NEW CASTLE, Del. — This house story starts in fall 1971, when a newly married couple — John and Beverly Wik — drove into New Castle, Del., from McLean, Va., to look for an apartment.
The historic town on the Delaware River, two hours north of the District, is a textbook example of time frozen. The Colonial flavor is so well preserved that movie directors usurp streets as the sets for period films. Scenes in “Beloved” and “Dead Poets Society” were filmed here.
“I thought, ‘This is like Williamsburg, Old Town Alexandria and Georgetown, without the air traffic or parking problems. This is where I want to live,’” said Beverly, a lawyer with Old Capital Law Firm.
They found an apartment and, the following spring, volunteered for the annual Day in Old New Castle tour of historic buildings.
“We walked up the marble steps of the Kensey Johns House,” John said, “and Beverly, who was 20, turned to me and said, ‘John, one day you can buy me this house.’ ”
“That was quite a joke. We didn’t have a penny. She was a student. I was 22 and in my first job as a research biologist. We were eating tuna casseroles for dinner,” he said.
“But, nine years later, in 1981, we bought the house. We’ve raised three children and still love living here,” John said.
Now our house story time-travels to the 1780s.
Kensey Johns, a tall, young lawyer who wore a cape, wandered into town. He met Ann Van Dyke, the daughter of Nicholas Van Dyke, a wealthy lawyer and later a Delaware governor. The Van Dyke family lived in the Amstel House, built in 1738 and today owned and run as a museum by the New Castle Historical Society.
Kensey and Ann fell in love, married in 1784 in the Amstel House, and “as every resident in town knows, George Washington gave the bride away. He not only kissed her for luck, but all the pretty girls, as well,” said Daniel Citron, New Castle Historical Society executive director, paraphrasing a letter from someone who attended the wedding reception.
The newlyweds subsequently bought a lot a block away. “Kensey designed and oversaw construction of the house, which is now ours,” John said. “The Historical Society has sales receipts for the purchase of 44,000 bricks, the marble front steps, and banister rails and newel posts used on the staircase inside.”
“If Kensey walked in today, he’d feel at home. He’d turn the seven-inch key in the front door and amble into the wide elegant hallway. He’d greet visitors in the bright corner parlor on the left, and have luncheon served in the dining room steps down the hall,” John said.
Kensey became chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, a position he held for more than 30 years.
“His law office was the single-story addition at the house front that he added in 1795. That was the house configuration he designed, and it remains the same today. His office is my office,” said John, director of coastal rowing for USRowing.
The style of the Kensey Johns House features architectural elements of the late Georgian and early Federal eras. “It’s a substantial house, and has an imposing presence in a prominent site on the town square,” Beverly said. It’s red brick with cream-colored shutters on the first -floor windows, and dark green shutters on the second floor. In the fall, John rebuilt several of the window sills and shutters, because the original ones were rotten, and he repainted them all.
Today, there are six bedrooms and 3½ bathrooms. The first-floor ceiling is 10 feet high; the hallway is 36 feet long and 13 feet wide. The home is furnished with antiques and reproductions of pieces typical of the 18th century and Colonial America.
The Wiks updated the heating, air conditioning and electrical system. They restored the back wing, which was from the Dutch period in the early 1700s. The backyard is small but grassy and shady in the summer, and perfect for the Wik grandchildren to play. It’s dotted with several stone water fountains that John designed and built.
Nearby residents said they love looking up their homes’ history and tracing the occupants back several centuries.
“I know that, in 1775, a Mrs. Clay kept a tavern,” said James L. Meek, a resident since 2003 and a professor of New Castle history at the University of Delaware Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “And Thomas Jefferson stopped there the week after he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. He paid one pound and some shillings each night for lodging before continuing on to Monticello via Chestertown, Annapolis and Port Royal,” he said.
Sally Brown and her husband live in an 1824 red brick house. “It was a bakery then, and people lived upstairs,” she said.
