This Old, Old House
If you listen closely, historic homes tell stories. The Van Dyke House in Old New Castle has many.
The mantel in the living room is carved from King of Prussia marble, like the other five mantels in the home.
Photograph by John Lewis
Its red bricks and plaster walls have borne witness to a society wedding in which the Marquis de Lafayette gave away the bride. The house has been home to a governor, a filmmaker and, likely, a speakeasy.
Calvin Marshall, who has owned and loved the iconic Van Dyke house in New Castle since the 1960s, says living in a home that is almost 200 years old isn’t the most pragmatic thing. But he happily tolerates the occasional draft in the soaring entry hall.
“You have to do it because you love it,” Marshall says. “That’s the one and only reason you should live in a house this old.”
The grand, Federal-style house was built about 1820 by Senator Nicholas Van Dyke, a prosperous, Princeton-educated lawyer whose father served in the Continental Congress.
The home’s 11-foot ceilings, six fireplaces of King of Prussia marble and massive doors of Santo Domingo mahogany, were an elegant setting for the marriage of Dorcas Van Dyke to Charles I. du Pont on October 6, 1824. Lafayette wore his Eagle medal from the Society of the Cincinnati, once owned by George Washington. The medal sold for $5.3 million at auction last year.
“I often think how nice it would have been if Lafayette had dropped it into a crevice somewhere when he was visiting the house,” Marshall says.
Thomas Stockton, who became governor in 1845 and died a year later, also lived there.
Another celebrity resident was the Australian director Peter Weir, who rented the house and its furnishings from Marshall during the filming of “Dead Poet’s Society” almost 20 years ago. (St. Andrews School in Middletown was the setting for the private boy’s school in the movie.)
“Cal left the silver, the crystal, everything in the house,” says Marshall’s wife Joan. “All he took was his mother’s egg poacher.”
Weir lived in the house with his wife and two children, but the home also served as a conference center for the filmmakers.
“Weir and Robin Williams and the crew would sit around the dining room table,” Marshall recalls.
A funeral scene on The Market Green across Delaware Street was shot from the house. The green was transformed into a winter setting with tons of artificial snow. Marshall played a bit part as a mourner. Sadly, the segment wound up on the cutting room floor.
The green was established when America was young and New Castle was a vibrant port, as well as a fashionable address. But as times changed, the town’s fortunes shifted, too.
“The capitol moved to Dover, then the port and the county seat moved to Wilmington, and the town went into decline,” Marshall says. “People didn’t have the money to modernize their homes.”
Fast forward to the mid-1960s. Marshall was planning a move from his ancestral home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia to Chadds Ford. Growing up as a DuPont Co. gypsy, he had lived in half a dozen places across the country. He was looking for a place with a sense of history.
“A friend in the appraisal business said, ‘You’ve got to see New Castle. It’s a gem,’” he recalls.
In those days, Old New Castle’s renaissance as a historic district had yet to reach critical mass. The neighborhood still had rough patches, but Marshall was captivated by the remarkable state of preservation of the Van Dyke House and the surrounding homes.
He bought the massive Empire-style dining room table with richly carved rope dragooning, paw feet and 12 chairs from the previous owners. The Hepplewhite sideboard was handed down from his parents. Two deep drawers are lined with lead in order to chill wine.
The timepiece on the mantel, whose glass face is painted with an idyllic scene of the garden at Mount Vernon, also came from his parents. It was made by Eli Terry, a renowned Connecticut clockmaker of the 19th century who is credited with bringing reliable clocks to the American masses. “It was Dad’s pride and joy,” Marshall says.
Marshall discovered the small drop leaf circa 1810 table in front of the sofa on a trip to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where the locals used it to clean fish.
“You can see the hand planing,” he says, rubbing his fingers over the wood. “If you look underneath, you can see the pegs that hold it together.”
A passionate collector, Marshall appreciates such rarities as the dovetail joints in the feet of a Pennsylvania blanket chest. Crafted in the late 1700s, it still bears the original hardware. He looks at pieces with both a keen eye and a sense of history.
“Cut nails came in the early 1800s,” Marshall says. “Vertical saw marks means it came from a saw mill. You get to know these things and recognize them, so you can tell when something was made.”
The tall clock with a case of burled walnut and a moon face didn’t have far to travel to reach New Castle. It was made in 1772 by Duncan Beard, a distinguished clockmaker and silversmith from Appoquinimink, now known as Odessa.
Portraits of Marshall’s 19th-century forbearers, Richard and Elizabeth Marshall, hang over the sofa. They were painted in about 1850 by a Baltimore portraitist, but Marshall didn’t discover that Elizabeth’s dress had been painted over until he had the painting restored.
“Beneath that black dress is a very bright, colorful dress,” he says. “The theory is the dress was painted black after she was widowed.”
An avid decorator, Marshall restored the paintings and much of the rest of the interior in the 1990s, when the house was heavily damaged by hundreds of thousands of gallons of water used to fight a fire at a restaurant across the street.
He consulted with the design team at Winterthur in making such choices as the exuberant wallpaper of birds and flowers in the foyer, a Brunschwig and Fils pattern inspired by a grand home in Philadelphia. He painted the parlor and dining rooms in a soft green reminiscent of lamb’s ear, a staple in colonial herb gardens.
The house itself was built to last, with brick walls two feet thick and heart-of-pine floors, which are prized for their imperviousness to insects, as well as for its lovely grain. On the second floor, the windows retain their original interior folding shutters.
“They weren’t for security. They were to keep in the heat,” Marshall says.
Even the grandest houses in the early 1800s weren’t equipped with the whirlpool tub, towel-warmer and brass chandelier that the master bath in the Van Dyke House boasts today. The plumbers who took on the job were momentarily stymied as to how they would run pipes through foot-thick floor joists. The solution was to lay a new floor several inches above the original floor and run the pipes underneath.
Marshall had long heard the legend that the house was a speakeasy during the 1930s, so he wasn’t totally surprised to find a cache of liquor bottles hidden in the basement floor joists.
“This one says American Medical Spirits Co.,” he says, holding aloft a brown glass bottle still containing a few shots of its original contents. “It’s from Kentucky, so it’s probably bourbon.”
GET THE LOOK
Use furnishings made when the house was built. Marshall bought pieces from the previous owners, then added furniture from his family.
Seek craftsmen experienced in restoring old homes. “Hire the best,” Marshall says. “They’ll do the job right the first time, and you’ll wind up saving money.”
Take a history lesson. Marshall researched period colors before he painted the parlor and dining room.
Renovate respectfully. Marshall borrowed space from a small porch for a powder room to preserve the original floor plan. He installed central air upstairs, but not on the ground floor, in order to keep the original plaster walls and moldings intact.
Be a detective. The homeowner uncovered clues bolstering a story that the house was a speakeasy when he discovered Prohibition era liquor bottles near a basement bar.
An Oldy by a Goody
A Day in Old New Castle, an 83-year tradition, will take place 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on May 17. Sponsored by Immanuel Episcopal Church, the event includes tours of homes and gardens dating to the 18th century, as well as colonial games and costumed country dancers. Proceeds benefit historic buildings and local churches and organizations. Adult tickets are $20. Tickets for children 6-16 are $10. For details, call (877) 496-9498 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.