Last week I wrote the first of three posts describing why the charming town of Lewes that’s so popular today could have become a very different place. That post, revealing how we almost got stuck with a coal plant at what is now the Cape Shores community, revealed the power of protecting the environment to lay the groundwork for economic prosperity. Today I’m talking about the power of historic preservation to meet the same objective.
If you’ve spent any time in Lewes you know what I’m talking about. Walk down Second Street downtown and you’ll see quaint shops, lovely (and extremely popular) restaurants, and buildings, both new and old, set directly on the sidewalk to create a peaceful, pedestrian friendly experience.
What you don’t see is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet or Bed, Bath and Beyond. All of the businesses are small businesses run by active owner-entrepreneurs. Which creates a distinctly different vibe than you’ll see along Route 1. As far as I know, this has less to do with firm regulations and more to do with decisions by individual property owners who for years have specifically sought out these types of businesses.
As someone with a home and business on Second Street I’m thrilled they had the vision because downtown brims with charm as a destination for shoppers, diners and history aficionados all year long. I could sit here and imagine the famed Agave as a Ruby Tuesday and the P.U.P.S. pet store, Edie Bees candy and the Mercantile Exchange combined into a mini Wal-Mart . . . but on second thought I’d rather just enjoy the way it is now!
Protecting historic homes for posterity and prosperity too!
Many of the people who love our downtown also love – and live in – historic homes located on several blocks beyond Second Street. Take a stroll and you’ll see colorful Victorians, dignified Federals, tidy and grand Colonials, and lots of craftsman bungalows and four-squares like the one we renovated to create our live-and-work space.
That renovation wasn’t easy. We knew when we bought this old – and much loved – house that it would be challenging to create the kind of space we needed while conforming to a lot of historic preservation regulations. Fortunately my husband Bill has some great construction experience. Equally fortunate, we love the home’s many original features, from the brick fireplace in our conference room to the craftsman moldings around our windows and doors, to the veranda we were able to create, brand new, to align with the preservation regulations.
Many others have made similar decisions in the years since the creation of an historic preservation ordinance in 1992. While it certainly ensured that many people buying houses that went back as long as 200 years ago were the type of people who were willing to protect historic features, it was largely voluntary.
As former Lewes Historical Society Executive Director recalled in a 2021 interview for Delaware Beach Life magazine, “for a long time, local preservationists had the sentiment that people would be inclined to do what’s right to protect their historic houses. That was justified because from the 1970s, as a result of the U.S. Bicentennial, there was a deepened appreciation for colonial architecture. By 2000 and 2001 though a lot of the people who’d restored local houses were selling, and we started seeing newcomers with different mindset.”
As a result local preservationists worked alongside local elected and appointed leaders to create more significant regulations along with the ordinances to make them official.
Which is why that stroll you take along these streets is so wonderful, and why the historic district is one of the most desirable among home shoppers. That situation is influenced by the small number of houses that become available, but also because the architecture that’s been preserved, protected and in my cases vastly improved is picture postcard-worthy.
Yes, conflicts arise. There were a few things Bill and I initially wanted to do with our property that weren’t allowed. But we’re glad we worked through it. And if anyone’s wondering whether these types of rules have had a negative impact on property values, Mike DiPaolo will be the first to tell you (as he did in that Delaware Beach Life interview):
“Lewes real estate certainly hasn’t cooled off because of the rules . . . I believe it’s because they protect the flavor that people come here for. But if you start to let the historic properties go one at a time, suddenly Second Street won’t look like Second Street anymore. People know the businesses and neighbors will come and go but the streetscape will stay the same. That’s what preservation is all about – protecting the places we know and love . . . and often making them so much better.”Mike DiPaolo, former Lewes Historical Society Executive Director