Delaware native and historian Gene Castellano began documenting Wilmington architecture in 1984. Now, 30 years later, he's put together a book that documents the changing landscape of the city he loves.
In 1984, Gene Castellano began photographing the streets and buildings of Wilmington. He and his wife had recently moved back to the city after living and working in North Carolina and he sensed rapid change.
"I had purchased a new book by historian Carol Hoffecker titled 'Wilmington: A Pictorial History,'" Castellano explained of his desire to capture seemingly mundane scenes. "Her book made me realize that the buildings I walked by every day on my way to my office might not be around in 50 years."
At first, he started photographing the downtown business district on weekends, thinking that he might be creating an historical record and nothing more. His intention wasn't a book but a collection that historians might use one day.
Fast-forward to 2001. Hockessin resident Barbara Benson, who was the Delaware Historical Society executive director until 2003, convinced Castellano to pursue a masters degree in liberal studies and a certification in museum studies at the University of Delaware.
"The notion of creating a book with my Wilmington pictures came after graduating in 2005, which changed my life in many ways," Castellano said. "It helped me develop the writing skills I needed to do a book but, more importantly, I learned how to start thinking as an historian."
With time on his hands after graduation, he began scanning his old Wilmington photographs. It was the first time he had seen his pictures beyond the 35 millimeter thumbnails. At the same time, personal publishing was making advances so he made a simple photo book of the 1980s pictures for his family, complete with captions that were added from his files.
Nothing more happened until 2011 when he came across another pictorial book on Philadelphia. He knew then that he wanted to do something similar for Wilmington.
"The purchase of a new camera and a super wide angle lens prompted me to re-photograph the downtown area and that's when it became apparent that Wilmington had finally achieved some of its [development] goals from the 1980s," he said. "It had finally transformed into a financial center, although it took much longer than anyone imagined."
In 2012, he made a prototype and sent one of them to Nick Cerchio at Cedar Tree Books in Hockessin. Cerchio has been in printing and publishing for years and was immediately interested in Castellano's project.
"We do a lot of books on Delaware history. That's our niche," Cerchio explained, adding that he's more or less retired and probably publishes about six books a year now. "I knew virtually every building in the book so I said to Gene that we'd be happy to do it."
It took a while to find a printer, though, as both men admit that Castellano was "particular" about the clarity and quality of the photographs.
"I was very particular about the red brick looking red and the white granite looking white," Castellano said. "Showing the textures of these materials and the types of bonds that were used to set the bricks was important to me. At the same time, black-and-white photos had to be reproduced in a way that preserved their tonal range."
In the end, both Castellano and Cerchio were pleased with the final results.
"It's an interesting perspective," Cerchio said of Catellano's subject matter. "I don't particularly like change myself but I realize we wouldn't be where we are today without it. You can really see that in Gene's book."
With so much time and effort sunk into the project, Castellano said that he really doesn't have a favorite photo. But, he does have a building that he's never forgotten: a barber shop at 210 King Street that has since been demolished.
"When I took the photo, buildings up and down the block were clearly ready to meet the wrecking ball expect for this one. The shop appeared as though it would be open in the morning," Castellano said, explaining that a news story of the day provided him with the building's backstory but not the aftermath. "As it turns out, Nick [Cerchio] knew the descendants of Frank Danberg, the barbershop owner and they helped us piece together what happened after the shop was sold for demolition. I encourage readers to get the book to discover the rest of the story!"