Friday, March 5, 2010
Where Was Howard Pyle Born?
Howard Pyle was born 157 years ago today in Wilmington, Delaware. But where in Wilmington? Readers of the Abbott or Pitz biographies might come away with the idea that he was born and raised at “Green Hill” (or “Greenhill” - and now “Goodstay”), the bucolic property on the outskirts of the city. While it's true that Pyle spent about seven years there - more time than at any of his other childhood homes - his father, William Pyle, only purchased the place when Howard was 18 months old.
The 1853 Wilmington City Directory, however, tells us that William Pyle, patent leather manufacturer, resided at 224 Market Street. Simple enough. But where was 224 Market Street? In those days, before citywide renumbering, it stood between Eighth and Ninth Streets. Market Street, then Wilmington's main thoroughfare, was busier at its commercial lower end, toward the Christiana River, but above Eighth and up to the Brandywine it was a quieter stretch lined with colonial residences and newer townhouses.
William Pyle’s older brother and business partner, Cyrus, lived across the street at No. 225 and their immediate neighbors were predominantly doctors, lawyers, and merchants. The house at 224 had been built on the grounds of the old Wilmington Academy, where the Declaration of Independence had been read in 1776, and where, in 1786, a visiting Benjamin Franklin (joined by Dr. Benjamin Rush and James Madison) performed an experiment with electricity. In 1832 the Academy was torn down and replaced with private homes. (A misplaced note of mine states that No. 224 in particular was erected in 1835.)
I don't know how long the Pyles stayed there - three years at the most. William Pyle married Margaret Churchman Painter on September 30, 1851, and I gather they set up house soon after - perhaps at No. 224. But on September 25, 1854, William bought “Green Hill” for $10,000 and the family moved on to more rural surroundings. At the start of the Civil War they left “Green Hill” and in the 1860s and ’70s wound up renting three other houses on Market Street.
As time went on, new buildings sprang up near No. 224 (or No. 826, after the renumbering), most notably the Masonic Temple or Grand Opera House, which opened in late 1871. It was separated from the Pyles’ old place by only one other townhouse. And at the turn of the century the Garrick Theatre was erected directly adjacent to the house, which had been used primarily for business since the 1880s.
So far I haven’t found too many images of the house, but here are a few...
This crude engraving comes from John Thomas Scharf’s History of Delaware (1888). The six windows on the far left presumably represent 224 (or 826) Market Street.
In this 1890s view, the house is partially obscured by a pole and a wagon, and sits to left of the place with the bright shutters.
In this photo, taken in 1906 at the latest, we see the house again partially obscured by a pole and butted up against the Garrick Theatre, which opened November 23, 1903. The sign on the wall between the second floor windows might have advertised the law practice of Benjamin and John Nields, which was located there for many years.
Later photos suggest that the building was re-sided or remodeled, but, either way, the original structure was pulled down long ago. And one of these days maybe we’ll know for sure whether or not Howard Pyle was born there on March 5, 1853.