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The People's House

A restoration of the governor’s mansion shows off a successful marriage of history, elegance and comfort, as well as First Lady Carla Markell’s emphasis on volunteerism.



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Portraits of Delaware’s first ladies grace The Great Hall. Tracing the proper and austere images of the past to more recent, casual portraits tells a rather liberating story. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe trick, Carla Markell says, was to “create a traditional, elegant, classic home with contemporary twists, with an emphasis on making it feel like a family home and not a museum.” The Markell children, Molly and Michael, both students at Charter School of Wilmington, spend a good deal of time at Woodburn, as does their beloved first dog, Isabel.

The challenge of restoring any historic property is formidable. Markell’s charge was to create a congenial atmosphere fit for a family while maintaining historical integrity fit for a governor.

Markell takes no credit for the renovation, which was successful in marrying historical integrity with comfort and elegance. Woodburn, she says, was transformed with a lot of help from her friends—experts from the state, Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, Brandywine River Museum, the Friends of Woodburn and many volunteers.

 

The gilded wood looking-glass in Woodburn’s dining room belonged to A.N. Spanel, founder of what would become Playtex in Dover. The mansion is home to many interesting and historical pieces of furniture and art. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe restoration plan­—formulated a month after Jack Markell was elected—was focused on the three rooms open to the public: The Great Hall, dining room and living room—the parlor of yore.

Markell needed direction from the pros, so she called upon Stephen Mottola, a designer and real estate relocation director at Patterson Schwartz, and Jocelyn Stewart, an art connoisseur and senior director of community relations at Barclay’s. Markell then invited Tom Savage, Bob Davis and David Roselle, all from Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, to provide historical perspective. Ann Baker Horsey, curator of collections at Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, managed the project, coordinated schedules with state staffers, transported historical artwork and furnishings, and worked with the Friends of Woodburn, a nonprofit group she has been a member of since its founding in the mid-1990s. Horsey, who has assisted every Woodburn family since the Tribbitt administration in 1973, was a godsend, says Markell. “Without Ann, none of this could have happened.”
 


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Woodburn Gallery

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