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The People's House

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First Lady Carla Markell has inspired a warm atmosphere at Woodburn. Photograph by Jared CastaldiWhen Charles Hillyard III built Woodburn in 1798, he erected what was considered then to be a Middle Period Georgian palace, with Flemish bond brickwork and an interior that boasted superior Georgian woodwork. Hillyard’s 10 children filled its halls with joyful noise. When he died at 54, his daughter, Mary, bought the house. She lived there with her family for 11 years.

Many families have since called Woodburn home. During the 1840s and 1850s, it served as a station on the Underground Railroad. It has even been the subject of a few spooky tales. In 1815, residents were convinced that Hillyard’s ghost trod the staircase and polished off unfinished glasses of wine. Others have claimed that a ghost crashed Mike Castle’s inauguration party.

The state bought Woodburn in 1965, and, starting with Governor Charles L. Terry, the mansion became the official residence of the governor of Delaware.

At 3,584 square feet, Woodburn is one of the smallest governor’s mansions in the country. Though it is no palace, it is one of the finest period houses in Delaware. It has provided solace and shelter for many, and it has hosted thousands of public tours and legislative lunches. But time has had its way with Woodburn, expunging features that were once beautiful.

When Jack Markell was elected governor in 2008, the first lady, Carla Markell, believed it was time to give back to Woodburn the kind of warmth Woodburn has given the people of Delaware. Now fresh and inviting, the newly restored mansion reflects the cordiality of the Markell family and the unpretentious nature of its matriarch.

New chenilles, damask and textural linens complement freshly painted walls of taupe and blue. Layers of paint were stripped from intricate crown moldings. Heavy drapes were removed, allowing uncluttered, graciously appointed rooms to bathe in natural light.

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Portraits of Delaware’s first ladies grace The Great Hall. Tracing the proper and austere images of the past to more recent, casual portraits tells a rather liberating story. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe trick, Carla Markell says, was to “create a traditional, elegant, classic home with contemporary twists, with an emphasis on making it feel like a family home and not a museum.” The Markell children, Molly and Michael, both students at Charter School of Wilmington, spend a good deal of time at Woodburn, as does their beloved first dog, Isabel.

The challenge of restoring any historic property is formidable. Markell’s charge was to create a congenial atmosphere fit for a family while maintaining historical integrity fit for a governor.

Markell takes no credit for the renovation, which was successful in marrying historical integrity with comfort and elegance. Woodburn, she says, was transformed with a lot of help from her friends—experts from the state, Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, Brandywine River Museum, the Friends of Woodburn and many volunteers.

 

The gilded wood looking-glass in Woodburn’s dining room belonged to A.N. Spanel, founder of what would become Playtex in Dover. The mansion is home to many interesting and historical pieces of furniture and art. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe restoration plan­—formulated a month after Jack Markell was elected—was focused on the three rooms open to the public: The Great Hall, dining room and living room—the parlor of yore.

Markell needed direction from the pros, so she called upon Stephen Mottola, a designer and real estate relocation director at Patterson Schwartz, and Jocelyn Stewart, an art connoisseur and senior director of community relations at Barclay’s. Markell then invited Tom Savage, Bob Davis and David Roselle, all from Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, to provide historical perspective. Ann Baker Horsey, curator of collections at Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, managed the project, coordinated schedules with state staffers, transported historical artwork and furnishings, and worked with the Friends of Woodburn, a nonprofit group she has been a member of since its founding in the mid-1990s. Horsey, who has assisted every Woodburn family since the Tribbitt administration in 1973, was a godsend, says Markell. “Without Ann, none of this could have happened.”
 


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The Great Hall’s floral showpiece is by Diane Crom, the state’s horticultural superintendent. The mille de fleurs style of the 1800s complements Woodburn’s period. Photograph by Jared CastaldiVisitors first enter The Great Hall, a 609-square-foot room that the Markells use as an entrance, but no longer a sitting area. When the governor invites legislators for lunch, the hall becomes a dining room; the formal dining room can seat only 12 guests.

