be 13 miles long, but it was later only constructed at a length of 4 miles. Miller said that center officials find the timing of the original canal project to be rare, because most canals were built earlier in the century. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which runs for 14 miles and crosses the northern Delaware-Maryland Peninsula, for instance, was built in the 1830s.

“You built a canal after everyone else did,” Miller said, “Why did they do that? That’s one of our questions.”

Miller said the center wants to hear about the people that worked on the canal and stories from when the canal was being built, if anyone has had those types of stories passed down through families. Those stories would help center officials understand the homes surrounding the canal and throughout town, she said.

As for the homes themselves, Sheppard said that the center has already identified more than 60 possible historic properties in town. Most are residential because commercial properties are usually pressured to keep up with the times, she said.

Through styles of homes, officials can identify trends in Ocean View that reflect state- and nation-wide trends. Gothic Revival style homes — which are recognizable by pointed arches — were popular from 1840 to 1880, for instance, and 14 have already been found in the area.

As for a historic district, 28 possibly historic properties have been found on Central Avenue alone and that could be a prime area for a district that could promote responsible development and tourism, Sheppard said. Center officials are still looking for the area in which Hall’s Store once stood, however.

But Sheppard said that Ocean View has a good chance of getting a nationally registered district if that’s something town officials want.

“The only people that can tell you what you can and can not do are your town government (officials),” said Sheppard, adding that the town would have to take the possible center recommendations to a state and federal committee to receive registration. But the first step — actually receiving the center’s recommendation — is being viewed with optimism.

“We think there are a lot of interesting things in the town,” Sheppard said, in a comment that made her instantaneously popular with the mostly native crowd.