Who Wesley College President Dr. William Johnston and his wife, Susan Johnston
What The Cannon House
Where South State Street, Dover
The regal Victorian manse that’s home to the president of Wesley College is an ideal place for an education on gracious entertaining.
It’s very much a home, where President William N. Johnston and his wife, Susan, live happily amid family and a golden retriever named Painter.
“We have kids and grandchildren,” Susan Johnston says. “We have a cat who jumps on tables.”
But it is also a grand property with impressive architectural features. Witness the ornate plaster moldings and marble fireplace mantel in the formal parlor. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases define a cozy library. The music room is a symphony of towering coffered ceilings, a herringbone brick floor and two pairs of French doors leading to an intimate courtyard.
“From the very beginning, we saw this house as a wonderful place to share with the college and the community,” she says. “It’s a privilege to do whatever we can to make our home welcoming, inviting and interesting to others.”
Historically, the property is the Annie Jump Cannon House, named for the renowned astronomer who grew up in Dover.
“She had a brilliant, wonderful mother who also loved the stars,” Johnston says. “Together, they would go up to the roof of this house to study the constellations.”
Mother and daughter climbed out into the night sky via a trap door. In later years, Cannon would recall that her father, state Sen. Wilson Lee Cannon, fretted she would burn down the house with the candle she carried to light her way.
Cannon graduated from Wesley, then the Wilmington Conference Academy, in 1880. She fell ill with scarlet fever while a student at Wellesley in Massachusetts. As a result, Cannon lost most of her hearing. But her love for learning was not diminished.
She helped to devise a system for classifying stars, based on the colors produced by their heat. In 1925 she received an honorary doctorate from Oxford, the first awarded to a woman. She worked at the Harvard Observatory until her death at age 77 in 1941.
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By the time Annie Cannon began gazing at the stars in the years following the Civil War, the house had undergone extensive renovations. A Victorian veranda with slender columns in the Italianate style and a pair of formal parlors were added to the front of the original structure, which was built in the early 1800s.
In 1997 the house became the official residence for the president of Wesley College, the state’s oldest private college, located just a few blocks down on State Street.
When the Johnstons moved in four years ago, they added their family heirlooms and antiques to the collection of Victorian-era furniture that already was in the house. With 6,000 square feet in three stories and 19 nicely appointed rooms, the couple was eager to share the space with guests.
“This is not just a place for receptions,” Johnston says. “It is our home and Bill and I very much enjoy extending an invitation to people to share this house with us.”
A former courtyard, initially enclosed to house a massive pipe organ, is accessed via a half-flight of stairs that descend from the foyer. For years, it was a veritable interior island, walled off from the adjoining room, which served as a cave for the pipes.
The organ is gone now, although the space is still used as a music room. The pipe cave was repurposed as a large dining room.
“Thank goodness someone came up with the idea of opening the music room up to the dining room,” she says. “Now, there is wonderful flow between the spaces.”
The music room already was furnished with such amenities as a grand piano, a tapestry settee and chairs and a large, opulent punch bowl embellished with grapes and vines. The Johnstons added a maple dining table and a vintage Victrola, an homage to Eldridge Reeves Johnson, the Dover resident who founded the Victor Talking Machine Co. in 1901.
The Johnstons are passionate about Dover, often hosting civic groups, including the Downtown Dover Partnership. William is an active member.
“We appreciate the history and all that Dover has to offer,” she says. “We think it’s a great place to live and want to help more people to discover our city.”
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The larger of the home’s two formal dining rooms is an eclectic space that includes a cast-iron Cinderella range that once belonged to William’s grandmother. Susan, an accomplished watercolorist who has shown at Dover’s Biggs Museum of American Art, painted the large garden scene that hangs over the sideboard. The oak jelly cupboard came from a friend’s basement and now holds china and glassware.
A pedestal table with carved paw feet easily seats 12 and is pressed into service for dinner parties, as well as less formal gatherings, including breakfasts with student athletes, where William makes hotcakes. The Oriental carpet under the table came from Susan’s childhood home in Ohio.
She often pairs the Wesley College silver place settings, monogrammed W.C., with her wedding china in the Aynsley Henley pattern, a timeless banded motif with swags of vines and flowers.
“I like to say I made two good choices when I got married: my husband and my china pattern,” she says.
The Fostoria crystal goblets were handed down by her grandmother. The tole trays painted in bright flowers, displayed atop the cupboard, belonged to her mother. A pair of large candelabrum, made in the Art Nouveau style, is a gift from friends.
Her mother, who grew up in Sussex County, took pride in setting a fine table. Johnston appreciates the good feeling generated through entertaining. Candlelight kindles conversation. Dessert nurtures sweet memories.
She bakes beautifully browned loaves of bread for gatherings, a symbol of abundant hospitality.
“Baking bread isn’t all that difficult, yet it makes people feel extremely welcome,” she says.
Johnston works with a caterer on menus for dinners and receptions. The bill of fare always includes a vegetarian offering. Local favorites, such as chicken Chesapeake, are often on the buffet.
“In Delaware, there has got to be crab,” she says.
Establishing the right flow is an essential element in making guests feel comfortable. It’s an old house with many stairs and the hosts are mindful that some visitors are challenged by those barriers. The Johnstons set up a buffet often. Large windows in the room—part of the original house—are open to the music room below.
On warm evenings, the Johnstons open the French doors in the music room to the courtyard and serve guests under the stars.
Annie Cannon would very likely approve.