Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Union Park Gardens

Evening Journal
October 7, 1892
In the late 1800s the western city limits of Wilmington were at Union Street. Located on the large undeveloped space west of Union Street at Front Street (now Lancaster Ave), there was a park known as the Front & Union Park or sometimes known as the Union Street Park. This park held picnic grounds, athletic fields, and various attractions. The athletic grounds were used for track & field games and even bicycle racing but baseball was the mainstay. In 1882 the Wilmington Quicksteps leased the grounds and built stands for 700 people. The lease did not allow liquor, gambling, or games on Sunday. The Quicksteps were a professional team that played in the Union League. Musical acts, circuses, and traveling shows would also set up there as well. The park was situated at the end of the Front Street trolley line and easily accessible to most Wilmingtonians. 

Evening Journal
On April 6, 1917 America entered the Great War and soon after, found its manufacturing capabilities woefully unprepared. To fight a war on another continent America was going to need to transport a lot of men and material across the Atlantic Ocean. German U-Boats were sinking a lot of ships, 5,000 of them over the course of the war. To meet the needs of wartime shipbuilding production the Emergency Fleet Corporation was created to build and operate merchant ships to move war materials.

Wilmington had always been a shipbuilding city and getting its shipyards turning out merchant ships was a top priority. The Emergency Fleet Corporation took over shipbuilders Harlan & Hollingsworth and Pusey & Jones. Workers were pouring into the city as the shipyards swung into full gear. Wilmington’s shipbuilding industry was soon faced with a serious problem. There was no place to house the newly-arrived shipyard workers. 

Evening Journal 5-25-1918
The Liberty Land Company was formed to undertake a huge building project to house the shipyard workers. The 58-acre Front & Union Park on the west side of the city was an ideal location for a large housing project. The property was purchased and the project got underway, Meanwhile shipyard workers were overwhelming Wilmington and the housing situation was critical. 

Site plan of Union Park Gardens 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Town planner and landscape architect John Nolen, a native of Philadelphia was selected to design the neighborhood in the style of the English Garden movement. The Philadelphia architecture and engineering firm Ballinger and Perrot worked with Nolen designing the houses. The Lynch Construction company of New York was selected as the general contractor. The new neighborhood was named Union Park Gardens honoring the old picnic grounds and athletic fields. 

June 25, 1918
Morning News
Ground was broken on June 24, 1918 and a literal army of workers started right away. The initial crew was 200 men but it was increased to 1,000 as soon as dormitories and mess halls were built.  

Temporary dormitories for the workers can be seen going up in this photo dated 8-23-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

In short order the workforce was increased to 2,400 
and peaked at 3,755. This could have been the largest and quickest residential construction project ever undertaken in Delaware, with nearly all the work done by hand. Pick and shovel laborers were paid 40 cents per hour and skilled tradesmen 75 cents. 

The amount of manpower is evident in this photo dated 8-23-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Because of its size, this project caused a brick shortage in the Wilmington area. The Lynch Construction Company placed an order for twelve million bricks. It took the city’s two brick manufacturers 40 days working around the clock to meet the order.

Machines were nearly non-existent as seen in this view of the 200 block of Union Street dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Even though motorized trucks were coming into use, the vast majority of materials were delivered using horse and wagon. In addition to the 3,755 men, hundreds of horses were used as well. With that much manpower the houses began to rise quickly on the former picnic grounds. 

201 S. Union Street is shown here under construction in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Every single brick, piece of lumber, and shingle was offloaded from wagons by hand to staging areas and then carried into place when needed. 

204 S. Bancroft Parkway is is shown here under construction in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

By October of 1918, just 4 months after ground was broken, the first of the houses were ready for occupancy. 

201-207 S. Bancroft Parkway & 2100-2106 Biddle Street are shown here nearly finished in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

The War to End all Wars ended on 11-11-1918, and suddenly building huge numbers of ships was no longer a priority. Production and manpower was cut at the shipyards and subsequently the Lynch Construction Company slowed down construction on Union Park Gardens. 

The corner of Lancaster Ave. and Bancroft Parkway is seen here on 11-1-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

In July of 1919 about 300 of the 506 houses were occupied and work was progressing slowly. The houses were owned by the United State Shipping Board and rented to the shipyard workers.

The same location is seen a month later.  
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

The families wanted to own the homes rather than rent, but they were not for sale. The government poured $5 million dollars into the massive effort to build the neighborhood which amounts to about $10,000 per house. At that time, the going rate for houses was about one third of that amount. 

The residents of Union Park Garden wanted to purchase the houses directly, however the government wanted to sell the entire lot to an investor.  On November 20, 1920 the United State Shipping Board listed the entire neighborhood for sale by means of a sealed bid. 

Biddle Street is seen here on 11-1-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library

There was only one bid for the entire neighborhood and a flurry of bids for individual properties by the tenants. The Industrial Trust Company of Wilmington was the lone bidder for the entire property with a bid of $1.15 million. All bids were rejected as too low and a request went out for bids again with a $2 million minimum. In the meantime with reduced work at the shipyard workers were demanding a reduction in rent. Union Park Gardens had become a financial albatross. 

On April 21, 1921 the Morning News announced that Union Park Gardens was sold to a Philadelphia syndicate for $1.6 million, but soon after, the deal fell through. On February 27, 1922 over 5,000 people attended an auction that sold 286 of the properties at prices ranging from $2,000 to $4,500. The remaining properties were sold the next day. The two-day auction brought in $1.57 million. 

The saga doesn't end there. By July, the purchasers still had not gotten deeds to their properties. Senator T. Coleman DuPont was called upon to lean on the United State Shipping Board which got things moving. By the end of July, with over 500 deeds coming into his office, Darlington Flinn, the county Recorder of Deeds, had to appoint 5 extra clerks to process the paperwork. 

The Evening Journal - February 18, 1922

By the early part of August the final deeds were recorded, and the government was finally rid of its housing business in Wilmington. The majority of the ships built by the Emergency Fleet Corporation never made it into wartime service and were converted into cargo ships. This caused a huge glut of new ships, which drove down prices that resulted in another huge financial loss for government. 

The neighborhood known as The Flats was also built at the same time. That will have to be the subject for another post. Darlington Flinn, the Recorder of Deeds, is also on the list for a future post. 

If you have a story or memory of Union Park Gardens please post it below in the comments. 

1 comment:

  1. Great story tommy,enjoyed reading it.used to live in the big apt.bldg on the corner of Lancaster ave and Bancroft parkway then stayed around the corner on biddle st with my grand grad was a ww1 vet and would take me to the American legion post that used to be where Zion church is now.was a very nice neighborhood back in the day.


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