In 1797, when George Read II set out to build a house in New Castle, his vision was both large and grand. He opened his copious coffers and brought in the crème de la crème of architecture, commissioning William Thackara—the plaster artisan who embellished the United States Capitol—to create opulent ceiling moldings. He imported mahogany from Honduras for massive parlor doors. He paid six times the going rate to have brass door hardware plated in showy silver.
Six years later, Read was the proud owner of a 14,000-square-foot mansion, which would hold the honor of being the largest home in Delaware for nearly a century.
The son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence who became governor of Delaware and a U.S. senator, Read never realized the political stature of his father. His legacy is his house and 2.5-acre grounds, where artifacts unearthed in excavations tell the history of the First State, dating back to the Lenape people who lived on the site for thousands of years before they were displaced by European settlers.
“We want to grasp as many layers of history as we can,” says Brenton Grom, director of the George Read II House and Gardens, which is open to the public and has been under the auspices of the Delaware Historical Society since 1975.
Visitors will find that despite its mantle of age, the Read House has knocked the cobwebs off the notion of what a house museum should be. The LIT for the Holidays event features temporary installations by artists recruited locally and across the country to show their creative spirit. In 2021, Urban Outfitters created an enormous tree from copper foil. Last year, Dallas Shaw, a Wilmington floral artist, displayed extravagant arrangements that play on vivid aqua and peach walls in the twin parlors at the front and back of house.
“Her florals heighten the vibrancy of those colors from 225 years ago,” Grom says. “Contemporary artists who see things through their own eyes give us a multifaceted look at the house.”
From The Strand—the exclusive byway that runs along the Delaware River—the Read House looks much the way it did after it was constructed of stout red brick in Federal style, a balanced symmetrical approach popularized by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The glass in the twin parlors’ massive windows retains its centuries-old ripples and waves.
“There’s a feeling here that you can’t quite put into words,” Grom says. “The enormous windows and the way light pours into the house. The broad view of the Delaware River. Spaces that are grand yet are not so grand that you can’t imagine yourself living there.”
“If you can EMPATHIZE with PEOPLE in the PAST it’s much easier to empathize with PEOPLE in the PRESENT.”
Yet grandeur is an important element in the design. Ceilings soar 13 feet above wide-plank wood floors. Fireplace mantels and transom windows are decorated in “punch and gouge,” a motif of grooves and holes made with specialized carving tools that was wildly popular around 1800. In fact, the Read House boasts more punch and gouge than any other home in America or Britain, where the technique was invented. The fireplace surrounds are King of Prussia marble, a distinctive black stone with white veining.
By the time he got around to the gardens, Read was strapped for cash. The second owner, William Couper, came home to New Castle after making a fortune trading in China. He bought the house in 1846, lavishing money on the grounds and bringing his mother, siblings, nieces and nephews to the home he loved. The Coupers were faithful stewards of the Read House for 73 years, meticulously maintaining the property.
“They lived here longer than anyone, yet Couper is the owner we know the least about,” Grom says.
In the 1920s, the house was acquired by Philip D. and Lydia Chichester Laird, both members of the extended du Pont family, who transformed the staid historic home into a lively social hub. Like their cousin Henry Francis du Pont at his Winterthur estate, they cherished American craftsmanship.
They enjoyed a good time, too. During Prohibition, they redecorated a series of basement rooms into a kitschy private speakeasy.
“Their interests were historic preservation and social drinking,” Grom says.
The Lairds didn’t disturb the historic interior of the public spaces, yet they put their own stamp on the grounds. They replaced a kitchen garden with a swimming pool and pool house to facilitate al fresco soirées. A black-and-white photograph shows the couple in a formal garden with low boxwoods; ivy climbs up the side of the house.
They also installed a yacht basin at the riverfront, ensuring steady deliveries from local bootleggers via boat or seaplane. The couple went on to lead the local Colonial Revival movement, elevating New Castle from a fading river town into a destination for American history buffs.