“What’s it like to live here? Well, it’s long and narrow. There are different levels on the first floor, because the house was built in sections, and they just built the next room a little higher. We go up a step into the dining room, and then up another step into the kitchen,” she said.
“You make surprising discoveries. We found a child’s lace-up shoe in the floorboards, and a Dec. 31, 1918, broadsheet we think was a Union rag,” she said.
Brown said it’s a lot of work to keep up a historic property. For instance, they can’t replace their wooden shutters with vinyl, so they have to paint them.
“There are a lot of plaster cracks,” Brown said. “And some things can’t be repaired; you just live with them. The transom glass above our front door is cracked, but it’s antique and you can’t take it down.”
The Kensey Johns House is about 85 percent original. There’s meticulous woodwork and centuries-old wide-planked heart-pine floors. Several of the 11 original fireplaces have been converted to gas.
“In the parlor room, floorboards are wide-cut at the room entrance and get narrower as you walk in, giving the illusion the room is larger than it is,” John said. “This was a deliberate design decision by Kensey.”
Original leaded glass panes aren’t pristine or straight. “Over time, old glass will sometimes get wavy with bubbles and discolor,” he said. In the dining room, one pane is dated 1803 and signed by Kensey Johns. In the master bedroom one, is signed “Louis Booker 1932,” a son of a subsequent owner.
“Sometime in the mid-1980s, there was a knock at the front door. An elderly gentleman announced himself as Louis Booker. ‘I know exactly who you are; you signed a pane of glass in one of my bedroom windows,’ ” John said he told the man. “He smiled and confessed that as a boy, he’d scratched his name in the glass.”
Louis was the son of a physician who used the side office as his examination room in the early 1900s. The hallway was his patient reception area.
Historic preservation is about saving old houses in as close to original condition as possible. The prevailing aesthetic of historic neighborhoods is an aura of time stopped.
“We lose our connections with the past if we don’t preserve the integrity of these old buildings and their contribution to history,” Citron said.
“I think areas with a large percentage of historic homes are likely to be charming because of the closeness of the houses, features like size, color, rooflines, brickwork and walkability around town,” Meek said.
“Houses tend to be well maintained, because owners choose to come here and assume stewardship of an old house,” he added.
“Another benefit of historic neighborhoods can be higher, stable property values,” said John Herzan, former preservation services officer at New Haven Preservation Trust.
“Local governments have the authority to designate historic preservation ordinances and historic district overlays that are locally controlled,” said Randall Jones, public information officer for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Architectural design restrictions are the driving force in local historic districts. If you want to put up artificial siding such as vinyl or Hardie board, you’ll probably be told no. Under most guidelines, you can’t remove original windows or shutters. The style of an addition is regulated, and sometimes paint color is, too.
In the District, there are more than 50 local historic districts, including Meridian Hill, Blagden Alley Naylor Court and Georgetown.
“American ethics dictates that one should be able to do what you want with your property, but that butts heads with those who feel there’s a public benefit to preserving the overall character of a neighborhood by designating it historic,” Herzan said.
“There’ll always be friction between historic preservationists and some property owners,” Citron said.
“Historic oversight means everyone has to sacrifice a little. If you don’t want to buy into that oversight, you, as a buyer, should find an environment that’s more flexible,” Herzan said.
Agents usually tell prospective buyers about restrictions in historic neighborhoods.
“Absolutely, I share those restrictions in writing and in conversation,” said Marianne Caven, a New Castle resident since 1988 and a real estate agent with Patterson-Schwartz Real Estate. “I sell historic-district living as a safeguard of property values and appearances, in addition to promoting historic preservation.
“Almost a third of the properties listed in our historic district are under contract and activity, and indicators point to a healthy market for 2019,” she said.
John agreed that the sacrifices are worth living there.
“While Beverly and I are lucky enough to own this grand old house, we’re really just caretakers and will pass it on to the next family,” he said. “Our job is to maintain it as historically correct as possible for them.”