This Couple Has Been Restoring Poplar Hall for Over a Decade
Come December, homeowners Greg and Dawn Shelton maintain holiday traditions while also creating new ones.
Dawn and Greg Shelton//Photo by Joe del Tufo
When the winter winds blow, Poplar Hall is drafty. As the curtains flutter, so does the heart of the master of the house, who is smitten by the aged bricks and beams of the manse.
Greg Shelton and his wife, Dawn, have been restoring Poplar Hall for a decade, sinking cash, sweat and occasional tears into the property.
Only a stone’s throw away, suburban Newark has sprung up where livestock once grazed on a 180-acre farm. The land has been whittled down to seven acres, but the Sheltons maintain many of the traditions of the landed gentry, growing herbs and flowers in formal gardens, tending horses, keeping bees and stacking firewood for their home’s fireplaces, which is fashioned in the holz hausen style, a decorative, rounded configuration.
“Living in a historic house is a totally different experience,” he says. “Although most people don’t want to live in one, they certainly enjoy visiting, especially during the holidays.”
Greg is a marketing consultant, musician and lifestyle ambassador, who is developing a gracious home-and-garden concept for television. Dawn is a passionate advocate for animals.
The Sheltons are only the fourth family to own the house, which was built by James Boulden the Younger in the Georgian style in the 1780s. Its red brick facade was crafted in a blend of running bond, English bond and Flemish bond, indications of wealth and planning.
Marble fireplace mantels are decorated with magnolia leaves and oversized cones from California redwoods.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
This old house
In 1988, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The report relates that the manse evolved over the centuries, nearly doubling in size. Elaborate ornamentations, including lavish moldings and marble fireplace mantels in the Greek and Egyptian Revival styles, were added during a renovation around 1850. A two-story stone wing was built around the same time.
“A house like this tells a story from start to finish,” Greg Shelton says.
Documenters note that the parlor’s dimensions were similar in size to the 20-by-26-foot log home inhabited by the typical Delawarean of the day.
“The exuberance and ostentation of the parlor, a room the size of many contemporary houses, powerfully conveyed the degree of wealth and style of the Bouldens,” they wrote.
By the time the Sheltons found it, once-grand Poplar Hall had been empty for years. Outside, two Victorian porches that had been added in the late 19th century were sagging. Inside, the house showed the impact of both weather and intruders. Brown paint obscured wide-planked wood floors.
“The doors were open,” Shelton recalls. “But the marble mantels were still here.”
Looking beyond the wear and tear of nearly 250 years, the couple found other charms. Graceful, dog-eared moldings surrounded raised-panel doors. In the center hall, an open staircase featured a turned newel post and grained and turned balusters. And the property boasted five outbuildings that could be repurposed to suit the lifestyle of a young family who enjoys entertaining.
The homeowners hold a wreath-making party in the corn crib each December.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Home for the holidays
Each year, early in December, the Sheltons invite family and friends to gather in the corn crib for a wreath-making party. It’s a farm-meets-fabulous event, where everyone congregates around long wooden tables lit by chandeliers suspended from the rafters.
In decorating the house, Shelton turns to the land for inspiration. A magnolia tree offers exquisite leaves, lustrous green on top and soft brown on the underside. He fashions a wreath with the leaves positioned upside down to create the appearance of rustic velvet. He is fond of junipers with subtle blue berries.
“I love things that are handmade and natural,” he says. “I can’t stand anything that’s resin.”
A wooden Colonial-style bowl, crafted by woodworker Scott Gold of Oxford, Pennsylvania, is carved in a nautilus shell design, inset with a silver S. It was made from a black walnut tree that was taken down because it was intruding on the house. “It’s a favored wood and Scott traded us the bowl for a length of wood,” Shelton says.
A family room
Shelton displays lots of greenery on the exterior of the house, partly because it’s festive, partly because it’s practical. “If used outside, greens have a much longer shelf life,” he says.
Indoors, the formal parlor now has the relaxed elegance of a country family room where the couple enjoys hanging out with their young son, Alex.
“We chose to have the smallest TV we could find, because the emphasis isn’t on TV. It’s about gathering around the fireplace,” he says.
The Christmas tree is a tall, full Fraser fir, chosen because of the nuanced colors of its needles—green on top and steel blue on the bottom. To keep the tree looking fit, Shelton gives it a tall drink of warm water every two to three days.
The tree is decorated with ornaments that reflect the home’s refined country aesthetic, including pheasant feathers, Gorham silver snowflakes, Reed & Barton sterling pieces, oversized cones from California redwoods and Winterthur bunny figurines.
Greg’s late father built the farmhouse where he grew up in nearby Chesapeake City, so he provided lots of expert help in restoring Poplar Hall. Greg’s mother is Ukrainian, so her traditions are reflected in the home, especially during the holidays.
The sparkling beaded spider on the tree is inspired by the Ukrainian folktale about a poor woman who couldn’t afford ornaments for her tree. Because she didn’t harm a spider she found in her home, he spun beautiful webs that magically turned to silver and gold. “That’s how tinsel was invented,” Shelton says.
The Sheltons have their own traditions. Dawn is the family baker. Greg is the cook. They collaborate to create a big holiday spread, served buffet style. “There is always kielbasa, always pirogies,” she says.
The island in the kitchen, which originally served as a grain bin, was crafted in Indonesia. A large brass figure of a Chinese reindeer is stationed on the hearth of the fireplace. The mantel is decked with boughs of holly, pine and deer antlers discovered in the woods.
At Poplar Hall, the Sheltons will maintain holiday traditions while they create new ones. “We love the property and expect to be continually refining and redefining it,” Greg Shelton says. “This is the place we will always call home.”
The kitchen fireplace's mantel is decked with boughs of holly, pine and antlers.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
GET THE LOOK
Create an impressive entrance. Welcome your guests with a big wreath on the door. Consider framing the entry with a pair of topiaries illuminated by twinkling white lights. Craft a live pediment from garlands of magnolia leaves studded with apples and lemons. Bring the outside indoors. Gather evergreens, leafy boughs, sculptural sticks, berries and pine cones for holiday arrangements around the house. Show your sentimental side. Decorate with childhood toys and handmade ornaments. Hang baby shoes, rattles and other keepsakes on the tree. Make the feast part of the decor. Festive cakes and cookies served on pretty dishes satisfy the eye as well as the sweet tooth. More is more. Don’t worry about going over the top. The holidays are about abundance. Should you add another layer of tinsel to the tree? Absolutely.
THE CARING OF THE GREENS
Here’s how to extend the life of your yuletide boughs:
- Start with the freshest greens you can find. The Sheltons cut magnolia branches and boxwoods on their property. If you buy, select cuttings with needles or leaves that are supple.
- Give your greens a big drink. Prime them by standing the cut ends in water for 24 hours to maximize absorption.
- Invest in an antitranspirant, a spray that coats leaves and needles to trap the moisture inside and prevent it from escaping as vapor.
- Place greens in a friendly setting. Boughs and cuttings placed outdoors where it is cool will last longer than greens in the house.
- If you keep your greens in an oasis or water, change the water every day. There’s no need to add anything.
- Give greens a daily spritz. Misting greens with water gives them a boost.
- Replace tired greenery with fresh cuttings. This is especially important in mixed arrangements.