Mid-19th century crystal and silver sconces, as well as a chandelier by Baccarat of France, were fully restored and electrified. The chandelier in The Great Hall was moved toward the center of the room to better balance the space between the 44-by-94-inch windows.

An English Queen Anne high chest of drawers in burled walnut with herringbone inlay is finished with incised cartouche brass handles. A tall case Chippendale clock by Thomas Crow of Wilmington ticks while portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Kensey Johns, painted by John Wollaston in the 1700s, guard the room. There are no drapes, so the windows were tinted with a UV film to cut down on damaging rays and protect upholstery, art and woodwork.

The Great Hall’s natural showpiece at center is the floral work of Diane Crom, the state’s horticultural superintendent. Her design mode, known as mille de fleurs (a thousand flowers), is a traditional style of the 1800s appropriate for Woodburn’s period. Volunteers from the local Potpourri Garden Club often help, as does co-worker Christine King, who, like Crom, holds a certificate of merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. “Most of the flowers are grown on site and sometimes cut from other historical sites,” says Crom, “or in the case of the hydrangeas, from my yard.”

Portraits of first ladies hang in The Great Hall. Repositioned salon-style, they feature women such as Jessica Irby Terry, Marim Comegys, Abigail Woodnutt Miller, Ann Valiant Carvel and several others. Tracing the proper and austere image of Sarah Fisher Rodney (1814) to the approachable and casual stance of Jane DiSabatino Castle (1985), the attitudes and styles of the women tell a rather liberating story.

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The patio offers a shaded area for outdoor dining. Photograph by Jared CastaldiGovernor Ruth Ann Minner had the portraits hung after “the seed had been planted by Martha Carper,” says Horsey, though Minner did not commission the portraits. The late Ned Davis, a local lobbyist, and Glenn Kenton, who also helped acquire many of the portraits that now hang in Legislative Hall, led the committee.

“The project started in 1980 as a bipartisan effort with the acquisition of Mrs. Terry’s portrait,” says Horsey. “Russ Peterson donated the next photo portrait of his wife to be hung in 1995 (now replaced with an oil), while Mrs. Carvel followed in 1999.”

The Chippendale mahogany sofa in the living room is more comfortable than it looks. It’s paired well with a mid-19th century Chippendale secretary bookcase. A German crystal and silver mid-19th century chandelier is a stunning complement to the fixture in The Great Hall.

A blue-and-white English Staffordshire earthenware platter depicting the Great Seal of Delaware is a Woodburn tradition, though it gets moved with each administration. Above the gas fireplace is a portrait of Delaware’s Commodore Thomas MacDonough by John Trumbull. A war hero of the 1800s, MacDonough is immortalized in the England Staffordshire cobalt blue tea service that commemorates his victory over the British in 1814. There are letters signed by MacDonough and a lithograph of him, as well.

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A painting of Delaware’s Commodore Thomas MacDonough is a highlight in Woodburn’s airy living room—and its Chippendale mahogany sofa is as comfortable as it is elegant. Photograph by Jared CastaldiAs stodgy as all these historic artifacts can make a room feel, the living room is a place where someone in casual attire would feel comfortable. (You’ll often find Carla Markell in jeans.) The mood is accomplished with its lack of clutter. There is only one painting per wall, and though the room measures just 385 square feet, its tall ceilings diminish any feeling of confinement. The standout feature in the living room is the Persian carpet by Castelli, which features calligraphy and inspires the color palette in all three rooms. The carpet lived in the main bedroom upstairs during the Minner days.

The 366-square-foot dining room is the only room with curtains, but the gold silk panels are graceful. Above its gas fireplace with white marble hearth is a portrait of Caesar Novemberus Rodney. Furniture is intentionally sparse, which makes the standouts truly stand out, especially the Chippendale mahogany and marble serving table, a Hepplewhite mahogany and tulipwood sideboard—a gift from Governor Carvel—and a gilded wood looking-glass that belonged to A.N. Spanel, founder of Playtex (one of Dover’s largest employers).

