An arson fire recently ripped through a Lancaster Pike farmhouse, causing extensive damage to one of Hockessin’s most historic sites.

A fledgling move to save a historic house on the site of the oldest Catholic church in Delaware went up in flames when an arsonist's blaze burned a three-story farmhouse on Lancaster Pike.

A group of Hockessin residents, led by Hockessin Historic Society President Joe Lake, had just begun a campaign to save the building, which Lake said is one of the area's true historic treasures.

The Feb. 10 fire, which occurred during the height of a snowstorm at the uninhabited home near the intersection of Route 41 and Route 48, caused about $100,000 of damage to the building, according to Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Alan Brown.

The fire marshal’s office is conducting an investigation into the fire, which has been ruled arson, Brown said, though he declined to give further details.

Cranston Heights Fire Company responded to the blaze at about 6:30 p.m. and had the fire under control in a little over half an hour, said Chief George Lamborn, despite the thickly-falling snow that hindered equipment and caused a fire engine to get stuck. The top floor and roof were ablaze when firefighters arrived, he said.

Timeline of the Coffee Run Mission

1772 The land for the mission is purchased by Father John Lewis
1790 The first log church is built on the site, called St. Mary’s of the Assumption
1805 Father Patrick Kenny takes over the Wilmington parish
1810 Fr. Kenny is given ownership of the Coffee Run property
1812 Fr. Kenny completes the stone house
1850 A second church is built on the property, replacing the burned log church
1908 The new church is torn down
1912 The Mundy family buys the property
1959 The property is subdivided to create Westgate Farms and Coffee Run Condos
1966 The remainder of the property is operated as a dairy farm
2005 The Layton Preparatory School files a now-expired plan to build a 20,000-square-foot school on the property, though the developer pledges to save the house
2006 The property is sold to WCNJ, LLC, which is managed by Harvey Hanna & Associates

The farmhouse, which was built in 1812 as part of the Coffee Run Mission, is on a 16-acre property owned by WCNJ, LLC, a firm managed by commercial redevelopment company Harvey Hanna and Associates.

“Regrettably, the 12-alarm fire that occurred on February 10 at the farmhouse resulted in tremendous structural damage. The fire destroyed and gutted most of the three stories of this structure, including the roof. This building is now a safety hazard and is not economically viable for restoration. Accordingly, the building will be demolished in the near future to promptly eliminate this safety hazard,” Bill Lower, director of environmental and political affairs for Harvey Hanna, wrote in an e-mail.

No active development plan exists for the property and no demolition permit has been issued for the farmhouse, though Harvey Hanna may have to go before New Castle County’s Historic Review Board before one can be granted.

If New Castle County determines that the building is a safety hazard, a demolition permit will be immediately granted regardless of the building’s historic importance, said Christine Quinn, historic preservation planner.

“Given this property’s significance, that demolition permit would probably be reviewed by the historic review board,” she said.

However, the Historic Review Board cannot stop a building’s demolition unless it lies in historic overlay zoning, she said. And even though the farmhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is zoned residential.

Rezoning the property would be a very tall order, especially since there is an open demolition permit for several structures on the property, including a barn and a few outbuildings, she said, a remnant from a 2005 development plan for a 20,000-square-foot school on the site. That plan expired.

If the property owner requested a demolition permit, The Historic Review Board’s only course of action would be to hold up the permit for nine months in the hopes that someone might come forward and offer to buy the property and save the house, she said.

The farmhouse marks the site of the first Catholic Church in Delaware, which was built in 1790, and though the log church burned many years ago, the 200-year-old farmhouse was home to Father Patrick Kenny, who led the parish for many years.

Lake had hoped a Catholic order would help raise the money to buy the property and he even traveled to Europe to pitch his idea to Catholic leaders.

He hadn’t approached Harvey Hanna about saving the home because it was too early to float that idea, he said. They hadn’t even started raising money and it would have taken a long time to gather funds, said Lake.

“Now, I think we’ve lost the battle,” he said. “I’m sorry to see this property go. It’s a lost cause.”