Photos by luigi ciuffetelli
William Penn took his first steps in America in New Castle upon his arrival from England on Oct. 27, 1682. Michelle and Michael Quaranta began their courtship walking through the historic town on the Delaware River. “I brought Mike here on our first date,” Michelle recalls. “We went for a walk in Battery Park and then dinner at Jessop’s Tavern.” So it was a natural step to buy a home in Old New Castle as they began their life together as a married couple.
Now known as the Kensey Johns Van Dyke House, the structure was built in 1820 in a classic Federal style, with a balanced facade of red brick. The Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the American Revolution, attended the wedding of Dorcas Van Dyke and Charles I. du Pont there on Oct. 6, 1824. The Quarantas discovered the house on one of their frequent strolls through the historic district. When Michelle saw
a “For Sale” sign, she stood on tiptoe to see if she could get a peep inside. “Then the owner came out and invited us in for a glass of wine,” she says. The couple accepted the hospitality. And several months later, they bought the house.
Steeped in history, the house reflects the grandeur and natural resources of 19th-century prosperity. Ceilings defined with elaborate plaster moldings soar 12 feet above hardwood floors. Massive doors are crafted from Santo Domingo mahogany, prized for its fine grain and rich, reddish color. The fireplace mantel in the parlor was carved from King of Prussia marble, a blue-gray stone with dark veining that hasn’t been quarried in more than 175 years. The house also provides space for an active blended family that includes Michelle’s adult son and Mike’s three school-age children. With five bedrooms, there is plenty of room for the kids to visit. There’s a garage and parking for eight cars, a rare find in the historic district.
Best of all, it’s located in the heart of town. “We wanted a place where we could walk and go to restaurants,” Michelle says. “Old New Castle became home right away.” With its spacious rooms and welcoming vibe, the house is ideally suited as a community gathering place. Michelle is a Realtor and executive of the Delaware Apartment Association, located a few steps from her front door. Mike is a lobbyist, who served as chief of staff for former Congressman Mike Castle. Both are active in civic organizations. “We do a lot of entertaining here for both our jobs and for groups we want to help,” she says.
No one is quite sure how long the massive mahogany table has stood in the expansive dining room. But the Quarantas are at least the second homeowners to inherit the piece from a previous occupant. A massive Empire-style sideboard also has taken up permanent residence. “They will stay with the house because there aren’t very many dining rooms large enough to fit them,” Michelle says. She bought the settee in the parlor at an auction. A vintage table was discovered at a thrift store in Stanton. A portrait of Lafayette hangs in the parlor, commemorating his attendance at the wedding 190 years ago. At some point, the painting was gifted to the City of Wilmington. A neighbor, Bob Poskitt, put in the winning bid at an auction, and the Quarantas purchased it from him soon after they moved into the house. When Poskitt, a former president of the New Castle Historical Society, moved to New England he sold a portrait of George Washington to the couple and several antiques to other neighbors.
Sharing a respect for history is a common bond in the community. So is identifying the resources required to preserve the past. “We share information about contractors,” Michelle says. “People who do specialty work are hard to come by.” In a centuries-old home, replacing an appliance can become a major production. In the Quaranta house, the refrigerator is located in a built-in cubby in an alcove in the kitchen, a tight squeeze for a serviceman, who determined the appliance would have to be replaced. “When the installers came to take out the fridge and put in a new one, they couldn’t get it past the radiator,” Michelle recalls. The laborious solution was to bring in an HVAC team to drain the boiler in the furnace in order to move the radiator. After the new fridge was in, they put the radiator back in place, then bled the 22 other radiators in the system. “We have decided that the new fridge is going to stay there forever,” Michelle says.
For much of the year, the Quarantas enjoy their garden with friends and family, or in the company of their pets, Betty, a chocolate Lab, and Adele, a German shepherd, both rescue dogs. It is a tranquil green oasis amid the red brick of Old New Castle. A koi pond bubbles. There’s a fountain with a statue of a young boy holding a bowl of water. In the evening, the garden is illuminated by Colonial-inspired, street-style lights, topped with ornamental eagles. The garden is shaded by two tall magnolia trees, whose glossy emerald leaves have long been used in wreaths and winter bouquets. Beds are planted with hostas, rose bushes, black-eyed Susans and a profusion of other perennials. “There is always something in bloom,” Michelle says. In earlier days, residents relied on an outhouse discreetly sited in the back of the property. Today, the house boasts three full baths and two powder rooms. The out-house has been repurposed as a shed for gardening tools.
More recent history is celebrated in the basement, where a Prohibition-era bar is outfitted as a speakeasy. Containers made in the 1930s are stamped, “Federal law prohibits the sale of this bottle.” On game days, the couple invites friends and neighbors to watch sports and raise a glass. “We are the caretakers of our home, and we love to open it up to others,” Michelle says. “This house is meant to be shared.”