Character Restored

Lewes house’s classic charms re-emerge after complete renovation

By Lynn R. Parks | Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the May 2017 issue

For three years, Darica Ward and Jenny Donohue searched for the perfect home in Lewes. When they were shown a small house on Jefferson Avenue, just 900 square feet in size and featuring a mansard roof, they knew they had found it.

“It had been neglected,” Jenny admits. All of the decorative trim that they believe had once adorned the exterior was gone, as was all of the interior molding. The original floors had been ripped out, replaced with linoleum, and the ceilings were covered with tiles. Sheds that stretched in a string from the house to the back property line were dilapidated.

“But we had renovated old houses before,” Jenny adds. “We went at it undaunted.”

The couple bought the house in November 2014. The renovation project, which included taking the structure down to its studs, tearing out the sheds and constructing a 2,000-square-foot addition, was completed in April 2016. The couple designed the home themselves, with help from M.R. Designs Inc. of Milton. The contractor was J.L. Wrights Construction of Felton, and workers with R.A. Maine and Sons Contracting, in Frankford, tackled putting tiles on that mansard roof. When Darica and Jenny bought the house, it was topped with everyday asphalt shingles. But they feel sure that the original roof was either cedar or slate. They were able to find synthetic tiles that look like the latter.

Also lending assistance was Robert Schweitzer, a professor of architectural history and historic preservation at the University of Michigan. Based on the style and age of the house, he helped the women select colors for the exterior: olive green, terra cotta, sandy-gold and, for the porch ceilings, light blue with a hint of gray.

During the demolition phase, workers saved any wood that was still good. It was then used in the construction phase: for the fireplace mantel in the great room, the top of the island in the kitchen and the end walls of the kitchen cabinets.

For the floors, Jenny and Darica bought 3,000 square feet of heart-of-pine tongue-and-groove flooring cut from beams that were salvaged from a Read’s Drug Store in downtown Baltimore. In 1955, African-American college students staged a sit-in there in protest of the chain’s whites-only seating policy at the lunch counter. Within a week, and following protests at other stores, Read’s announced it was changing that policy. “We kind of like the story of our floor,” Jenny says.

The original portion of the house, built in the late 19th century, is home to the parlor and the library (downstairs) and a guest suite (upstairs). Hanging on the wall in the library are several vintage tabletop pinball games that Darica has collected. An old-fashioned scale, which promises to give the “Wate and Fate” of whoever puts in a penny, sits on the floor — just the kind of thing that Read’s shoppers might have used. And filling one of three shelves are children’s books printed by the M.A. Donohue & Co., a Chicago publishing house founded in the late 19th century by Jenny’s great-grandfather. (The M.A. Donohue Building, constructed in 1883 and expanded in 1913, still stands in the city’s historic Printer’s Row. In 1979, it was made over into condos.)

Behind the library, in the addition, is the great room; it features a kitchen, eating area and living area. The doors on the kitchen cabinets are flush with the frames, a design that makes them look like furniture, the kind of thing a 19th-century kitchen would have had, rather than cabinetry, Darica says.

The countertops are soapstone; both women welcome the idea that with age, the stone will show signs of use. Drawer pulls are the handles off old printer’s drawers, stamped “Hamilton Mfg. Co.” The stove is made by the Italian firm ILVE and has seven burners and two ovens, each with a rotisserie. And marching across the windowsill over the sink is a line of small wooden elephants that the couple bought during a safari trip to Africa.

Darica and Jenny, who in November bought two women’s clothing stores, Deanna’s and Piccolino, in downtown Lewes, say they love their adopted town and its focus on preserving old architecture. “We consciously made a decision to live in a town that respects its history and its beautiful buildings,” Darica says. In restoring their house, “it was important to us to honor that.”

“We wanted to bring this house back to its Victorian glory,” Jenny adds. “Not that it was extravagant, but it was a beautiful home in Lewes. We wanted to be authentic to that.”

Lynn Parks is a regular contributor to Delaware Beach Life.