“This is a magnificent property and it’s only fitting that we go all out at Christmas,” says Karen Wright, who owns the home in New Castle with her husband, Darren, and in-laws Barbara and Martin Wright.
Lesley Manor was commissioned in 1855 by Allen Voorhees Lesley, a prosperous doctor who served as speaker of the state senate. He hired Thomas and James Dixon, the Baltimore architects who designed The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, to draw plans for a Gothic Revival mansion in the style of castles along the Rhine in Europe.
The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been known over the years as Lesley-Travers Mansion, Deemer House, Travers House, and Lesley House, in deference to various owners.
Ultimately, Dr. Lesley added a striking five-story tower to the manse, in addition to such 19th-century marvels as electrified chandeliers, central heat, speaking tubes and an alarm system of wires channeled into the window frames. In all, the house encompasses 13,000 square feet embellished with lavish plaster moldings, ornate wood millwork, massive pocket doors and opulent marble mantels.
“It’s remarkable how much craftsmanship went into this house—and we are overjoyed that so much of it is still intact,” Karen Wright says.
Dr. Lesley died in 1881 and only caretakers lived in the mansion until 1903, when Seldon S. Deemer, a New Castle steel manufacturer, restored the house and expanded the gardens. But the mansion’s revival was short-lived. In 1930, in the early days of the Great Depression, it was sold for pennies on the dollar.
The new owner immediately began selling off land. Originally 200 acres, the estate now encompasses slightly less than two acres on the edge of Old New Castle.
When the Wrights pooled their resources to buy the property in 2006, the manor had been for sale for four years. The previous owner, who operated a bed-and-breakfast inn, had made significant upgrades but there was still a lot of heavy lifting to do.
Since then, the family has been going at it hammer and tong—and trowel and sander—to complete the restoration. So far, they have had custom storm windows made for 60 of the more than 100 windows, each made individually in a different size. Marty Wright is working his way up five flights of stairs, meticulously priming and staining each spindle as he goes. He also has taught himself such time-honored skills as plastering walls and repointing bricks.
He and Barb, who operated an antiques store in southern New Jersey for many years, now run Manor Antiques out of the former kitchen in the mansion’s cavernous basement.
Restoring an old house requires the skills of an architectural detective. By looking at old plans, Karen Wright discovered what was essentially a secret attic. Inside, was hidden treasure: a cache of original shutters, spindles and millwork.
Over the years, parts of Lesley Manor were carved out as rental apartments. What was originally the butler’s pantry was outfitted with appliances and repurposed as a compact kitchen.
The space proved cramped and dysfunctional as a place to prep and cook food. But restored to its status as a butler’s pantry the galley serves the homeowners with efficiency and style, with wine storage, an ice maker and an auxiliary dishwasher. A cabinetmaker crafted additional raised-panel cupboards to match the original china closets.
Today, what was once rental space has been reabsorbed into a home for the extended family. That includes a small, vintage kitchen for Karen and Darren Wright, as well as a new, expansive kitchen that can accommodate caterers installed by Barb and Marty Wright several years ago.
“With a house this large, we can be together as a family, yet still have complete privacy,” Barb Wright notes.
Many years ago, a previous owner sold private memberships to neighbors who wished to take a dip in the manor swimming pool. By the time the Wrights bought the property the pool was in a state of disrepair. Marty Wright converted it to a koi pond and tranquil Asian garden. Neighbors are still welcome, but there’s no charge.
In fact, the Wrights frequently share their home with the public, hosting fundraisers for good causes and opening their doors for the Spirit of Christmas tour of churches and historic homes in New Castle.
With so many halls to deck, they shop for decorations all year. A favorite resource for quality ornaments is National Decorative Distributors, tucked away in an industrial park in Newark.
“They have wonderful sales several times a year,” Karen Wright says.
The family begins decorating the exterior well before Thanksgiving, harnessing a 45-foot boom lift to hang massive wreaths and garlands. Unlike Santa’s sleigh, the boom is pressed into service year-round for exterior maintenance on the mansion’s upper floors.
Inside, there is one fresh tree, the towering tannenbaum in the foyer. The rest are artfully artificial.
“It’s the only tree that is not in front of a radiator,” Karen Wright says. “We don’t have to worry about it drying out as quickly.”
The tree in the living room, the home’s original ballroom, is 12 feet tall—the ceilings are 13½ feet—and decorated with mementos collected by Barb and Marty throughout their travels in 45 years of marriage. Barb Wright’s army of nutcrackers—“I guess there are 80 or so”—stands sentry.
A conservatory retains its marble floor and tongue-in-groove ceiling. Karen Wright designed a shimmering silver motif for the space with glistening branches and strings of gleaming beads. The tree is festooned with snow-dusted sprigs of lamb’s ear and mistletoe berries.
“It’s a cooler room, so I wanted an icy feel,” she says.
The tree in the library is a tribute to the elder Wrights’ daughter, Dana, a gifted marine biologist who died 10 years ago. It is decorated with fanciful ornaments depicting fish, lobster and Cape Cod cottages, a reference to Massachusetts, where she worked and lived during her career.
An intricately detailed ceiling medallion overhead required five different applications of plaster in varying layers to achieve. The stately brass chandelier was produced by Cornelius & Baker of Philadelphia, maker of the celebrated 20-foot- by-14-foot chandelier at the Academy of Music in the City of Brotherly Love.
In the dining room, the tree is dressed in purple lights that sparkle like an amethyst necklace. The intricate pattern of fruits and flowers in the drapery fabric inspired the botanical theme. Pears and greenery adorn the mantel of carved wood and Moravian tiles. The Lenox china on the table, in the classic holiday pattern of holly leaves, was passed down by Marty’s aunt.
Karen and Darren enjoy spending time in a cozy parlor in front of a fireplace outfitted with a turn-of-the-century gas heater.
Traditionally, Darren sets up electric trains that zip around the base of a tree decorated with toys.
In January, as the Wrights begin the long process of packing up the holidays, they are the last decorations to come down.
“My husband loves Christmas so much, we like to make it last as long as possible,” Karen Wright says.
The Spirit of Christmas tour of churches and historic homes, sponsored by New Castle Presbyterian Church, takes place 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. on Dec. 14. (newcastlepreschurch.org or 328-3279)
Start decorating for the holidays outdoors, as it grows colder, and as December approaches. Seize unseasonably warm days for stringing lights and hanging wreaths.
Don’t save your holiday china for the big night. Keep your table set throughout the season and enjoy your special pieces for weeks.
Assemble the right tools for the job. To hang lights on tall trees, the Wrights suggest setting up ladders on either side of the tree, then passing the strings back and forth between two helpers.
Mix it up. Decorate with high-quality artificial greens, as well as the genuine item. Place fresh greens in cooler rooms and away from radiators and heating vents.
Inventory your ornaments. The Wrights use heavy-duty plastic bins to keep their decorations safe and dry in the off-season. Group items for each room in the same bin. Clearly label each bin before you tuck it into storage.