A Room with a View
This Federalist treasure overlooks the Delaware—and one beautiful garden.
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It didn’t take long for John Dewey and Gary Wirt to realize that they’d found their dream home. In fact, they knew it even before they saw the second floor. The clincher was the view from the picture window at the back of the house, on The Strand in Old New Castle. “I mean, look at this,” says Wirt, standing in front of the glass.
It is hard not to. The window gazes down on a narrow lawn flanked by dwarf boxwoods and arborvitae. Like a verdant arrow, the yard stretches toward the Delaware River, which sparkles like polished silver in the afternoon sun. A cargo ship glides by on its way to Philadelphia, its weathered facade forgotten with the grace of its movement. “We always said we wanted a river view,” Dewey says. Adds Wirt, “I looked out the window and said, ‘Sold!’”
Wirt and Dewey, who bought the house in 2002, were no strangers to historic New Castle. They had lived in a house on Sixth Street for more than 30 years before deciding to move to The Strand, a street lined by some of the town’s oldest structures. Wirt and Dewey’s new home, for instance, was built in 1798, by William Aull, an Irish merchant, who also built the adjoining twin.
Aull died shortly after the house was completed, according to a Drexel University student’s research project. Aull’s wife, Rachel, continued to live in one house while renting out the other.
The Aull property and its neighbors were saved from the 1824 fire thanks to the George Read House, whose property extends to the river. The open land helped keep the conflagration from ravaging houses on the other side. That was good news for the Cooper House next door, one of the few wood structures to survive the fire.
Wirt and Dewey toured the Aull house shortly after a sale fell through. “It was the right size and the right price at the right time,” Wirt says.
Painted pale yellow with a green metal roof, the three-story home once had six bedrooms. Two have since become bathrooms. Two others are now a library and office.
When the men purchased the house, the interior was “contractor white,” Dewey says. Today the wood trim and chair rails are painted in Williamsburg colors, giving the rooms a colonial accent. The exception is the library, which they painted entirely in a rich, restful shade that sometimes looks gray-blue and sometimes dark sea green, depending on the light.
“We wanted a nice comfortable color,” says Wirt. They often hang out here, enjoying a fire and relaxing on the Chesterfield sofa. A small TV is tucked on a shelf in the closet. “We’re not big TV-watchers,” Dewey says.
The room provides access to a second-story screened porch, which is outfitted prettily with a hanging swing, white wicker furniture and potted plants. When they show the place during house tours, confined to the first floor, they often entertain friends on the porch.
From top to bottom, the house is a proper showcase for the couple’s reproduction and antique pieces, many of which represent the Federal period. “It’s an addiction,” Wirt says of their many collections. But don’t put all the blame on the owners. “The house would tell us what it wanted,” Wirt says. “So we had to buy some additional things.”
Wirt orchestrates most of the displays. “The Dollar Store loves me,” says Wirt, who buys bags of extension cords and nightlights to spotlight certain pieces.
Shelves in the back room with the water view, now dubbed the “river room,” and the library demonstrate his skill at creating interesting arrangements. Old books share space with presentation silver, diminutive paintings and candle lamps. Since many of the books are part of a set, they create an attractive block of color and texture.
Tea caddies occupy places of honor in the living room. “These are my babies,” says Wirt, who admires the intricate inlay. “I have about 15 of them.”
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