At a Glance
Who Jeanne and William Buckworth
What January House
Prosperity and population have ebbed and flowed throughout Odessa’s long and storied history and the various residents of January House, perched high above the Appoquinimink River, have borne witness to it all.
Each December, Jeanne Buckworth and her husband, William, station a large star on the hillside outside the house for passers-by to behold, a glowing herald of the holidays.
“This is a very special time of year in our little town,” says Jeanne Buckworth, who is informally known as the Christmas Star Lady.
Their house on Main Street was built around 1780 for the aptly named Thomas Star in a village that was then known as Cantwell’s Bridge. The deed lists the sellers as the January family. Actually, the original landowner was Thomas Janvier, a French Huguenot who changed his name to January after immigrating to America.
Gussying up the house for the holidays is a more recent tradition, in keeping with Odessa’s reputation as a destination for visitors who find inspiration in a bevy of abundantly decorated homes and historic properties.
“Every once in a while we worry that we will run out of ideas,” says the couple’s daughter, Dawn. “But we always manage to come up with something new and amazing.”
Once a thriving grain port, the town was renamed Odessa in the 19th century in reference to the bustling shipping hub in the Ukraine. The house also evolved over the years, with a succession of owners renovating it to suit their taste.
In the mid-20th century, when the town’s population had dwindled to a few hundred souls, January House was purchased by H. Rodney Sharp, a DuPont Co. executive who envisioned Odessa as an enclave of architectural preservation. Sharp established a settlement of 10 historic buildings, including January House, as well as a Colonial Revival garden.
Jeanne Buckworth worked as Sharp’s secretary for 22 years. Her boss knew that she and her husband loved Odessa as much as he did. And so Sharp offered the couple a rare opportunity to become part of living history.
Would they be interested in renting January House?
No, the Buckworths did not want to rent. Could they possibly buy the property?
More than 30 years later, the couple is still marveling that Sharp took them up on their offer.
“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Jeanne Buckworth says.
OLD HOUSE, NEW IDEAS
Originally, the house faced the Appoquinimink, the better to view approaching vessels. That structure included six rooms, essentially two rooms on each floor stacked on top of one another for three stories. Today, that part of the house retains its wide, random-width flooring and four fireplaces.
That historic core is sandwiched between two additions constructed on either end during the restoration. The modern-day front of the house is a symmetrical four-bay brick facade facing a long driveway. The property also includes a garage and a smokehouse.
The Buckworths have put their own stamp on their home, making additions to both the house and the grounds. They bought a 40-acre plot that adjoined the two-acre gardens surrounding the house.
During the Sharp project, a large Victorian addition with columns was torn down to pare the structure back to its Colonial core.
The present-day kitchen was added during the restoration, part of a two-story, Federal-style wing that includes a second-floor bath. Originally, the kitchen was a utilitarian space with metal cupboards, Sharp’s concession to life in the 20th century.
Intent on creating a look that was warmer and more rustic, the Buckworths refaced the cabinetry with barn wood. An exposed brick wall is part of the original exterior of the house. “It’s functional and friendly, the two most important things in a kitchen,” Buckworth says.
The fireplace in the formal dining room is large enough to cook in—a task that could still be accomplished today by hanging a cast iron pot on the cooking arm.
“We think that this room probably was the original kitchen because of the fireplace,” she says. “It would have been the place where people gathered, to cook and to keep warm.”
A cherished family friend, the late cabinetmaker Ronald Starnes, crafted the dining table and breakfront. The J.E. Caldwell grandfather clock that ticks in the foyer was made in Philadelphia in the mid-1800s.
“It keeps perfect time,” Buckworth says.
The Buckworths can enjoy even the snowiest day in comfort in the large sun room they added to the side of the house that fronts the river. The heat from a gas fireplace ensures that leafy ferns are happy year-round.
Nearly all the greens Buckworth uses in her holiday arrangements are the genuine article, plucked from her garden and grounds. There are fragrant juniper boughs, spiky cryptomeria branches, glossy magnolia leaves and various species of holly.
Buckworth is blessed with many friends, who often volunteer to help her decorate for the holidays. For years, she resisted because she didn’t want to burden others.
“Then I realized how much fun it could be to get a group together and work as a team,” she says. “People love to help.”
Now, getting ready for the holidays is a social occasion, with neighbors chatting as they polish silver and unpack ornaments.
It’s the perfect time to bring out family keepsakes that have been tucked away for months. Buckworth tenderly places her favorite antique dolls in the wooden cradle passed down by her grandmother. She sets a wee table and a child’s tea service in front of the fireplace.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
In Odessa, homeowners also benefit from advice from the pros as they prepare for the annual Christmas tour. Buckworth worked with Scott Mastrangelo of Gardens Great and Small in Hockessin to fashion holiday arrangements from such unexpected materials as gourds, dried hydrangea and river birch, known for its artfully peeling bark.
“Odessa is all about being natural,” he says. “I don’t use anything shiny or glittery because there were not a lot of sparkling objects in Colonial days.”
Mastrangelo treks into the woods in search of moss, a welcome flash of green in the midst of a long winter. He serves up the moss on a china platter, a merry juxtaposition of primitive plant and civilized ceramic, and tops the moss with fresh apples. He rubs gourds with olive oil to give the skin a mottled effect and places the hardy veggies on the mantel.
Buckworth slices pomegranates in half to expose the nubby seeds and arranges the fruit in a crystal bowl with fresh red roses.
Sometimes, the most dazzling displays are the easiest to assemble, she confides. To create instant “wow,” take a tall glass cylinder and fill with fresh cranberries, readily available at the grocery store. Drop a votive candle on top of the berries and light.
“People always love that arrangement—and they love it even more when they learn that they can do it themselves,” she says.