Volume 6, Number 4, 1997


A gem waiting to be discovered

Jack Braunlein, AS '69, '75M, spends his workday in a 54-room country mansion that could easily serve as a setting for an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. He directs the year-round activities at Rockwood Museum, an architectural gem built of granite and located among 72 acres of mature trees and formal gardens in northern New Castle County, Del.

Those familiar with the museum speak of it as Delaware's "hidden gem," where hundreds of volunteers and a small staff conduct guided tours and present a wide range of programs, including annual concerts, an ice cream festival and an Irish film series.

The grand estate was the home of Joseph Shipley, a merchant banker and descendant of a founder of the city of Wilmington, Del., who made his fortune in England during the first half of the 19th century. In 1854, when he moved into the newly built estate, Shipley's secluded country home consisted of more than 300 acres.

Ownership passed through a succession of heirs, with the last family member, Nancy Sellers Hargraves, who died in 1972, leaving instructions that the house be given to a charitable organization. In 1974, the Delaware Court of Chancery deeded Rockwood to New Castle County as a museum and reception center.

Braunlein, who holds two degrees in philosophy from UD and a master's degree in American folk culture from the State University of New York at Oneonta, became Rockwood's director in 1983.

In his second-floor mansion office, Braunlein sports a "Star Trek" necktie that stands out in a room whose shelves are lined with books on English and Irish history, antiques, landscapes and architecture, as he talks about the circuitous route that led him to Rockwood.

In 1976, during the celebration of America's Bicentennial, Braunlein received a National Endowment of the Arts internship at the Museum at Stony Brook, Long Island, N.Y., where he was responsible for cataloging a collection of decoys and working on a major festival.

"I had a wonderful time," he says. "I enjoy doing a lot of different things. I prefer having a general idea of what I'll be doing during the day, and then being surprised as I handle the latest crisis."

At Stony Brook, Braunlein wrote a book, Colonial Long Island Folklife, which continues to be used at the museum for teaching children.

Over the years, Braunlein also has been chief of the Delaware Bureau of Museums and Historic Sites, curator of education for the Historical Society of Delaware, director of the Madison County, N.Y., Historical Society and curator of the George Read House of the Historical Society of Delaware.

But, he says, Rockwood is where he feels most at home. By far the youngest of the First State's premier museums, Rockwood was opened to the public late in 1976.

Braunlein calls the estate, with its home and grounds, is an architectural and horticultural treasure.

"It is in the style of an English country house, built of local Brandywine granite. The conservatory, attached to the home, is the earliest of its kind still operating in the U.S. The house is filled with original English, Continental and American furniture, from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and it all belonged to one family."

He added that the original landscaping, designed in 1851 and started with 1,100 trees and shrubs imported from England, is still largely intact. Approximately 7,500 photographs–from the late 1800s through the 1930s–document the building's interior and exterior, plus the servants, trips abroad and family social events.

Additionally, there are about 10,000 items in the archival collection, including manuscripts, legal documents and letters. Braunlein says the thousands of pieces of correspondence provide an accurate view of grand country estate living in the U.S. during the period, as well as life in Ireland, since Elizabeth Bringhurst Golt Smith lived there for 30 years and routinely sent letters to family in Delaware.

"These letters," Braunlein says, "document the tremendous changes in Ireland around the time of World War I and also reflect the changes at Rockwood."

Three UD master's theses have resulted from work on Rockwood documents, including one entitled Letters from Abroad. Researchers also have come from Bryn Mawr, Widener, West Chester and James Madison universities, as well as the University of Nebraska.

A popular site for weddings, the museum has been featured in regional and national publications, including Victoria, Victorian Home and Decoration, Mid-Atlantic Country and Philadelphia Bride. Braunlein said the A&E Network filmed a segment of America's Castles at Rockwood.

An adjunct instructor at UD, Braunlein teaches "History, Philosophy, Function and Future of Museums," an introductory course in museum studies, and next spring he will conduct a course on historic properties.

"First-time visitors are uniformly overwhelmed" about Rockwood, Braunlein says. "They experience a sense of discovery. They say, ‘It's such a gem!' and ‘I didn't know it was here!'"

People also feel at home at Rockwood, he adds. "There are no roped-off areas. Visitors can tour in a relaxed fashion, walking into the rooms and seeing life as it was.

"We take pride in providing an accurate view of the Edwardian period, and we pay a lot of attention to detail, reflecting the time period and lifestyle of that era," he says.

Braunlein talks proudly of the partnership between the museum and the Friends of Rockwood, a 350-member, volunteer support group.

"They make significant contributions," Braunlein says. "Before the public-private partnership concept was in vogue, Rockwood was a model."

-Ed Okonowicz, AS '69 '84M

The ghosts of Rockwood

First-time visitors to Rockwood have described it as majestic, impressive, exciting and...eerie. Some staff and volunteers consider the last description quite appropriate, especially since a significant number of unusual events have contributed to the lore of the 19th-century, gray stone, Gothic museum.

"I am aware that some people believe there is something unusual going on here," director Jack Braunlein says. "But, I'm a ghost agnostic. I tend to believe that there are events that are influenced by our sense of imagination. Still, I must admit, there are a number of happenings here that cause one to leave the door open."

Radios turning on by themselves, doors opening and closing, phantom footsteps in the hallways and even sightings of former residents are some of the tales told by museum workers and volunteers.

One December evening, while preparing for a candlelight tour, workers discovered a trail of running water near the ground-floor kitchen. They traced it to its source-an overflowing bathtub in the servants' quarters located two floors above.

"It didn't make any sense," a staff member says. "I had been there all day. There was no reason to turn on the faucets, as no one occupied the house."

The next night, it happened again.

"The water definitely had been turned on," the employee says. "Someone had to have twisted those faucets. It didn't happen on its own."

Commenting on her experiences and those witnessed by others, she adds, "Absolutely, there
is a presence here. I think there are a few, and I wouldn't be surprised if Joseph Shipley is here, as well as other members of the family and their servants.

"This is a fascinating place. I've never been afraid, ever. All the people who ever lived in Rockwood thought it was a very important home. Now that it's being preserved, I think they're pleased with what is happening."

Braunlein, who has spent more than a few late evenings working in the building, which is surrounded by acres of trees and forest, says, "At night, it is absolutely pitch black out here. It's a perfect setting to let your imagination go wild. Because it's an old house, it creaks and groans on the inside, and outside-in the woods-you hear all types of movement and sounds. All that might get anyone thinking about what might be out there.

"But, there is a degree of mystery associated with Rockwood," he adds. "Part of this interest is associated with the Gothic architecture of the house itself. I think that naturally brings with it a sense of mystery."

-Ed Okonowicz