Warm and Welcoming

Renovation of 19th-century Lewes home kept its cozy spirit intact

By Lynn R. Parks | Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the Holiday 2014 issue

Debbie Nepa never met Thelma Hiemstra. Thelma, the wife of a minister and the first president of the Lewes-Rehoboth Association of Churches, died in 2011 at the age of 91. Debbie and her husband, Ernie, live upstate in Greenville and just finished renovating their Lewes vacation home this summer.

But, despite never having laid eyes on her, Debbie credits Thelma for at least part of the good feeling she gets when walking into her Kings Highway home, which she and Ernie bought from the Hiemstra estate.

“I always feel at peace when I’m here,” Debbie says. “Even when I would come down during the renovations and everything was a mess and I would sit in here with my coat on because it was so cold, I always felt good here. From what people tell me about Mrs. Hiemstra, that’s what it was like when she was here, too.”

The Nepas bought the house in July 2012. “We always wanted to redo an old house,” Debbie says. “We were driving around looking for something and we saw the For Sale sign. I loved the house the moment that I saw it. To me, it just felt like Lewes.”

The house was built in 1893 by the Prettyman family. In its 121-year history, only three families — the Prettymans, the Hiemstras and now the Nepas — have lived there. “That’s pretty remarkable,” says Ernie.

When they bought the home, it was “livable, but very dated,” he notes. The kitchen was small and dark, with just two windows, one of which held an air conditioner. The bathrooms were old-fashioned — the one upstairs had just a sink and toilet — and the windows needed to be replaced. Outside, the 1970s aluminum siding was pretty dingy.

But the plaster walls were in good shape and the heart pine floors were solid. The staircase, which ascends from just inside the front door, was also salvageable; only the treads, which were full of staple holes left behind after wall-to-wall carpeting was pulled up, had to be replaced.
The renovation, for which Ernie acted as general contractor, included expansion of the kitchen into a space that had housed a large water boiler, part of the home’s heating system. Now, there’s plenty of room for Debbie to mix up the cookies and cakes she loves to bake. The granite countertops show swirls of brown and the cabinets are unpainted cherry.

Other than the wall that was taken down to make the kitchen larger, the layout of the home remains as it was when Thelma lived there. The formal living room is painted yellow and is furnished with antiques from the 19th century, including an 1880 sofa and two wingback chairs, circa 1840. A tall-case clock, made in 1820 in Vermont, stands next to the staircase.
The dining room, also formal and painted sky blue, is between the living room and kitchen. Nineteenth-century rush-bottom chairs surround the table and a claw-footed buffet and china closet, also claw-footed, sit against the wall. On display in the curved-glass china closet is a set of Victorian blue-and-white dishes that perfectly complements the color of the walls.

In decorating their home, the couple kept in mind its age as well as the people who had lived there. “We wanted it to be very traditional, with furniture from the period as much as we could,” Debbie says. Ernie found many pieces on eBay — the dining room chairs were shipped to Lewes from California, the buffet from Brooklyn and the china closet from Arkansas.

Upstairs are two bedrooms; one is painted lavender for the Nepas’ daughter, Jenna, and the other is red and blue for their son, Ernie Jr. Both children live in Greenville and attend college. Their dad is an accountant for the Viking Yacht Co. near New Gretna, N.J., and their mom trained as a nurse and is a homemaker.

The house will be part of this year’s Lewes Historical Society’s Christmas Tour of Lewes. Decorations will be very traditional, Debbie says: “We love Christmas and we want everyone who visits our house to feel warm and welcome.”

But really, that’s no different from how visitors feel anytime they show up, she adds. “I think that when people come here, they feel very at ease. This is a very cozy house.”

Debbie envisions a time when she and Ernie will live in their vacation home year-round. “I really like it here,” she says. “When we have to leave at the end of the weekend, I always feel sad.”

The Nepa house will be part of the Lewes Historical Society’s 2014 Christmas Tour of Lewes on Saturday, Dec. 6. Featured homes will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 the day of the tour; children younger than 12 are admitted for free. For information, call 645-7670 or visit the website historiclewes.org.

Lynn Parks is a regular contributor to Delaware Beach Life.