Eight years ago, three women set out on a mission which even they considered to be a bit quixotic. They wanted to rescue an abandoned school building, nearly 200 years old, that was in sad disrepair and literally close to falling down.

As it turned out, they managed to do just that.

The Claymont Stone School not only has been saved but its renovation is complete, except for installation of a kitchen and landscaping. A formal dedication will be held following the Claymont Memorial Day parade on May 16. It has hosted several events and students from four area schools -- Holy Rosary, Albert Einstein Academy, St. Ann and Claymont Intermediate -- have come there to experience what it was like to attend school a century or more ago. The once disheveled eyesore at Philadelphia Pike and Darley Road is now an attractive building which, if things go according to plan,

will, along with the restored Darley Manor Inn across the street, become the northern anchor of the centerpiece of the Claymont Renaissance.

That is a lot more than could be envisioned when Carolyn Wolfe Burlew, Donna Carter Lewis and Ruth Govatos Stein sat down in Lewis's kitchen in February, 1995, and decided to form what they would

Ruth Stein (left photo), Donna Lewis and Carolyn Burlew formed the Friends of the Claymont Stone School, which has taken the renovation project from an improbable start to near completion.

call Friends of the Claymont Stone School to follow up on what they had told a United States senator, the governor of Delaware, the Brandywine Board of Education and the public through a newspaper interview they wanted to do.

"We weren't exactly sure what to do or what it would take. We were pretty naive at the time. None of us had ever taken on anything like that," Lewis said.

Burlew, a retired teacher, got the ball rolling after she read that the school district intended to tear down the old school, because it seemly had outlived its usefulness. It had last served as Claymont's

public library and, before that, was the home of the Claymont Community Center. It stood empty and available for sale since 1988, but the district had been unable to come up with a buyer.

For no other reason than she didn't know what else to do, Burlew wrote to Senator Joseph Biden for help. That resulted in a meeting with a meeting with a member of his staff. Agreeing that the building was worth saving, for historic reasons if nothing else, Biden's office, which officially had no jurisdiction in the matter, contacted then governor Thomas Carper, who also agreed.

The school was built in 1805 on land donated by John Dickinson, a Delaware delegate to the convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution and a Pennsylvania representative to the 1776

Holy Rosary fourth-graders Lauren Silverstein and Andrea Annal, in costume for a Presidents Day play they performed, admire a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Their play was illustrative of the kinds of activities that went on during the 125 years in which Naamans Creek School operated.

Continental Congress which declared independence. Doubled from a one-room to a two-room schoolhouse in 1905, it served continuously, as  Naamans Creek School, until 1925. Between then and the outbreak of World War II and later during the baby boom era, it was sporadically used as a kindergarten.

Since letters from Biden and Carper asking that it hold off on demolishing the building to allow time to see if the ad hoc Friends could come up with a plan to rejuvenate it were hard to ignore, the school board tabled the motion. Meanwhile the networking that would become the key to the success of the project had begun.

Lewis's husband, Tom, also worked in Biden's office. When he told her of Burlew's request, it struck a responsive chord. "'That's it,' I said. 'Claymont has lost too much already.' I didn't want to see them lose any more," she recalled. A teacher at Burnett Intermediate School in the Brandywine district, she was a former Claymont resident and graduate of Claymont High School, which the Brandywine board had shut down a few years earlier.

Lewis enlisted Stein, a friend and fellow Claymont graduate. Burlew also graduated from Claymont in an earlier class but did not know the other two until they met to form the Friends group. Stein had actually attended the Stone School and Burlew was slated to go there until her kindergarten class was reassigned to the former Green Street Elementary School.

"Donna put up $20 to start a checking account and I put up $20 for a post office box," Burlew said.

The group has gone on to raise more than $600,000 for the project, including in-kind contributions and volunteer labor. Of that $350,000 has come from foundation grants, individual contributions and various fund-raising activity. Grant writing is a learn-by-doing skill the trio acquired.

Early on, architect Jerry Booth determined that the school district had been correct -- the building was structurally unsound. Back in 1905, when the expansion occurred, the roof beam was improperly fitted and 90 years later the exterior walls were actually buckling.

That, according to Lewis, resulted in a major shift in plans. "That turned it into a renovation, rather than a restoration," she said.

The change, in turn, led to the only significant controversy along the way. Architect Jim Nelson, who also worked pro bono, came up with the idea of using a copula to both correct the structural deficiency and substitute for a skylight.

Historic integrity has not been sacrificed, the trio maintain. "The only thing left of the building by then that really was original, were the stones," Burlew said.

It also was decided along the way that simply using the building as a museum would be impractical if it was expected to support itself. The original idea has expanded to include historic interpretation and use of the facility as a venue for public and private events.

The thing that enabled the project to proceed, Stein said, was the amount of community interest and participation generated along the way.

The Brandywine Masonic Lodge 'adopted' the school and its members donated volunteer labor. Claymont Anglers & Sportsmen held 11 fund-raising dinners. Paragon Engineering donated its services throughout the project, Chieffo Electric put in an electricity system and Delmarva Systems installed security and fire alarm systems. Schoolhouse furniture was donated by Delaware Architecture Foundation when it acquired the historic Brandywine Academy building in Wilmington.

Lewis said that kind of community support is indicative of the "heartbeat that exists in Claymont." Renovation of the Stone School, in turn, has contributed to the interest in community rebirth now showing up in such things as the Renaissance movement, she said. "I feel our organization helped get it started by getting people to think more about their community.

Posted on February 10, 2003

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