Time to party like it's 1976!
IF YOU GO
-- WHAT There's A Party in the House
-- WHERE Old State House, 25 The Green, Dover
-- WHEN 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 6
-- ADMISSION Free
If they could have peered into the future, it’s difficult to imagine what Delaware’s first legislators, meeting in 1792 in their new State House, would think about the First State in 2016.
It’s harder to imagine what they would have made of Delaware in 1976 – the Bicentennial – with disco music, miniskirts and bellbottoms, muttonchop sideburns, Qiana shirts and both sexes flaunting 12-inch Afros.
While we’ll never know what those bewigged, snuff-sniffing legislators would have thought, those who remember the 1970s – or would like to get a taste of the disco generation – will have the chance indulge in a little nostalgia at Dover Days, said Nena Todd, historical sites supervisor for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.
“The entire country was celebrating the nation’s 200th anniversary,” Todd said of the Bicentennial Year.
Delaware’s contribution was a complete, wall-to-wall, top-to-bottom State House restoration. The goal was to finish by July 4 in time for a proper celebration. And since 2016 is the 40th anniversary, the DHCA decided it was time to get a little bit festive.
Although workers four decades ago missed their Independence Day target by three months – the building did not reopen until October– that’s no reason not to mark the occasion, Todd said.
“We wanted to go with the idea of a big party, a house party,” Todd said. “Because 1976 was such a big celebration, we wanted to bring that back.”
That the State House – now called the Old State House – is still standing, much less recognizable to a Delawarean of the 1790s, is a bit of a miracle.
The building replaced a much smaller wooden courthouse built in 1722. There’s an outline in the paving stones in front of the building showing the site of the porch where the Declaration of Independence first was read to a crowd after its adoption in July 1776.
Built between 1787 and 1792, the Old State House was the meeting place for the state’s General Assembly and Kent County’s Levy Court.
The building was expanded several times between 1836 and 1926, including an extensive 1873 Victorian remodeling, during which more than 150 gas lights were installed. By 1909, however, there was talk of tearing down the aging building, but efforts by Mabel Lloyd Ridgely – a Dover Days founder – prevented demolition. Instead, there were renovations that included removing the Victorian additions which brought back a semblance of its Colonial appearance. Ridgely remained unsatisfied with the 1909 work and continued her efforts for a full renovation until her death in 1962.
The General Assembly moved out with the construction of Legislative Hall in 1933, but the building housed various state offices through the early 1970s. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
With the Bicentennial approaching, Gov. Sherman W. Tribbitt, Secretary of State Robert Reed and DHCA Director Lawrence C. Henry ordered state preservation workers to dig through the state archives for background material with an eye toward fulfilling Ridgely’s desire to restore the building as closely as possible to its 18th century appearance.
Ghosts mark the spot
“I remember being so excited,” said the DHCA’s Madeline Dunn, who did some of that original research. “We were untying red twill tape from the 1780s and reading these records. Some of this had not seen the light of day for decades.”
Dunn estimates the team, including the late Edward F. “Ned” Heite, recovered about 90 percent of the records produced when the State House was built in the 18th century.
“It was unusual to find the quantity of material that we did,” she said. The documents allowed the research team to find physical evidence, such as “ghost” marks on brick walls that showed where the building’s long-removed geometrical staircase once stood.
“When you took the plaster off the walls, you could see the original brickwork, where the staircase had intersected the wall,” said DHCA’s Joan Larrivee, who researched architectural details. “That’s how we got clues where the grand staircase had been.”
It was rebuilt for the Bicentennial based on those clues, Larrivee said.
Archaeological work turned up the foundations for the original chimneys, outlined the octagonal bay in the rear and told researchers how far the building’s roofline extended, Dunn said. But restoring the building required gutting it down to the exterior brick walls, a decision that caused some controversy.
Photos from 1975-76 show the center sections of the front and rear walls with open gaps, indicating where earlier additions had been removed. The interior is otherwise empty, although a steel frame had been installed to support the second floor, roof and a new cupola.
None of that mattered once the work was complete. Funding provided by the state and through the federal government under the provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 topped $1.6 million.
Tribbitt was obviously proud, calling the restored State House “the cultural highlight of my administration.”
More restoration work has been done in the last 40 years, and the State House now is part of Dover’s First State Heritage Park, welcoming visitors throughout the year with information about the Delaware and its history.
The Old State House has become the focal point for historic and fun events, including the “There’s a Party in the House” celebration this Friday, Todd said.
Admission is free, she said. There will be 1970s music, dancing and tours of the building, plus a 1970s Delaware trivia contest.
Everyone is encouraged to wear ‘70s attire – to dust off their leisure suits and hip hugger jeans – and join in, she said.
But the celebration won’t go too far, Todd added.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re not putting in a disco ball.”