Enlighten Me: Bellefonte Town Hall receives improvements

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Delaware Public Media’s Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast talk through the recent upgrades to Bellefonte’s town hall

A half-century after gaining new life as a town hall, the former Bellefonte United Methodist Church building has received a well-earned freshening up.

Work financed by a state grant was completed this spring and capped in June when the commissioners of this history-conscious town in Brandywine Hundred gave three rooms in the old church names that recognize the community’s heritage.

The need for the refurbishing became apparent about five years ago, says Scott MacKenzie, president of the town commission, when several pieces of the vaulted ceiling fell onto the nave, an area now used primarily to seat attendees at town meetings. “We could see that some others were sagging, then some large pieces collapsed,” he says.

At the same time, he says, the commissioners wanted to make the town hall handicap-accessible, but the 6-foot drop from the building’s main entrance to the sidewalk on Rosedale Avenue was too steep to allow for installation of a ramp.

Bellefonte handicap ramp.jpeg

Bellefonte handicap ramp featuring former town commissioners Dave Brenner (front) and Kathy MacDonough (back).

Further complicating the issue was the town’s budget which, pre-pandemic, was less than $300,000, with nearly half allocated for trash collection and between $20,000 and $30,000 typically available for capital improvements.

That meant that the desired work would have to be spread over several years.

To get started, members of the commission and other volunteers pulled down the old ceiling tiles. Then Andrew Moore, a member of the town’s planning commission, suggested that this would be a good time to hire an electrician to install the new wiring needed to make improved lighting possible. Moore, who MacKenzie jokingly calls “the town architect,” suggested contacting Bellevue Builders, who he had hired to do some work on his own home, to provide an estimate on repairs and improvements to the town hall.

Meanwhile the new chandeliers were ordered – and delivered to MacKenzie’s home because the town hall is closed during the day. A neighbor who owns a pickup truck helped to haul the chandeliers over to the town hall.

The town continued taking its piecemeal approach until June 2021 when state Rep. Debra Heffernan, whose district includes Bellefonte, learned that the commissioners wanted to make improvements to the town hall and reached out to MacKenzie.

“She told me about Delaware Community Reinvestment Fund. I had heard of it but was under the impression it was only for state property,” MacKenzie says.

The fund, which is a piece of the state’s annual Bond and Capital Improvements Act, makes grants to both nonprofits and municipalities, Heffernan explains.

MacKenzie came up with an estimate of about $50,000 from Bellevue Builders but Heffernan, who chairs the Bond Bill Committee, upped the allocation to $60,000.

As it turned out, Heffernan’s estimate was, well, right on the money.

“I just thought it would cost more. I was seeing a lot of projects costing more because of market pressures,” she said, referring to supply-chain and labor issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meeting multiple needs

The improvements addressed a wide range of needs.

The deteriorating ceiling was replaced, and the new chandeliers providing additional lighting.

A raised platform separating the former sanctuary, where the commissioners’ desks are located, from the main seating area was removed, making the commissioners’ space handicap accessible. The removal of the platform and some old carpeting resulted in a need to refinish the floor, and a flooring contractor suggested an inlay as a decorative touch.

The contractor thought a script letter B, for Bellefonte, would be appropriate. MacKenzie had something different in mind – a fleur de lis pattern, in line with the French roots of the town’s name.

Adjacent to the sanctuary is an annex to the original church, added in 1952 to provide a Sunday School classroom and office. As part of the renovations, the hallway was realigned and a closet area was torn out and replaced with a new bathroom, also handicap-accessible. The office and classroom also received upgrades.

The exit from the annex leads to Bellefonte’s town park, a project completed in 2009. The park would help provide an answer to the pressing need at the top of the town’s priority list: handicap access to the town hall. From the annex to a paved brick pathway in the park, Bellevue Builders poured the concrete for a gently sloping ramp.

Only one more item remains on the to-do list for the building: installation of a chair lift along the stairway leading from the annex to the lower level, a 1959 addition that the town had rented out at least twice, first to a short-lived private school and more recently to a preschool program. While the recent improvements were under way, the lower level served as a temporary site for town meetings.

The chair lift should be installed within the year, financed by part of another $50,000 grant from the Community Reinvestment Fund and included in the FY2023 Bond Bill.

