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Smyrna Mansion Offers History Lesson in Architecture

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William Temple was governor of Delaware for a scant eight months, from May 6, 1846, to Jan. 19, 1847.

His mansion in Smyrna has stood for almost two centuries.

Under its many ornate roofs, the mansion offers a history lesson in architecture. The older Federalist section has 9-foot ceilings, simple mantels and refined ornamentation, in keeping with the stately, balanced architectural form popular from 1785-1830. Built around 1860, the newer Italianate section is a large and lavish celebration of the Victorian era, with 13½-foot ceilings, carved marble mantels and exuberant plaster moldings.

In all, the manse encompasses 7,000 square feet with 16 rooms, including the former servant quarters, plus four-and-a-half baths, a walk-in pantry and a laundry room. 

The current owner is Ruth Bower, who loves every square inch of her home, from the depths of the cavernous basement to the top of the cupola.

“I have always dreamed of living in a grand old house and living in a small town where you can walk to the post office,” she says. “In Smyrna, I found both.”

There are more than 400 surviving structures in Smyrna on the National Register of Historic Places. When Bower bought her house in 2002, the structure was showing its age.

Her first order of business was to replace the mansion’s many roofs to stem the tide of water damage. She installed central air in the public spaces on the first floor and updated the heating system, but opted to retain the massive radiators.

“I love the old radiators and the sounds they make,” she says. “The hissing, the filling with water, is part of the charm.”

Early on, during a bathroom renovation, Bower was horrified when workmen tossed the original sink in the trash.

“After that, they were afraid to throw anything away,” she says. “They even kept the nails.”

(left) Bower added a large kitchen and casual dining space that features raised-panel cherry cabinetry and an eight-burner professional-style BlueStar gas range. (right) Owner Ruth Bower says she “always dreamed of living in a grand old house and living in a small town where you can walk to the post office.”

The Age of Grandeur

William Temple was a prosperous merchant who was elected to the Delaware House of Representatives in 1844 and became speaker in 1846. At 32, he became the First State’s youngest governor when Gov. Thomas Stockton and his constitutional successor, Senate Speaker Joseph Maull, died within two months of each other.

Temple died in 1863, soon after being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was 49. 

His obituary describes him as “emphatically a man of the world, possessing those rare qualities calculated to win every man and repel none.”

That might also describe Temple’s impressive home, which boasts such architectural elements as a sweeping staircase, gothic arched doors and a ballroom with a pair of elaborately carved marble mantels.

As it was in the 19th century, the ballroom remains a gathering place. In recent history, it has been a meeting space for civic groups, including the Smyrna Downtown Renaissance Association, a nonprofit group dedicated to enhancing the downtown district through preserving its unique historic character.

“It’s a lot of fun talking with other people who love old houses,” Bower says. “I have learned so much from them.”

On May 16, the Temple mansion and its sister house, the J.R. Clements Mansion, will be the setting for an elegant game dinner that reflects the days when Smyrna was known as Duck Creek. (Naturally, duck is on the menu.) The event is one of many festivities that are part of the MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival.

“I keep the ballroom minimally furnished so there is room for a lot of people,” Bower says. “For the game dinner, we will set up tables there.”

She found a long, tufted red velvet Victorian sofa at Canterbury Used Furniture in Felton. Several times a year, she looks for antiques at estate auctions at Crumpton, near Chestertown, Md.

A rosewood grand piano was purchased from the previous owner. She bought the ornately carved wooden sideboard from a neighbor. Mounted and framed Rococo-style porcelain figurines were a gift from her 97-year-grandmother, who displayed the pieces in her own home for half a century.

Previous owners sold off a few chandeliers and at least one massive door. But the magnificent plaster moldings and ceiling medallions remain in place and are remarkably intact except for a few patches of water damage.

Bower is searching for an artisan who has the skills to make the repairs.

“I had someone from Winterthur come out and take a look at the moldings,” she recalls. “He suggested I contact someone from the White House.”

(left) The mansion boasts such architectural elements as a sweeping staircase and gothic arched doors. (middle) On May 16, the mansion will be the setting for an elegant game dinner as part of the MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival. The dinner will reflect the days when Smyrna was known as Duck Creek. Naturally, duck will be on the menu. (right) Bower discovered splendid stained glass doors and a transom festooned with colorful fruits while visiting Paris.

Making the House Her Own

Over the years, the mansion has lost some of its architectural details, including the quoining that defined the corners of the facade. The decorative brickwork was lopped off when siding was added. Distinctive chimney pots were removed in the 1970s, when the home was converted, briefly, to apartments; one pot has been repurposed as a garden ornament in a neighbor’s yard. 

Bower isn’t certain what was mounted on top of a post on the cupola, although she suspects it was some sort of decorative object.

“So far, I haven’t been able to locate a photograph, records or anyone who knows what might have been there,” she says.

As the latest in a line of homeowners, Bower is intent on faithfully restoring the house, as well as making improvements for future generations. 

A banker, she lived and worked in England for a year and a half soon after she bought the property. Living abroad provided her with an opportunity to shop for fixtures and architectural salvage in Europe. 

In Paris, she discovered splendid stained glass doors and a transom festooned with colorful fruits. The brass and crystal chandelier in the kitchen also came from the City of Light.

Both found a new home in a large kitchen and casual dining space Bower added to the house, a project two years in the making.

“The whole town would stop by and ask how the kitchen is coming,” she recalls. 

In keeping with the opulent millwork throughout the mansion, she chose raised-panel cherry cabinetry detailed with beading in a deep, rich stain. The focal point is an eight-burner professional-style BlueStar gas range crowned with an elaborately carved hood.

“They make them in Reading, Pa., and the burners really do look like blue stars when you turn them on,” she says.

A super-size island accommodates several cooks.

“This is my pierogi factory,” she says. “Making pierogis with my mother is one of my favorite traditions.”

A large wooden beam and truss that once supported the back of the house remains in place, although the wall that surrounded it is gone. Her contractor suggested removing it and installing a modern, engineered beam but Bower opted to stick with the original. “The beam was non-negotiable,” she says. “I had to save it.”

What was once a cramped, utilitarian kitchen has been reborn as a cozy sitting room. Bower uncovered the fireplace, which had been hidden behind cabinets. She repurposed small wood planks removed during the renovation into a mantel shelf.

“I’m happy to find a place for those scraps of wood,” she says. “Every piece of this house is precious to me.”     

Get the Look
  • Don’t rewrite history. Installing central air and a modern heating system often requires cutting through wood and plaster to install vents. To minimize the impact on her Victorian home, Ruth Bower opted to cool only the first floor, tucking vents beneath the staircase and in other barely perceptible locations.
     
  • Share the love. Blessed with a ballroom, the homeowner kept the day-to-day furnishings to a minimum, allowing her to set up multiple tables when she hosts fundraisers and civic groups in her home.
     
  • Salvage pieces of the past. In Paris, the homeowner became smitten with exuberantly colored stained glass doors depicting fruits. Her first thought was to install the panels and uplighting in the ballroom. But when she added a new kitchen to the house she opted to hang the panels on sliders providing a grand entry to that space.
     
  • More is more. A grand house calls for grand statements. During the winter holidays, Bower decks the mirror in the foyer with lavish garlands of magnolia leaves. The kitchen boasts an eight-burner range and a super-size island.
     
  • Celebrate your home’s history. In the library, Bower displays a document penned by William Temple, who served as governor in the mid-19th century, and also signed by Joseph Comegys, Esq. She enjoys gathering clues as to how the house looked and functioned over time. 

 

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