Smyrna’s Architectural Heritage

The Town of Smyrna’s architectural heritage reflects an assemblage of predominantly nineteenth century architectural styles. The relatively intact historic district exhibits both vernacular and high-style interpretations of the popular stylistic trends common to this period. Located at the nexus of two major roadways, with access to nearby Duck Creek, and later, the railroad, Smyrna became a major trade center soon after its founding. Increased farm yields (due to agrarian reform) in the countryside surrounding Smyrna during the early nineteenth century fixed the town as a commercial mainstay on Delaware’s nineteenth century landscape. The architecture that rose to house the men and women and showcase the goods and services that supported industry in Smyrna provides evidence of the important and vital role Smyrna plays in the region’s history. The Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Second Empire commercial, civic, religious, and residential buildings that comprise the Smyrna Historic District are a testament to the town’s growth and affluence during the nineteenth century.

By the eighteenth century, settlements became nucleated in villages and towns associated with trade and transportation. One such settlement, Salisbury, was established where Delaware’s principal  north-south corridor, the King’s Highway, crossed Duck Creek. A major water route, Duck Creek was navigable up to Salisbury, until silting prevented its navigation in the mid-1800s. The Maryland Road, a transpennisular route linking the Delaware Bay to the Chester River, bisected the peninsula just south of the settlement, providing an east-west thoroughfare for commerce and trade. Salisbury’s
connectivity to key transportation routes such as the King’s Highway, Duck Creek, and the Maryland Road provided the foundation for the settlement’s success.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Salisbury’s name was changed to Duck Creek Village. Within decades following its settlement, Duck Creek Village soon fell victim to one of the conditions of land  development: silting. The clearing of wooded land for agriculture led to an accumulation of silt deposits along the riverbed, thus creating an impassible route for larger trading vessels. This inevitably lessened Duck Creek Village’s commercial viability and new docking facilities were erected further down the river, east of the village, at Green’s Landing.

While these docking points along the creek grappled with one another to gain influence over the area’s commerce, Philadelphia merchant Samuel Ball recognized the significant role the intersection of the Maryland Road and the King’s Highway played in commercial activity in the area. Speculating that a settlement at this intersection would benefit from the waning prosperity of the Duck Creek Village port and the new facilities at Green’s Landing, as well as the commercial activity found at the junction of two major roadways, he purchased fifteen acres surrounding the crossroads in 1768. Ball named his settlement Duck Creek Crossroads, to distinguish it from nearby Duck Creek Village and within several years, the community reaped the financial benefits of trade and commerce, as evidenced by the establishment of several dwellings and stores on and near the crossroads. Today, this vital intersection is known as Smyrna’s “Four Corners.”

By the nineteenth century, Duck Creek Crossroads figured prominently in grain trading. Merchants, such as Smyrna resident John Cummins, established a number of granaries at Green’s Landing. The grains held and processed at Green’s Landing were shipped to mills on the Brandywine in northern Delaware, and from there, to ports along the East Coast and Europe. Duck Creek Crossroads’ role in the grain business may have triggered the Delaware State legislature to rename the village to Smyrna in 1806, possibly after the well-known grain center and port of Smyrna, Turkey. Officially incorporated in 1817, Smyrna’s gridded street plan was surveyed that same year. In 1855, the Delaware Railroad Company located its rail line two miles west of Smyrna at Clayton (first known as Smyrna Station). Initially, local businessmen and merchants feared that the railroad would compete with the area’s well-established shipping business, but by 1861 they realized the need for a link to Delaware’s thriving railroad line and a spur line connecting Smyrna to Clayton was established. The town’s growth during this period is marked by the rich and vibrant architectural trends of the Victorian Era. Although Smyrna continued to flourish through the end of the nineteenth century, during the twentieth century industry and commerce became increasingly concentrated in Wilmington, Delaware’s largest city.

Smyrna’s connectivity, via water, road, and rail, to other markets provided an ideal setting for commercial activity during the nineteenth century. These factors coupled with events, such as the Industrial Revolution and a region-wide agrarian reform, gave rise to a class of businessmen and merchants, tradesmen and laborers who molded and shaped Smyrna. These men and women contributed to Smyrna’s tangible history by building and inhabiting the
town’s earliest structures. This collection of dwellings, stores, churches, civic, and social buildings reflects a significant period of the town’s history and provides a valuable key to interpreting and understanding Smyrna’s past.