The City of Wilmington, like most eastern cities, has been evolving for over 350 years. After periods of Swedish (1638), then Dutch (1655), then British (1664) colonization, the area stabilized under British rule (with Quaker influence) and was granted a borough charter in 1739 by the King of England which changed the name from Willington (after Thomas Willing, the first 'developer" of the land who organized the area in a grid pattern like Philadelphia) to Wilmington, presumably after Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, a favorite of the King.
From the granting of the charter until the Revolution, the town developed steadily into a prosperous business and residential community. During the Revolution, its milling industries, geographic location, key leaders and resources made Wilmington particularly strategic.
Physical Influences on Development
Topography and soil conditions affected the residential development pattern in the City. Wilmington lies at the fall line that separates the flat coastal plain from the hilly areas to the west. East of Market Street, and along both sides of the Christina River, the land is flat, low-lying and marshy in places. The west side of Market Street is hilly and rises to a point that marks the watershed between the Brandywine and the Christina Rivers. This watershed line runs along Delaware Avenue westward from 10th and Market Streets. The hilly and therefore healthier west side, was more attractive for the original residential areas such as Quaker Hill, developed beginning in the mid 18th century.
The borough of Wilmington officially became a city in 1832, when a charter was granted by the State legislature. The Industrial Revolution era was reflected in Wilmington with events such as the 1837 completion of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad which made the City accessible by water, road and rail on the main north-south transportation route providing easy reach of most mall or markets. The area's economy flourished as shrewd businessmen and a skilled labor force provided the resources for the growing industries.
The Civil War
The Civil War had a profound effect on the economy of the City. Delaware, though officially a Union State, was divided in its support of both the Confederate and the Union soldiers. Wilmington was the center of the northern partisans in Delaware. The outbreak of the Civil War found Wilmington with a strong industrial base which responded to meet the great demands of waging war. Older establishments expanded, and many new industries were attracted to the City. Wilmington products included ships, railroad cars, gunpowder, shoes, tents, uniforms, blankets and other war-related goods. The City entered from the war with a greatly diversified economy. By 1868, Wilmington was producing more iron ships than the rest of the country combined and it rated first in the production of gunpowder and second in carriages and leather. The post-war prosperity allowed the construction of many elaborate new homes and businesses, which induced residential development to the west of the existing City, creating the beginning of "suburban development".
In 1864, the first horsecar line was initiated, assisting development of residential areas outside the City boundaries. The first "suburban" area to be developed was centered around today's Delaware Avenue. Wealthy industrialists and businessmen built ornate mansions on this street making it the city's most fashionable address.
The late nineteenth century saw the development of a comprehensive park system, "Godfathered" by William Bancroft, a successful Wilmington businessman with a concern for the preservation of open parkland in Wilmington who was influenced by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted. Rockford Park and Brandywine Park owe their creation to his generous donation of land and efforts.
Between the Civil War and World War 1, more new industries developed and the greatest increases in population occurred. In 1860 there were 21,250 people living in the City. By 1920 that number had risen to 110,168.
Both World Wars stimulated the City's industries. Industries vital to the war effort - shipyards, steel foundries, machinery and chemical producers - operated on a 24-hour basis. Other industries produced such goods as automobiles, leather products and clothing.
While many corporations sought the benefits of Delaware's liberal tax structure and located themselves in or near Wilmington, firmly establishing the City as a "Corporate Capital" even after the decline of large-scale manufacturing in Wilmington, the burgeoning number of automobiles and roadways in the 1950s made living in the suburbs and commuting into the City to work possible and contributed to significant population losses in Wilmington. Projects such as urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s, which cleared many blocks of housing, and the construction of 1-95 which cut a swath through several of Wilmington's most stable neighborhoods, also left their mark on the City.
Numerous banks and financial institutions relocated to the area after the Financial Center Development Act of 1981 substantially liberalized the laws governing banks operating within the state. In 1986, the state adopted legislation targeted at attracting international finance and insurance companies. More recently, the "Back to the Cities' movement has provided Wilmington with renewed vigor; multiple redevelopment projects have proved that the City is on the upswing again.
As an historically conservative city, Wilmington generally adopted architectural "high styles" about a decade after the style was introduced. Nonetheless, the city has a fine collection of extant buildings, displaying popular styles from the Revolution through late 20th century. Federal, Queen Anne, American Four Square are found in quantity; examples of Second Empire, Richardson Romanesque, Italian Villa, Greek Revival, Georgian, Art Deco and International Style punctuate the urban landscape. The vernacular row house makes up many of the stable neighborhoods, augmented by stylistic detailing from the high styles of its period of construction. Today, the City uses overlay zoning in the form of ten (10) City Historic Districts to regulate and protect our architectural heritage.