Prominently featured in a small inlay painted in coral is the famous silver that was once hidden behind a Plexiglas cover. The coral makes the silver pop, so it’s easy to gaze with envy at objects like the soup ladle that belonged to Governor Hall, the lidded water pitchers from the Saulsburys, or the tea service owned by Governor and Mrs. Hunn.

Few would argue that the main event of this room is the N.C. Wyeth painting “Walden Wood Revisited,” which depicts Thoreau standing in a wooded area. Thoreau bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.

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The Woodburn fountain, while lovely, has not been renovated, but may be next year. Photograph by Jared CastaldiA renovation of such magnitude could have been expensive, but nothing was paid for with state money. When funds were needed, the Friends of Woodburn raised them. Numerous volunteers made the redo possible, says Markell.

Fred Carspecken, of Carspecken-Scott Gallery in Wilmington, was paid by the Friends to frame “Untitled Landscape,” an original Howard Pyle that hangs in the dining room. Carspecken then reframed several other pieces pro bono. House painters did everything at cost. J.D. Kurtz of Wilmington charged for the Oriental carpet in The Great Hall, then donated the dining room rug. New fabrics throughout the mansion were remnants from the outlet center at Calico Corners, sold by Calico’s Jan Jessup at a significantly reduced rate.

A new vegetable garden, tended to by the Future Farmers of America of Kent County and others, renders produce that’s donated to local shelters. Newly hung paintings—including Wyeths and Schoonovers—are on long-term loan from the Brandywine River Museum, Delaware Art Museum and the Biggs Museum of American Art.

Justifiably whopping designer fees also were waived. “It was a fun, few afternoons pulling together all the various swatches to create the family-friendly 2010 Woodburn,” says Mottola. “Understanding the significance of the property, we were able to blend many of the original antiques to accompany the 21st century redo of upholstered items.”

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A coral backdrop showcases silver that belonged to past governors. Photograph by Jared CastaldiMuch expertise came from Tom Savage of Winterthur, who created, free of charge, an eight-page recommendation. Savage was brought into the project because of his work for President Clinton, who appointed him to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

“I was familiar with how an official house must serve the dual purposes of family residence while having a public face,” says Savage. He recommended using light hues of the Federal Period. “The colors speak to Woodburn’s historic past, but they’re fresh today.”

The professionals involved with Woodburn say it was an honor to serve their state. But the spirit of volunteerism was the most inspiring aspect of the project. Carla Markell inspired that spirit.

“I believe that the administration currently in place consists of people who are genuinely committed to service,” says Markell. “So volunteerism has come naturally at Woodburn. I’ve always been involved in the community, but there’s a passion that comes with being the first lady and knowing you have this opportunity and this ability to help people. I don’t want to squander that opportunity.”

Markell had a “genuine curiosity, a true love of the house, and wanted to know how it could be used to the betterment of Delaware,” says Savage. “She wasn’t just making the house pretty for her own comforts. She doesn’t think that way.”

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It was Martha Carper who first called Woodburn “the people’s house.” “But even more now,” says Horsey, “Woodburn is evolving to a house with open doors, one that’s shared with the public.”

The beauty of Woodburn “shows a hugeness of heart on both Governor and Mrs. Markell’s parts,” says Horsey. “Carla wants to make sure that all elements of our population are included and that everyone can share what this house has to offer. It’s about inspiring volunteer groups, and when you’re around her, you can just feel the positive energy. You want to contribute, and you feel you can contribute. She makes you feel that your voice is important.”

“It’s easier to engage others because they feel excited to be part of the solution,” Markell says. “We have a lot of people suffering in Delaware. We have economic challenges. But I believe people want to make a difference. I guess you could say that the governor’s mansion is a metaphor for that spirit.”

In addition to being one of the smallest governor’s mansions in the nation, says Horsey, “Woodburn is certainly, if not the oldest, with its 1790 date, at least among the top three or so in age. What an amazing life this old lady has had.”

And that life goes on.

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