The big, old house on Nottingham Road in Newark is a patchwork quilt of sorts, one stitched together through the centuries.
The first red bricks were laid in 1692, 84 years before Caesar Rodney’s heroic ride from Dover to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote for the Declaration of Independence. The newest section of the house, a stately facade with two entryways, was added in 1840, 21 years before the Civil War.
For most of its life, the house has been home to the people who farmed the land around it, starting with the Steel family, Irish immigrants who grazed cattle on what was then a 255-acre spread bordering White Clay Creek.
Today the property is the Blue Hen Bed & Breakfast, the temporary residence of travelers from around the globe and full-time home to the current owners, Don and Amy Eschenbrenner, who grow flowers, herbs and vegetables on the remaining two acres.
“Both sides of my family were farmers and I feel obligated to have a garden,” Amy says.
She is a direct descendant of John Bartram, the Quaker explorer, botanist and founder of Bartram’s Garden outside Philadelphia, the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America. Her maiden name is Greenplate, also indicative of her Quaker roots. Her mother was Pennsylvania Dutch. Not surprising, Amy has a lifelong love of history and pieces of the past.
“When we met, she was living in this development from the 1970s and had rooms and rooms of antiques she was saving,” Don says.
“Both sides of our family had lots and lots of antiques that none of the siblings and cousins wanted,” Amy says. “Whenever there was something no one else was interested in, I would take it.”
The parlor is a formal yet cozy space decorated with a blend of family pieces and vintage finds.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
In 2008, the couple discovered what might be the ultimate American antique—a house more than 300 years old—when the widow of longtime owner Harry Montgomery, a breeder of champion Irish setters, put it on the market.
At the time, the price tag for the 5,000-square-foot house, 2,000-square-foot barn and surrounding land was beyond their means. But the Eschenbrenners decided it was worth the risk.
“I took out my whole 401(k) to buy the house,” Amy says. “Then I lost my job, like a lot of people did in 2008.”
In searching for a solution, she referenced her personal history. Years earlier, she had earned a degree in theater from the University of Delaware, a pursuit that inspired travel. “I lived in London in 1981 and would travel through England and Scotland and stay in B&Bs,” she says. “I thought, wow, this is really cool.”
Later, she and her husband would gravitate toward inns when they took trips in the United States. “We loved to go to Cape May and stay in bed-and-breakfast inns,” she says.
She decided her next role would be innkeeper, a pursuit that would make the house pay for itself “or at least contribute to the mortgage.” It took two years to navigate the approval process with New Castle County and complete renovations on the house. After that, it didn’t take long for the couple to settle into a routine as hybrid homeowners and innkeepers.
Don kept working as a civil engineer, while taking on chef duties at the inn. A certified Bob Ross art instructor, he also gives classes for guests on weekends. Amy became a full-time innkeeper and businesswoman.
Her family pieces now have a long-term home. Witness salt-glazed crocks from her Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors. Her grandmother bought the expansive service of Austrian china in 1925. A rare art piece of woven hair comes from the Bartrams. The electrified pump organ in the parlor came from the previous home of Ebeneezer United Methodist Church in Newark.
“My parents had some of the pews in their house,” she says.
Each of the inn’s three guestrooms is named for a noted artist.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
The history of past owners is part of the fiber of the house. In the root cellar, there is a meticulous accounting of the meats that were stored there over the years.
For centuries, paperhangers have autographed their work, dating the job on the wall in pencil before hanging the paper. There are two such artifacts in the Eschenbrenner home. In the parlor, James Tyler left his signature in 1896. In the upstairs hallway, there’s an inscription: Papered by Wm. Lum, 11-10-1739. (There’s no connection to Lums Pond. He was an artist from Philadelphia.)
Adeline Steel commissioned the European-style fresco on the parlor ceiling. Since then, hand-painted images of fruits and vines have been restored twice: in 1960 and in 1995.
It’s a formal yet cozy space, a blend of family pieces and vintage finds. “Our guests love to sit in there with their coffee and their wine,” Amy says.
The monastery closet was purchased from an antiques dealer in Old New Castle. The Eschenbrenners bought several furnishings from the previous owner, including a buffet, china closet, needlepoint chair and the dining table where guests gather each morning for a sumptuous breakfast. The repast might include Don’s recipe for pork schnitzel with silken Hollandaise sauce, Amy’s fresh-baked coffeecake with applesauce and cinnamon chips, house-made granola and scones with homemade blackberry jam.
“Don takes my banana bread, soaks it in egg and milk overnight and makes French toast,” Amy says. “In a bed-and-breakfast inn, breakfast is very important.”
So are the beds. The Eschenbrenners team high mattresses and reproduction bedframes with antiques chests and nightstands in the inn’s three guestrooms. Each is named for a noted artist. The Cassatt, inspired by the art of Philadelphia impressionist Mary Cassatt, is feminine with ornate wallpaper reminiscent of a watercolor painting and a four-poster bed. The Wyeth is decorated with Victorian antiques and prints of paintings by N.C. Wyeth of Chadds Ford and his teacher, Wilmington illustrator Howard Pyle. The Kinkade is awash in the sunny colors embraced by Thomas Kinkade. The suite includes a kitchenette, bath and screened porch.
Amy Eschenbrenner enjoys the gazebo with a pair of pooches—the inn is a pet-friendly destination.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Guests come from as far afield as Iceland. A visitor from Mumbai proposed to his American girlfriend at the inn. A guest from Paris, fascinated by football, made arrangements to take in two games, the Blue Hens of UD and the Philadelphia Eagles. “He had never heard of a tailgate party, so we made one for him,” she says.
Every once in a while, a former resident stops by. “One day, a guy from Connecticut popped in and said he lived here during World War II,” Amy says. “He sent me pictures taken on the farm.”
It’s a pet-friendly destination, with a designated dog lounge, where it’s OK for Fido to sit on the sofa. The lounge is outfitted with an assortment of dog beds to accommodate pooches of all sizes, “everything from Bernese mountain dogs to Jack Russell terriers,” Amy says.
Outdoors, the Eschenbrenners built a gazebo, where they can relax and enjoy glimpses of goldfinches, doves, butterflies and an occasional deer jumping the fence.
There is a vegetable garden, where the plantings include zinnias and cosmos for floral arrangements, cantaloupe and watermelon for breakfast, and cucumbers for pickling. Amy grows rosemary to use in soap.
“I feel at peace, very much at home, baking bread and making soap,” she says. “An old house is the place where I am supposed to be.”
Remember: In a historic home, one of the best sources of furnishings is the previous owner. The Eschenbrenners bought a dining table, needlepoint chair and other pieces from the widow of longtime owner Harry Montgomery. Mine family treasures. Amy Eschenbrenner enjoys dishes and other items that have been handed down through the generations. “When someone wanted to give something away, my hand always went up.” Preserve the past. Rather than cover up the centuries-old signatures of past paperhangers, the innkeepers decided to integrate them into the design. Allocate your space to reflect the way you live. The couple love their dogs and accommodate canine guests, so they designated a small den as a pet lounge. Infuse your rooms with personality. The innkeepers named each of three bedrooms for artists, then decorated them to reflect their styles