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An Example of Bygone Glory

Cauffiel House stands as a stunning testament to the tastes and trends of the 1930s.

by Eileen Smith Dallabrida

Symmetry is a hallmark of the Cauffiel House. Photograph by Jared CastaldiIn 1920, when America was roaring and summer temperatures were soaring, Daniel Cauffiel was intent on creating a calm and cool place.

He found it in an elegant mansion near Bellefonte on a hill overlooking the Delaware River, an ideal site to catch a breeze on a muggy day.

“This was a respite from the city,” says Judi Jeffers, superintendent of special event facilities for Delaware State Parks. “They came here to relax.”

With its artful symmetry, the Cauffiel House is a spot-on example of Georgian Revival architecture. Identical wings enclose one-story sun porches on either side of the main structure, which is two-and-a-half stories high, with a water table that mimics a raised basement.

That symmetry—windows on one side of a room correspond with windows on the opposite wall—also promotes cross ventilation, using the natural flow of air to keep the home cool.

A balanced, open floor plan stimulates social circulation.

“You walk in this house and feel welcome,” Jeffers says. “People say, wow, they can see themselves living here.”

Perhaps that’s because Cauffiel House is miraculously and spectacularly intact, down to the utilitarian porcelain kitchen sink. In 70 years of continuous occupancy, no one ever knocked down a wall, gutted a bath or ripped down the ornate plum-and-lattice patterned wallpaper in the powder room.

The house was designed by Wilmington architect Clarence R. Hope for Cauffiel, the chief real estate officer for the DuPont Co.

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The oil painting above the sitting room fireplace was found in a closet at nearby Bellevue Hall. Photograph by Jared CastaldiCauffiel and his family used the house as a getaway, only a short hop from Wilmington. But that didn’t mean the niceties of city life were left behind. Such amenities as five bathrooms, a butler’s pantry and a room devoted to pressing clothes kept civilization comfortably within reach.

In keeping with the vast wealth of the ’20s, the house was constructed in grand style, with a wide center hall that runs from the front of the house to the back, giving visitors at the entry a tantalizing glimpse of the river. The mantel on the sitting room fireplace is opulently carved with a central fruit basket medallion and reeded detailing.

“This house has all the beautiful features it had when Daniel Cauffiel built the house—the dentil moldings, the plaster walls, the elegant staircase,” Jeffers says.

The facade is red brick in a Flemish bond pattern. A small portico is supported by Greek Doric columns, topped with a wrought-iron railing.

Solid construction was the order of the day, with the plumbing set in concrete-like mud. (That’s a problem for the current stewards of the property, as the pipes have grown colicky over the years. Plumbers eventually will have to drill through the floor to repair them, an arduous and expensive process.)

In addition to multiple bathrooms, the Cauffiels were blessed with spacious closets in every bedroom. Even casual entertaining in a summer home called for multiple courses at meals, with requisite china and glassware stored in the butler’s pantry.

That’s still the case today, though the mismatched china, pressed glass serving pieces and vintage linens didn’t belong to the Cauffiels. They were either purchased by dedicated staff members or donated by supporters of the historic home.

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Stenciled sea horses in the hall bath remain from a past designer show house event. Photograph by Jared CastaldiCauffiel died in 1955. As the years passed, two of his children began to spend more time in their summer home, eventually moving in full time. The house remained in family hands until 1993, when the mansion became part of Bellevue State Park. In 1997 it was the setting of a designer show house to benefit OperaDelaware.

Last year, Cauffiel House was closed while access to the grounds was improved. That also gave Jeffers and other staff members who are devoted to the house an opportunity to spiff up the interior, which is decorated to reflect the 1930s.

In keeping with the state’s emphasis on austerity, they shopped for bargains, scouring estate sales, second-hand stores and antiques shops for the elegant but simple pieces the Cauffiels might have chosen themselves.

Throughout the house are framed botanical prints and vintage bric-a-brac brought back from shopping excursions. In the sitting room, the fireplace is flanked by a camel-back sofa and a pair of wing chairs. The landscape oil painting over the fireplace was retrieved from a closet at nearby Bellevue Hall.

In a closet at Cauffiel House, Jeffers found the original blueprints for the home—“back then, they really were blue,” she notes—and had them framed. They are now on display in the foyer.

Only two family-owned pieces of furniture remained in the house when the state acquired it: a gate-leg game table, now on a sun porch, and a large mahogany table with claw-and-ball feet in the dining room. The crystal chandelier and mirrored wall sconces are original, too, as is the paneled wainscoting with reeded chair rail.

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The mahogany table in the dining room is one of only two family-owned pieces that remain in the house. Photograph by Jared CastaldiJeffers and events coordinator Karen Helme, who also works as a designer, picked out the tailored, plaid dupioni silk panels that dress the dining room windows.

Buff-colored walls in the sitting room were freshened with spring green paint. A synthetic sisal area rug conjures images of summer bridge games, a pursuit that could stylishly be played out today on custom-made card tables. The sun porch adjoining the space is furnished in other retro finds, wrought iron-and-glass patio tables and chairs.

The Cauffiels were fond of dogs. Although the kennels are gone now, signs of canine affection remain. Witness the likeness of a Brittany spaniel on the needlepoint pillow on the sitting room sofa. There’s a vintage doorstop painted to look like a terrier in the foyer and bronzes of hunting dogs in a second-floor den.

These days Cauffiel House lives on as a destination for conferences and special occasions. There are still reminders of the designer show house, a glimpse into recent design history that reveals which ideas stand the test of time—or at least a dozen years. (The subtly stenciled sea horses on the wall in a hall bath: Yes. The ivory upholstered fabric walls in the master bath: No. People touch them and they smudge.)
 

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The house retains all the beautiful features it had when built in the 1920s. Photograph by Jared CastaldiConcrete gate posts by the drive are the only remnants of fences that once kept livestock in and intruders out. But the apple and pear trees planted by the Cauffiels’ gardeners are still bearing fruit. Old-fashioned forsythia, lilacs and peonies unfurl in succession each spring.

Abandoned railroad tracks form the skeleton of a walking trail. But in the 1870s, the rails hummed with trains hauling stone from the Bellevue Quarry, north to Philadelphia and south to Wilmington and Baltimore.

Today the trains are silent. Cars and trucks rumble on the highway that separates the grand house from the river. Visitors are occasionally delighted by the sight of cruise ships gliding like huge swans up the Delaware.

Though the servants are gone, the state does rent bedrooms to guests on a case-by-case basis.

“There’s no TV, no phones, no computers—pretty much like it was in the 1930s,” Jeffers says. 

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