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Bellefonte Montrose Hall interior

At least one of the improvements in the town hall might be considered priceless. The commissioners wanted better seating for attendees at their monthly meetings. MacKenzie heard that the Kutz Home, a nearby assisted-living residence and nursing home for senior citizens, was replacing the chairs in its dining room and would give the old seats to anyone who wanted them. He jumped at the offer and borrowed a truck from the Bellevue Community Center to haul the chairs to the town hall.

In addition to the $60,000 grant from the Community Reinvestment Fund last year, the town received $5,000 from the state’s Community Transportation Fund – discretionary money that lawmakers typically spread throughout their districts. That money was used to provide electrical lighting for the gazebo that is the centerpiece of the town park. The gazebo itself is shaped like a trolley car, right down to the metal handrails, a reminder of a century ago when Bellefonte was the turnaround point for trolleys running to and from downtown Wilmington.

“We’re very careful with our taxpayers’ money,” says David Brenner, a former commissioner and regular volunteer at town functions.

Histories intertwined

The stories of the town and of the Bellefonte Methodist Church followed parallel paths for a little more than 50 years. Then they became intertwined.

Bellefonte was incorporated as a town in 1915 after residents of several communities developed over the previous 15 years or so – Montrose, Montrose Terrace, Montrose Addition and Bellefonte Heights – recognized that having self-governance might give them greater influence over the services that had great impact on their lives, like the trolley service and the post office.

In May 1919 Methodists living in the town and nearby began worshiping under a tent, using a local resident’s chicken house for Sunday School classes. After meeting for five Sundays in the tent, the congregation secured loans totaling $5,000 from two of its members to build the church. Construction went quickly, starting in August and ending in December, with a formal dedication taking place on January 4, 1920. The church cost more than anticipated; the construction budget was $3,590 but expenses totaled $5,312.86.

Both the town and church experienced steady growth into the 1950s. Bellefonte’s population, according to the U.S. Census, rose from 291 in 1920 to a peak of 1,536 in 1960. The church, meanwhile, built its classroom annex in 1952 and the lower-level annex seven years later. While the second annex was under construction, the church also purchased a two-story apartment building on the adjacent lot.

But the 1960s would not be kind to either the town or the church. The town’s population began to decline, in large part due to the development of new communities in Brandywine Hundred, and so did the congregation’s membership. In 1966, two nearby congregations merged, forming Hillcrest-Bellefonte United Methodist Church, with the building in Bellefonte serving as a thrift shop before it was put up for sale.

In 1971, the town ended its yearslong search for a permanent home when it purchased the church building for $55,000.

Remembering its roots

With the updates from the $60,000 grant completed, the town commission voted in June to name three areas of the town hall in recognition of the community’s heritage.

The main portion of the old church, the town’s primary meeting room, has been named Montrose Hall, after the oldest subdivision in the town.

The small conference room adjacent to Montrose Hall, used primarily by the town’s Planning Commission, has been named the Thompson Conference Room, honoring Terry Thompson, a commissioner from 2004 to 2007 and the founder of the planning commission.

The upstairs classroom, currently being used by a couple of Girl Scout troops, is now the “Lenape Multipurpose Room,” in honor of the Lenni Lenape Nation, in recognition of the Native American summer campground believed to have been located in the town long before the arrival of any settlers with European roots.

Throughout the building are reminders of the history of both the church and the town.

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Commemorative dinner plate from the 1950s.

The church’s original stained-glass windows remain, a reminder of some of the town’s earliest residents – members of the Cooper, Bentz, Cooke and Folsom families. A commemorative dinner plate from the 1950s shows the church as it looked after its first addition. An old volume of Delaware Laws is opened to the page that shows the legislation that incorporated the town in 1915.

Some of the interior woodwork from the church was salvaged during the renovation and may be incorporated into future improvements. “We’re very respectful that this was a church, and we are mindful of its history,” MacKenzie says.

Heffernan, who visited after the upgrades were completed, said she was impressed with how the project turned out. “What’s best is that they updated for the 21st century while preserving the historic nature of the town hall,” she said.

When Heffernan concluded her visit, the town had a small surprise for her. The path leading through the town park to the new handicap ramp is graced with a new sign. It reads: “Debra’s Way.”

“It’s a way of saying thanks,” MacKenzie says, “and it was not paid for with state funds.”

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