By Terry Rogers
Few homes in Milford have as rich and colorful of a history as the Bank House, located at 119 N. Walnut Street. The stately red brick home situated on the southeast corner of North Walnut Street and Northeast Second Street is one Milford natives would recognize immediately. What many residents of the town do not know is that the home’s original design was meant to house the ill-fated Bank of Milford.
Designed and built by Alonzo Reynolds, a well-known architect and builder from Port Deposit, Maryland. Reynolds also built the old county office building in Dover, which is now a state office. The home displays the fine detailing Reynolds was famous for and many believe this house is one of the best examples of his talent still standing. Built in the Greek revival style like many of Milford’s historic homes, the brick building is three stories with a raised basement with an L-shaped wing that runs along Northeast Second Street. The façade, with white marble at the basement level, offers plain window. The windowsills are of cut marble and the lintels wooden. The entrance portico is ornate with classic Corinthian fluted columns ornamented with Greek acanthus leaf.
The first floor contains a drawing room with a ceiling done in gesso work and two fireplaces with marble fronts, as well as a front room originally designed as a counting room for the bank. A dining room and a kitchen, along with an entrance hall with stairway, make up the rest of the first floor. The second and third floors each contain four bedrooms of equal size, a hallway and a bathroom. The house has ten fireplaces, although some have been closed off for the installation of modern heating.
Interesting features of the house include the bell pull system, common in houses of this type when this building was constructed, and the vestiges of a brick vault in the basement. In the original design, there was a plan for a door on the south side front, not a window, which would access the bank. It was customary during this period for the cashier of a bank and his family to live in the bank building in order to provide security for the bank’s deposits. This explains the many rooms on the fourth and fifth floor, as this was where the cashier and his family would have resided.
The Bank of Milford, incorporated on February 4, 1851 by an act of the General Assembly, was officially named “President, Directors and Company of the Bank of Milford.” At the time, the bank commissioners appointed several prominent businessmen as directors of the bank, including Peter F. Causey and William Tharp, both of which would eventually become Governors of the State of Delaware. Other notable appointees were James P. Lofland, Curtis S. Watson, Trusten P. McColley, Caleb Smithers and William Cannon, all upstanding and well-known Milford citizens.
The General Assembly authorized an initial investment of $50,000, which was to be divided into 1,000 shares of $50 each. The act then provided for seven directors, elected by the stockholders. The act also included a requirement that a percentage of the stockholders must be Delaware residents, and that the banking house located within the city of Milford. The bank opened for business on August 17, 1852, temporarily using a building between what is the present Wilmington Trust building and John P. Steward’s store, known as the Potter-Coffin building, which is no longer in existence. Adrian Olcott was named as President and the cashier was William T. Shannon. Soon after the doors were opened, the bank purchased the property on the corner of North Walnut Street and Davis Alley, which eventually became Southeast Second Street. There was a home on the property belonging to Samuel Draper, which was moved to another location, and Alonzo Reynolds was contracted to build the new bank building.
The first hint of a problem with the Bank of Milford came on January 12, 1855, during Governor Peter F. Causey’s inauguration address when he discussed the banking industry in Delaware. Governor Causey said:
“In 1851, the legislature chartered a bank with a capital of $50,000, to be established in the town of Milford, the stock of which was all taken by the citizens of New York, which was used for the purposes of private speculation, and by its failure to redeem its bills in specie, inflected losses upon the people, which, however, was but insignificant in importance when compared to the dishonor which was, for the first time, inflicted upon the character of Delaware bank paper.”
This passage from the Governor’s speech prompted the House of Representatives to appoint a three-man committee to investigate the actions of the Bank of Milford. Within a few days, the committee was increased to five members and authorized to employ counsel for the investigation.
On February 21, 1855, the committee submitted a lengthy report to the bank commission, alleging fraud by three New York City residents. According to the report, Frank Bloodgood, Allen Clark and Charles Colgate led the bank commissioners to believe that a majority of stockholders would be from the town of Milford, yet the fact was that the three men owned almost all the stock and used the bank for their own purposes. Only a few shares of stock were transferred to several New Castle residents in order to meet the residency requirement under the act.
Further, the committee found that the day after the payment of the initial $50,000 investment, Mr. Colgate withdrew over half of the balance. In May 1853, Colgate paid a second $25,000 with checks drawn on Charles Colgate and Company drawn upon the Bank of New York with request checks that were “not to be presented without notice of the drawers.” Colgate then borrowed all but $10,000 of the investment, leading the bank to fail to redeem notes.
On March 2, 1855, the General Assembly repealed the incorporation of the Bank of Milford, and on March 29, 1855, James R. Lofland, who held shares in the bank that he could not redeem, filed a petition demanding that the General Assembly appoint a receiver for the bank. Charles T. Fleming was appointed the receiver and Daniel Currey appointed surety of the Bank of Milford.
At the time, the Bank House was not completed, and because Alonzo Reynolds had entered into a contract with William Shannon to build the home, with payment in the form of bank notes or bills payable to the Bank of Milford, it appeared as if the home completion was out of the question. Reynolds sued the bank to recover $6,000 in debt on April 27, 1855 and the court issued that the assets be sold. On December 8, 1855, a Sheriff sale was held at the Union Hotel, operated by Geore C. Tomlin, on NW Front Street and the incomplete bank building was sold to the Farmer’s Bank of Delaware.
On January 20, 1857, Farmer’s sold the building to Dr. James R. Mitchell who completed the building to use for his residence and medical office. The 1860 US Census shows Dr. Mitchell living with his wife Elizabeth, and children, Elizabeth, Lizzie, James and Arvy, as well as three servants, John, Henry and James in Kent County, Delaware.
In 1977, Jean Athan photographed exterior and interior views of the home, which has, through the years, housed offices and apartments. These photos can be viewed online through the National Park Service.