Historical Society works to raise money for Ross Mansion repairs

By Lynn R. Parks

Seaford Historical Society president Don Allen loves the ceiling trim that decorates the parlor in the Ross Mansion. It fascinates me, he said. Every time that I walk in that room, I have to look up.

But leaks in the mansion's roof threaten to allow water to seep in and loosen the plaster trim so that it falls to the floor. If it lets loose and crashes down, the plaster will shatter, Allen said. It would be lost.

The historical society, owner of the Ross Plantation on the west edge of Seaford, is raising money to put a new roof on the house and to repair any damage that leaks have caused. Goal of the fund-drive is $250,000.

Already, the society has received $100,000 from the state. The society held a gala this fall and is planning a Christmas variety show for Dec. 13, at Seaford Middle School. Allen hopes that a contractor can be selected before the end of the year and that works starts in early 2014.

Problems at the mansion started about 20 years ago, when the current roof was put on, Allen said. The mansion has always had a cedar-shake roof and this one is no exception. But instead of being installed with no underlayment in order to allow the shingles to dry out after getting wet, this roof was put on a layer of tarpaper.

The tarpaper eliminated the breathability of the roof, Allen said. The society started seeing problems within a short time after the roof was put on, with moss growing on the shingles. It was not as dry as it should be.

To try to correct the problem, 12 years ago the society had a water shield installed. That most likely exacerbated the problem, Allen said.

Now, rot has loosened many roof shingles, especially along ridges and gutters. Pictures taken by Patrick Ryan with the Georgetown architectural firm French and Ryan Inc. show missing and broken shingles and water damage on interior ceilings and walls.

Allen said that the full extent of the damage isn't known. Only until the roof is totally removed and the tops of the home's rafters can be examined will workers know how much rot there is.

On the main part of the house, members of the historical society hope to install a metal roof that looks like cedar shingles. On porches, they want to put on a standing-seam roof, also metal.

The roofs would be installed on a plywood base.

Because the metal roof wouldn't allow for ventilation, Ryan is recommending that vents be installed in the mansion's soffits and chimneys.

The vents in the soffits would allow air to flow in and the chimney vents would allow it to flow out, Allen said.

While the roof is off, the society also hopes to shore up the mansion's construction. Currently, the rafters are just nailed together without any horizontal collar beams. The society wants to install collar beams as well as hurricane clips that would prevent damage in the event of high wind.

And that is just the beginning, Allen said. Chimney flashing and crickets, or peaked pieces of metal designed to divert water, need to be installed. Bricks in the chimneys need new mortar and the home's gutters and downspouts need to be updated.

In addition, drainage around the base of the home needs to be improved so that water doesn't flow into the basement. Already, Allen said, the basement is suffering from termite damage.

Allen cautions that it's not just the 19th-century Italianate mansion that's at risk. Pieces of the collection housed in the mansion are irreplaceable, he said. Much of the furniture in the house is on loan from the state and some pieces that have been donated to the historical society were owned by the Ross family.

The plantation as a whole is a valuable educational tool for future generations, he added. Gov. William Henry Ross, who built the house in 1859, was a slave-owner and Confederate sympathizer. One of the plantation's slave quarters is located on the property, just behind the mansion.

The Civil War was a difficult period in this nation's history, Allen said. We don't glorify it and we don't glamorize it. We just present what life was like in that era.

Allen calls the Ross Mansion one of the showpieces of Seaford. He points to other landmarks that have been lost – Lawrence, a stately home that used to stand on alternate U.S. 13 that was demolished in 2007, and Burton Bros. Hardware, a downtown institution that was damaged by fire a year ago and then demolished earlier this year – and says that those losses make it even more imperative that the mansion be preserved.

This house is part of our heritage, pure and simple, part of our culture, he said. We can prevent it from being lost, at least for this generation.

To help out

Donations for planned upgrades to the Ross Mansion may be sent to the Seaford Historical Society, 203 High St., Seaford DE 19973. For additional information, call 628-9828 or visit the website www.seafordhistoricalsociety.com.

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