News

October 2, 2003

The Public Building on Rodney Square in downtown Wilmington is well on the way to being morphed into Bracebridge V. M.B.N.A. Bank is spending upward of $14.7 million making over the five-story structure to house its executive offices and headquarters support functions.

More than two months after partial, but extensive, demolition of the structure began, the city Department of License & Inspections provided access to extensive demolition and reconstruction plans in response to a request filed by Delaforum under the Delaware Freedom of Information Act.

Previous Delaforum efforts to obtain details about the project from both bank and city officials have been unsuccessful. The city Law Department did not respond to a portion of the Freedom of Information request to access related correspondence, memorandums and other documents nor did it provide a reason for not responding within the time specified by city government's public information policy.

M.B.N.A.'s public relations department did not respond to a renewed Delaforum request for comment as this article was being prepared.

The plans show that the bank, which operates one of the nation's largest credit card businesses, intends to almost completely gut the interior of the Public Building and construct a warren of offices. The three-story-high rotundas at both ends of the building and their circular staircases and balconies are essentially the only interior features to be retained.

The base of the rotundas is identified as the building's first floor because it is accessed by the main

entrances off King Street. There are two floor beneath that with the lower one on a level with French Street.

The grand corridor which connected the rotundas on the first floor will be restored. It was removed after city and county government offices moved out in 1976 and the sections of the building they formerly occupied were converted into an expanded courthouse. When that work was completed, the courthouse was renamed in honor of Daniel Hermann, a former Delaware chief justice who is now deceased.

In the place of the row of offices which once lined the grand

A pedestrian bridge across 11th Street -- erected recently without fanfare -- now connects M.B.N.A. Bank's main headquarters building (left) with the former Public Building, which the company is remodeling to house its  executive offices.

corridor and served such functions as issuing marriage licenses and recording wills and property deeds will be the bank's accounting department. The positioning of the old offices gave rise to identifying the elected officials who head those administrative functions as 'row officers' -- a term that is still used although it is anachronistic by more than a quarter of a century.

Demolition work now underway is providing for an extensive rebuilding of the southeast side of the building, which is shaped like an inverted 'U'. The wing which once housed the Bureau of Police is being extended to be flush with 10th Street and to match the wing on the northeast side, which was the original courthouse section.

The police station included a lockup, the so-called 'drunk tank' and a police court. Known as Municipal Court and the equivalent of a justice-of-the-peace court in the state system, the latter was not a night court, but was especially busy on 'the morning after' -- particularly if it was Saturday morning following Wilmington's traditionally festive Friday night.

The courtyard between the French Street wings, which served such useful functions as providing a secure spot for unloading prisoners transported to court hearings, will be retained but evidently closed off from public access to become, appropriately enough, an interior open-air courtyard.

A less-extensive but nevertheless a significant change in exterior appearance will be replacement of the front steps with a sort of porch running between the two doors off King Street. The porch will have a railing supported by concrete balustrades with the only access to it being a short flight of steps on the side near

The wing at the southeast corner of the building is being enlarged and extended to match the one at the northeast corner. A succession of Wilmington mayors occupied offices on the third floor in this part of the building.

 11th Street.

The neo-classic pillars supporting the front of the building will remain.

In addition to balustrades, which are used as decorative features on other M.B.N.A. buildings standing on two sides of the Public Building, there will be a subtle effort to meld the appearance of the old structure with the recently constructed buildings which make up the rest of the bank's complex.

The renovation plan calls for replacing "existing trees, pavement, sidewalks and light shields with M.B.N.A.-Bracebridge complex type materials." It specifically provides for 'Schofield tan' sidewalks.

A construction worker stands sentry duty at an opening in the green barricade surrounding the building. Neither city nor company officials will explain why the project is so secretive.

Bracebridge V -- the 'V' evidently is intended to be the Roman numeral five -- is to be connected with Bracebridge I and Bracebridge III by elevated pedestrian bridges across 11th Street and French Street, respectively. Superstructure for the one over 11th Street was put into place during the weekend of Sept. 27 and 28. Contrary to precedent set when the Du Pont Co. placed and removed similar bridges over Tenth Street and Orange Street, the latest bridge building was completed without attracting media attention.

Delaforum has been unable to obtain comment from city officials about why there has been an apparent cloak of secrecy shrouding a project with obviously favorable economic implications involving so-called 'adaptive reuse' of the city's premier landmark. Built in 1914, the Public Building housed city and county governments -- the latter going back to the old Levy Court -- for 62 years and was the seat of New Castle County for 88 years.

Jeffrey Starkley, commissioner of license and inspections, said that the permit applications were handled administratively within his department, a procedure which he said was normal. It does not provide for hearings or other public involvement in the process nor City Council action unless a zoning change is involved, he said.

His deputy, Lawrence Carson, said the only issue involved in completing the process was consideration of "historic implications" of the M.B.N.A. project. That matter, he explained, was both raised and resolved "within the department." Starkley said Rodney Square and the buildings abutting it are officially classified as 'eligible for inclusion' on the National Register of Historic Places, but none of them are on it.

Delaforum has learned from other sources that part of the agreement to sell the Public Building to M.B.N.A. included a provision that no measure of historical preservation protection would be sought for it before the sale was consummated.

Trent Margriff, executive director of Preservation Delaware, the area's principal historic preservation organization, told Delaforum that he was unaware of both the M.B.N.A. project and of the significance of the Public Building. He joined the Delaware organization in July, coming from a similar position in Oklahoma.

The plans made available by the city department show that Gilbane Building Co., which lists a Wilmington address, is the general contractor on the rebuilding job. The value of its contract is given as $14,350,000. Central Salvage Co. of Narberth, Pa., has a $300,000 contract for demolition work and Marcor Remediation Inc., also a Pennsylvania firm, will be paid $52,000 for asbestos removal. Bracebride Corp., M.B.N.A.'s real estate and property affiliate is listed as the property owner.

There apparently is no date specified for completion of the project.

2003. All rights reserved.

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