Newark, Del.: Next Time, Get Off the Exit

The campus of the University of Delaware in Newark has been called one of the most beautiful in the United States.
The campus of the University of Delaware in Newark has been called one of the most beautiful in the United States. (By Zofia Smardz -- The Washington Post)
By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

T he kids were 10 deep on the porches at the Deer Park Tavern and all but hanging from the rafters indoors, waiting for the Friday night music to start. So that was a no-go. Instead we headed for a late dinner at trendy Caffe Gelato, at the other end of Main Street. Our sidewalk table was a prime people-watching post, and the peeps of Newark, Del. -- strollers, skateboarders, party seekers and students, students, students galore -- more than obliged.

A gaggle of young women came by. They were wearing little wreaths of laurel (probably acacia, actually) on their heads, except for one who sported a pair of fuzzy bunny ears. They spotted a pal sitting two tables over from us and hooted and hollered for her to join them. She wouldn't, and the squeals over our heads got louder before the pack moved on. The last girl fluttered "Sorrysorrysorry," then raced after the gang yelling, "Whoo! Senior bar crawl!!"

We had to laugh. There's just something about a college town, you know?

You've gotta love all that throbbing post-adolescent vitality and its histrionic way of announcing itself. Making all of life into one big drama, an endless exaltation of me-me-me and a breathless anticipation of the future's fabulousness, guaranteed because we-the-generation-that-is-to-come will make it so. Ah, yes.

In Newark -- a modest little outpost just across the Maryland line along Interstate 95 (I'm betting you routinely pass it without thinking more than "Hmm, there's a Newark in Delaware, too") -- the air positively vibrates with ego and energy, thanks to the student body of the University of Delaware, some 20,000 strong. When friends' kids started opting for UD recently as they graduated from high school, I pictured an urban campus with angular modern buildings. I guess it's that whole Delaware high-finance and power-chemicals thing. Instead, the campus, which engorges about half the town of 28,000 with its elegant, elongated Green, is a stunning landscape of Georgian Colonial red-brick, white-columned architecture to rival anything conceived by Thomas Jefferson.

The very idea made my husband, a Virginian and alumnus of Mr. Jefferson's University in Charlottesville, harrumph. But after a recent weekend in Newark -- and that's New- ark, by the way -- even he had to concede the wisdom of the Princeton Review, which in 1999 decreed the Delaware school "absolutely the most gorgeous campus anywhere."

We took a walking tour on a day that was gorgeous, too. We started at the quiet southern end of campus, which until 1945 was the Women's College. A family was having a birthday party, complete with balloons, on the lush grounds designed in the 1920s by Marian Cruger Coffin, one of the first female landscape architects in America. We paused at the archways that once separated the Women's College from the all-male Delaware College to the north. They're called the kissing arches. Guess why.

On the north side, just beyond Memorial Hall, the Green was abuzz with students -- playing Frisbee, sunning, conducting petition drives. An amped-up rock band blasted music into the air. In the double stand of trees lining the Green, we admired the remaining original elms. There must have been 30 or 40 once; now I counted four.

On Main Street, with its shops and restaurants and bars and tanning parlors, the sidewalks were teeming. Maybe the droves have dwindled now that last weekend's graduation ushered in summer break. That would make for more breathing room in the coming months -- and easier driving. While we were there, the one-way traffic was nonstop, noisy and bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper. Main Street is just a narrow strip, reminding you that Newark, though Delaware's third-largest city, is still a pretty small town.

Harry Lenderman, our host at the Elk Forge Bed & Breakfast Inn and Retreat in nearby Elk Mills, Md., remembered when he was a student at UD in the 1960s and Main Street was two-way. "It was just a one-horse town then," he told me.

That's not the case anymore, but it might have remained just a little farming community if the Rev. Francis Alison, a Presbyterian minister, hadn't founded an academy that moved from Pennsylvania to Delaware in 1767. Newark Academy, merged with Newark College, morphed into Delaware College in 1834.

The Old College building north of Main Street, which originally housed the whole shebang -- classrooms, dorm rooms, administration, even a chapel or "oratory" -- is still, with its colonnaded facade and Williamsburg-like interior, arguably the most beautiful building on campus. It's an art gallery now, and we popped in for an exhibit of paintings by Brandywine Valley artists including N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Howard Pyle and others.

By then we were flagging, so we headed to the Deer Park Tavern for a late lunch. The Deer Park is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Washington slept in the original inn (sure), and other famous guests included land surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, and my favorite writer, Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe is said to have put a curse on the place in 1843, when he slipped in the mud at the inn's doorstep. "All who enter will have to return!" the legend quotes him as swearing.

Some curse. But sitting there in the dark, wood-paneled interior, watching the late-afternoon bustle and anticipating the crowds that would soon come pouring in, it seemed just about right.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company