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Presbyterian Ministers Restore New Castle County Farmhouse

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After bearing the weight of the world for more than 200 years, the farmhouse was in need of redemption.

At the same time, the Revs. Neta Pringle and John Potter felt a calling, an urge to connect with the land. 

“We had lived 10 years in the city and we were getting itchy,” Potter recalls. “I didn’t have any grass to mow and Neta needed room for her garden.”

The couple, both Presbyterian ministers, drove by the property in a pastoral pocket of New Castle County during an open house and took a tour on a whim.

The house sagged under ill-conceived additions, including a pair of decrepit bathrooms tacked on to the back. It smelled musty and moldy. The roof leaked.

Still, the home had much to recommend it. Stuccoed walls were more than a foot thick, and punctuated with lovely, nine-over-12 paned windows. The grounds, choked with weeds, held the promise of gardens. The price was right, too, reflecting the expense and expanse of putting the house back in order.

“We bought it for a song, and we’ve been singing ever since,” Potter says.
 

A Faithful Restoration

The pastors began a faithful restoration of the old house and gave their home a name befitting its woeful state: Mildew Manor.

For Pringle, the odor conjured happy memories of a cottage in Michigan, the pungent waft that greeted the family as they arrived to open up for the summer season.

The house was built in 1735, four decades before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. During its long history, the site was home to a bustling spice mill. The house also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, accessed through a trap door under the dining room table. 

Pringle and Potter, the first owners outside the original family, brought in a team of roofers, plumbers and electricians to evaluate the property.

“We learned the furnace was about to die, which it did as soon as we moved into the house,” Pringle says. “We also learned that the kitchen was built right on the dirt, with only termite-infested stringers for a foundation.”

While the work was going on, the couple planned to remain above it all in a third-floor apartment. There was one significant complication: The only way to access the third floor was through the outside, via steps cobbled onto the back of the house.

So, the first order of business was building an interior staircase that would connect the third floor with the rest of the home.

The couple moved in on Dec. 15, 2001, stacking their furniture in the dining room and sealing the room to protect the pieces from the waves of dust that were to come.

That first Christmas, the extended family decorated a tree and admired it from lawn chairs set up in a circle around it. 

“Our kids thought we had gone stark raving mad,” Potter says.

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Past and Future

Slowly the house evolved. The homeowners worked closely with contractor Dick McCoy, and carpenter, Ron Harmon, to retain the feeling of a home built in Colonial America.

It wasn’t the first time the house had been renovated in its long life. A little architectural detective work revealed that the house had been converted to a duplex at one time, with the miller renting one unit. 

“The rent was $30 a month, plus board for the mill hands,” Potter says.

This pair of chairs were bought at auction from the New York apartment of the acclaimed tenor Enrico Caruso.

In the 1950s, the house got another makeover. It was converted back to a single-family dwelling. The windows were enlarged, allowing more natural light into the rooms. Elegant built-in cabinetry with wrought-iron Colonial-style hinges was installed in the double parlor.   

In the most recent update, the faded bathrooms were razed from the back of the house to make way for an open-air deck where the couple enjoys views of the gardens and conserved open space beyond. 

Pringle and Potter installed a master bath on the second floor, as well as a walk-in closet. They carved out space in the large entry hall for a powder room and coat closet. To make the rooms look as if they were part of the original floor plan, the couple asked their carpenter to make precise copies of the 18th-century doors in the rest of the house.

The kitchen was gutted down to its dirt floor. A sturdy concrete foundation will anchor the room for centuries to come. The heated floor is paved in limestone, a creamy counterpoint to the deep brown stain of Shaker-style cabinetry.

Pringle and Potter embraced their home’s charms. In the master bedroom, there’s a one-of-a-kind floor of alternating planks of poplar and pine. The blue-and-white tiles on the decorative fireplace, likely added during the 1950s, depict such historic events as the founding of the Pony Express. They installed central air conditioning but kept the radiators, replacing electric baseboard heating in a family room addition with reclaimed rads.

“Nothing keeps a house as toasty warm as radiators,” Potter say.

In a successful marriage, spouses work together to achieve their goals. The same goes for home renovation. In the Pringle-Potter home, she papers and he paints.

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Family Heirlooms

In furnishing the house, the couple drew on their personal history. They call a guest bedroom the Matriarch’s Room because it is furnished in Victorian-era pieces handed down by women on both sides of their family. The centerpiece of the room is an elaborately carved bed with a towering headboard.

“John’s grandfather was born in that bed,” Pringle says. “Having things that come from the family gives us a sense of history, a sense of connectedness.”

The blue-and-white tiles on the decorative fireplace in the master bedroom depict historic eventsHis grandmother, Laura B. Carr, was a celebrated elocutionist, an authority in the study of formal speaking in pronunciation, grammar, style and tone. A flyer announcing one of her public appearances is framed and displayed on the bedroom wall. 

Potter is the only grandchild on both sides of his family. That makes him a natural caretaker of heirlooms great and small. The decorative stone fireplace mantel in the dining room was salvaged from a Victorian house in Linden, N.J., where his grandparents once lived.

The distinctive brass-and-glass chandelier was purchased from a fellow aficionado of the past, an electrician on Long Island, N.Y., who restores gas-fired lighting fixtures. The portrait of a woman, luminous in pearls, is a mid-life rendering of Pringle’s mother, Barbara Lindsay, who retained her sense of style until her death at 97 in January 2013.
 

A Cozy Feel

Pringle spent time in England and brought home the William and Mary chest-on-stand that is now in the parlor. An antique square piano was converted into a desk. The pair of chairs with intricately carved arms and nailhead trim were passed down from her aunt, who bought them at auction from the New York apartment of the acclaimed tenor Enrico Caruso.

The result is a relaxed and inviting mix of various vintages that’s in keeping with a home steeped in time.

 The Victorian bed in the Matriarch’s Room Simple exterior changes rendered a welcoming feeling. White stucco was repainted in cream. The industrial style metal front door was replaced with a wood door painted bottle green. Purple clouds of wisteria arch above the porch roof.

The couple commissioned Wilmington architect Joseph Carbonell to design a two-story detached garage that is compatible with the existing smokehouse and springhouse.

“Joe did a wonderful job,” Potter says. “People look at the garage and think it is a barn or other outbuilding that is hundreds of years old.”

Soil excavated for the garage foundation was deposited in terraced gardens behind the house, where mock orange, iris and peonies flourish. 

Over the years, various people with a connection to the house have come by to visit. A miller’s son brought a copy of his father’s lease. An elderly matron recalled her girlhood days in the parlor.

The house was rechristened: Plas Mawr, Welsh for Great House because, as Pringle says, “It really is a wonderful place to live.” 

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 Get the Look

  • Create an inviting entry. The Revs. Pringle and Potter painted the exterior a soft cream, replaced an industrial metal door with a wooden door and planted a canopy of wisteria over a porch roof.
  • Take your cue from the existing architecture and interiors. When the couple made space for a powder room and coat closet in the foyer they had a carpenter replicate the same wood-paneled doors found throughout the house. 
  • Surround yourself with pieces that are meaningful. The Revs. Pringle and Potter cherish furniture
  • handed down through the family, including a fireplace mantel salvaged from a Victorian in New Jersey.
  • Accommodate modern amenities. The updated house includes a new kitchen, master bath and walk-in closet.
  • Do your research. Before they bought the house the couple brought in tradespeople to determine what needed to be done and how much it would cost.

♦ For more from the August Issue click here
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