One day after Christmas in 2012, a landmark in Milford’s downtown area became the victim of fire on December 26. Warren Furniture, a family-owned company that held the title of the longest existing business on Walnut Street, was severely damaged by fire. Neighboring businesses suffered minor smoke and water damage, while the furniture store sustained heavy damage. On Friday, January 4 the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office released a statement that determined the building fire that occurred on December 26 in Milford was accidental in nature.
Deputy State Fire Marshals from both Kent and Sussex County converged for nearly 12 hours on the scene conducting the investigation. The investigation determined the fire originated in the rear of the first floor showroom, and was caused by an electrical failure in fixed branch circuitry. The Delaware Fire Marshall’s Office stated that the business was not required to have a fire alarm system due to the age of the building and longstanding tenant. Damages were estimated at the time of the fire to be approximately $750,000.
The charred building remained on the corner of South Walnut and SW Front Street for several years, in bad repair. In 2013, JJ Carter purchased the building in order to bring life back into the location. In early May of this year, Mr. Carter began the process of dismantling the building in order to tear it down.
“We are not tearing the building down, really,” Mr. Carter explained. “We are dismantling it from the inside, trying to salvage as much as possible as some of the timbers and other structures in the building were undamaged. This has taken us longer than we anticipated.” Mr. Carter also said that asbestos was discovered inside the building which meant additional steps had to be taken before the building was demolished.
According to Mr. Carter, he has no “hard-set” plans for what will be done with the corner lot right now. He says that he is exploring many different options regarding the land, but that it will remain green space until a decision is made whether he wants to build another structure at the corner. He says that he has told the City of Milford that the building will be completely demolished by the end of June 2015.
“Personally, I am sad to see it go,” said Patti Persia, Chairman of the Milford Historic Preservation Committee. “I wish there was some way it could have been preserved. Hopefully, in the future, our group can work with businesses to give them options for preserving their historic properties.” Nadia Zychal, also a member of the Milford Historic Preservation Committee, said that, although she was supportive of preservation, if it is impossible or unfeasible to preserve a building, it was better to replace it with something more attractive.
John Eustis, a Milford resident, said that it was sad to him that the building was being destroyed, but he understood that it was probably not worth fixing. Others in Milford agreed with Mr. Eustis.
“It’s been an eyesore for long enough,” said Jennifer Parnell. “I’m glad something is being done to fix it. I hope that they will put something in place that will recharge downtown. It’s getting better, but there is always room for improvement.” Mayor Bryan Shupe says that tearing down the building will help with the Downtown Milford Master Plan that will begin this summer.
Milford City Council recently approved a proposal by Arnett Muldrow & Associates to create a Downtown Milford Master Plan which will provide a strategic plan for downtown Milford. A grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office will pay $24,000 toward the plan with the city paying $3,250.
“The health of the downtown area is critical to the future of Milford,” said Mayor Shupe. “It will act as a catalyst for growth throughout the city. The City of Milford is excited about the investment from the Carter family and is looking forward to working alongside them to discuss and implement the best use for that high-priority location. As business owners, the Carters understand the challenges and opportunities that exist with this large project and the importance of downtown Milford to our community.” Mayor Shupe said that the city is looking forward to working with private business, Downtown Milford Inc., the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Milford and residents as they drive the direction of downtown forward and continue its revitalization efforts.
Warren Gibson Furniture opened at the corner of South Walnut and SW Front Street in the building where the Japanese Karate Studio now operates, former location of Ecochic Boutique. Raymond Warren bought out his partner and the name of the furniture store changed to Warren Furniture. In 1928, it moved to the location which was destroyed by fire in 2012.
The National Registry of Historic Places shows the building as the “Gephart Building,” indicating that it was built around 1910. It is described as a three-story, three-bay center entrance building with a flat roof with projecting cornice with modillion and decorative frieze. In addition, the north side of the building held an elevator system that was part of the original building.
“It has been a long road,” Mr. Carter said. “It takes a lot of money and a lot of time to take a building down. We had to go through many steps in order to not only salvage the parts we wanted to salvage, but to deal with other factors, including the asbestos.”