First State Heritage Park

The First State Heritage Park at Dover is Delaware’s first urban “park without boundaries,” linking historic and cultural sites in the historic city that has been the seat of state government since 1777.

First State Heritage Park includes the Biggs Museum, the John Bell House, the Johnson Victrola Museum, Legislative Hall, the Old State House, and the Woodburn and Hall House.

I visited three of the attractions at the First State Heritage Park: Old State House, the John Bell House, and the Johnson Victrola Museum, which I previously posted about.

Old State House

Located on the historic Green in Dover, the Old State House has served as a focal point in the state’s civic life for over 200 years. Built in 1791, the Old State House served as Delaware’s capitol during the United States’ critical early years as a nation, as well as the Kent County seat of government. With additions and modifications, the building continued to serve as the state capitol until 1933.

Exhibits discuss the plight of enslaved individuals in Delaware as well, including one that describes how, on October 14, 1797, James Summers walked into the Recorder of Deeds office seeking to purchase the freedom of his two enslaved children: Thomas, aged five, and Ruth, aged 7. A copy of the original Manumission Transcript is on display.

The first floor of the Old State House features an 18th century-style courtroom while the second floor features the former chambers of the state legislature.

The House chamber contains notable portraits by Thomas Sully of Commodores Jacob Jones and Thomas Macdonough, heroes from the First State who served in the War of 1812.

The Senate chamber houses an imposing portrait of George Washington painted by Denis A. Volozan.

Notable architectural details include the gilt sunflower ceiling sham, and the grand, dual stairways, known as a geometrical staircase, that served as the portal of entry to the state’s legislative chambers. These features give the building an elegant and airy feel, that counters the seriousness of the business that was conducted within.

Over the course of 224 years of continuous governmental use, the Old State House had undergone a number of structural and stylistic changes that had radically altered its original 18th century appearance. These changes included the addition, over time, of a number of wings to accommodate increasing governmental needs, and the Victorian-style remodeling of the building’s exterior in 1873.

In 1933, the General Assembly re-located from the Old State House to its new, more spacious, home in Legislative Hall, and in 1976, the Old State House was restored to its original 18th century appearance as part of Delaware’s bicentennial celebration commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

During your tour of the Old State House, you’ll also be able to learn about Samuel D Burrris, a free man who also served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was charged with helping free enslaved individuals. Found guilty of the charges, he was sentenced to banishment from Delaware and was sold into slavery. Lucky for him, he was purchased by an abolitionist, who then set him free.

Monday through Saturday:
9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
1:30 – 4:30 p.m.

John Bell House

The oldest wooden structure on The Green is the John Bell House, now serving as the interpretive center for the First State Heritage Park, where visitors can learn about the history of Dover and take thematic walking tours around Dover’s historic Green.

The building — most likely a work room rather than a home — was standing in 1787 when statesmen ratified the Constitution at the Golden Fleece Tavern, located just across The Green. The building was owned by several generations of the John Bell family and through the years, saw several owners and uses.

The west wall showcases those construction techniques and the old materials, such as tree nails, that were used

Monday through Saturday
9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Walking tours leave hourly from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Johnson Victrola Museum

The Johnson Victrola Museum highlights the life and achievements of this businessman, innovator, philanthropist and progressive employer; exhibits include phonographs, recordings, memorabilia, trademarks, objects, and paintings that highlight Mr. Johnson’s successful business enterprises and chronicle the development of the sound-recording industry. 

Victrola is indelibly linked to the iconic image of a dog, with his head cocked, staring intently into a Victrola. Almost everyone I know — of a certain age that is — recognize the image of the dog intently staring into and listening to the phonograph. 

The image was still on records produced by RCA, which had by then bought the rights to the image, up until the 1970s. The second floor of the museum, the Heiges Gallery, offers an extensive collection of artifacts from the Victrola industry, including an comprehensive collection of Nipper statues.

For a more detailed article about the Johnson Victrola Museum, click here.

Wednesday through Saturday
9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and by appointment for groups

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