Gingerbread Charm

Decorative trim spices up the area’s Victorian-style homes

Photographs by Scott Nathan  |  Text by Lynn R. Parks
From the Holiday 2016 issue

Ellen Passman doesn’t need to bake a gingerbread house for Christmas. She lives in one. Passman’s home is on Union Street in downtown Milton. The yellow clapboard structure has a wide front porch and is decorated from top to bottom with fancy scrollwork, commonly called gingerbread.

Along the edge of the roof on the main portion of the house, the gingerbread resembles waves; over the two-story bay window, it looks like a paper chain of hearts and bows.

On the front porch, circles with daisy-like cutouts are on either side of the six posts. The circles are connected to one another by two small boards that run parallel to each other and the roof; an inverted fleur-de-lis interrupts the boards at the center point between the posts.

“All of that gingerbread is definitely part of the home’s appeal,” says Passman, who bought the house in 2000. The structure was built in 1870, at the height of Victorian architecture’s popularity in the United States, and all of its decoration is original. When she moved there, some of the swirls and curves were broken off; an area craftsman was able to duplicate the designs and patch it up.

Just down the street from Passman’s house is the residence of Kathryn Greig. While her dark red home is not Victorian — its oldest part was built in 1790 and the rest of it in the early 1800s — the front of the house boasts plenty of gingerbread. Like Passman's home, its roof is lined with decorative edging that evokes letters: VoVoVoVo. The front porch’s columns and connecting arches are fancy openwork, with swirls and brackets.
Greig isn’t certain when the gingerbread was added to her home. She guesses sometime in the late 19th century, perhaps to match the style of other houses that were being built in the area.

Milton is like a Christmas village of gingerbread houses. “Gingerbread just looks like home to me,” says Denny Hughes, who grew up in a house on Chestnut Street and who now lives down the street. “When people are new to town, you can see them walking around, looking at the houses and stopping to admire this one or that one.”
And Milton isn’t alone. Many of the towns in coastal Sussex County boast grand old homes that were built in the Victorian era. Several gingerbread houses in Lewes have been converted into businesses: 102 Second St., now the Buttery restaurant, for example, and 210 Savannah Rd., now Ocean Retreat Day Spa & Hair Studio.
In Selbyville, two Victorian homes with modest amounts of gingerbread (by Milton and Lewes standards) sit side by side on West Church Street. And in Millsboro, at the west entrance to town, is a Victorian-era home that was transformed into apartments and that still bears subtle touches of gingerbread.

Colleen Dowdney is the owner of that Millsboro apartment building, as well as of Union Street Hair Salon, located in a large gingerbready house in downtown Milton that she bought and renovated seven years ago. Every year, she says, she employs a painter to check over the house — yellow with white and mustard trim — and touch up the paint wherever needed. “If I don’t do that, things can get in bad shape pretty quickly,” she says.
Greig agrees: “There is always something around here that needs to be painted.”

Or patched. Jason Bragg, owner of Union Street Woodwork in Milton, has been called on several times to fix gingerbread that has broken or rotted. He creates a template based on the ornamentation that is remaining, then uses that to duplicate the original.

Making gingerbread is “a dying art,” he says, one that harkens back to a more relaxed era. “It was a very labor-intensive process. But it was a slower time. There was no time crunch as to when something had to be done. Now, everything has to be completed as fast as it can be.”

Gingerbread houses — the sweet, spicy kind — were first made in the early 1800s by German bakers. At around the same time, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, famously known as the Brothers Grimm, started publishing their transcriptions of old German folktales.

Sources don’t all agree on the sequence of events — whether the witch’s gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel” came first, inspiring bakers to copy it, or whether the Grimms, in telling the tale, were inspired by what bakers were already doing. In any case, the connection between gingerbread as an extravagant architectural flourish and confections assembled as a house came to be.

Also in the early 19th century, the Gothic revival style of architecture was just taking hold. Builders were using wood to make decorative details that were common to old Gothic buildings, which in the medieval period were made from masonry.

“Things started out simply, with a steeply pitched roofline here, decoratively carved gable trim there,” according to the This Old House website.

Then, in the middle of the century and at the start of the popularity of Victorian architecture in the U.S., the advent of the steam-powered sawmill and lathe, as well as the development of mechanical scroll saws, made producing fancy woodwork easier than ever. “Suddenly, regular builders could include architectural details that heretofore had only been for kings and cardinals,” says Lewes architect John Mateyko.

Mateyko notes that when it came to gingerbread features in Victorian architecture, the more the better. “It was a statement of prestige,” he says.

With a lot of gingerbread, a homeowner was announcing to the world that his family relationship to the community was an important one, the architect adds. “It was a reflection of his whole sense of a connection to the place he lived, and a desire to present his best to that place.”

In particular, Mateyko says, homeowners who put gingerbread on their homes had pedestrians — more common in the Victorian age than today — in mind. “People walk at about 3 to 5 miles per hour, slowly enough to enjoy the details,” he points out. “People really wanted to show that their family was making a big investment in how they related to the community, way beyond the simple utilitarian.”

Passman says she has never thought about her Milton house in those terms, but agrees that they make sense.
“This house has its own character, with a sense of distinction,” she says. But at the same time, “there is something very universal about the house, a reflection of its history. It is Americana — it could fit in anywhere in the United States — and at the same time, it’s perfect in Milton.”