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The Perfect Fit

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Harold added a raised hearth to the fireplace and installed a wooden mantel the couple discovered at auction. Photograph by Thom ThompsonIn their quest for the ideal home, Joanne and Harold Burke toured more than 100 houses, as far north as Brandywine Hundred, as far south as Odessa.

A large, red brick semi-detached Victorian with a charming front porch on Eighth Street in Wilmington’s historic Cool Spring Neighborhood tugged at their heart strings.

But there was a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. The house wasn’t for sale.

“We had admired it on several occasions,” Joanne recalls. “Then one day we walked by and saw the For Sale sign had gone up.”

The Burkes made arrangements to view the home that very day. They were smitten the moment they opened the double oak doors and stepped into the foyer.

“After all that looking, we knew immediately that this was the place for us,” Joanne says. “If I had to design a perfect house, this would be it.”

The Burkes benefited from the sweat equity of the previous owner, who had restored many of the 3,300-square-foot home’s features while adding such modern amenities as skylights, large, luxurious bathrooms and lots of closet space.

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The Burkes enjoy the social aspects of their cozy front porch. Photograph by Thom Thompson“It was a labor of love for him, and it really showed,” Joanne says.

During the 1960s, the house had been carved up into apartments. But many of the original features remain, including a staircase with a finely carved newel post and graceful spindles. The interior wall shared with the neighboring home is exposed brick. The other walls are plaster. Ceilings soar 10 feet above the original yellow pine floors.

In the dining room, a window with a panel that lengthens the opening into a door is still intact, an amenity designed to make it easy to bring caskets in and out, in keeping with the Victorian tradition of hosting wakes at home. Original stained glass in vibrant jewel tones glistens in the windows.

Joanne bought the circa 1920s dining room suite for a house in Philadelphia. She was delighted to find it was a seamless match for the Wilmington home. The glass-front cupboard holds glassware and dishes handed down by her mother.

The parlor fireplace was designed to burn coal, the fuel of choice in 1889.

“Back then, wood was outdated,” Harold says. “Coal was the latest thing.”

He converted the fireplace to a gas-fueled unit, adding a raised hearth in slate. He also installed an ornate wooden mantel that he and his wife discovered at an auction of property confiscated by the U.S. Treasury.

“We think it was taken from a drug baron’s home,” Harold says.

The living room is spacious, an ideal gathering space for socializing. It also is large enough to accommodate a 19th-century organ, made by the Estey Organ Co. of Brattleboro, Vermont. The instrument was a gift from businessman and neighborhood booster Kevin Melloy. “He wanted it to have a good home, and we had just the right place for it,” Joanne recalls.

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The third floor was transformed into a family room with a jazz theme. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThe couple appreciates the big, open kitchen and adjoining breakfast area. An exposed brick wall serves as a gallery for mementoes, including a collection of African wood masks, crossed sabers from Spain and the sword carried by Harold’s father in the Marine Corps.

A spiral staircase of welded steel provides a sculptural element, as well as access to the back half of the second story.

The third floor has been transformed into an open, airy family room, with a big screen television and framed vintage posters of jazz greats, including John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. It’s the perfect place to relax and listen to music, says Harold, who is president of the local chapter of the Council of Jazz Advocates.

“I like Miles Davis best of all, also Delaware’s own Clifford Brown,” he muses.

“I love being up on the third floor while it is snowing,” Joanne says. “The view is spectacular.”

Outdoors, there is a sylvan back yard where Rose of Sharon and crape myrtle burst into pink blossoms each summer. There’s a small deck for al fresco dining.

While the rear garden is a private sanctuary, the front porch is a place for socializing. Big white rockers invite neighbors to come and sit a spell and enjoy the open air. Former residents of the house will occasionally stop by to exchange fond memories. “We sit out and people will come and chat,” Joanne says. “Front porches are very friendly.”

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Joanne bought a 1920s dining room suite for a previous home, but it’s the perfect fit for the Cool Spring abode. Original stained glass still graces the windows. Photograph by Thom ThompsonNamed for the nearby estate of patriot Caesar Rodney, the land that is now Cool Spring stretches from Pennsylvania Avenue to Sixth Street and from Jackson Street to Clayton Street. The community is an architectural aficionado’s dream because it includes such landmarks as University & Whist Club, Padua Academy, the Swedenborgian Church of the Holy City and the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.

“It was where the merchants and managers lived,” says Ed Weirauch, vice president of the Cool Spring-Tilton Neighborhood Association. “The houses are grand, with wonderful moldings and tile work. And most of the houses are large—and so are the properties.”

In 1983 the neighborhood was named a historic district. But the community is not stuck in the past. It continues to evolve, most recently with the transformation of the Cool Spring Reservoir into a park for all residents to enjoy.

“There’s no isolation in the city,” Harold says. “When you head out for a 20-minute walk, it turns into an hour and a half because there are so many people to talk to.”

Weirauch says Cool Spring attracts people who enjoy the energy and convenience of city life, with the added benefit of mature trees and gardens. Joanne is an attorney. Harold is in security management for Amtrak.

“A lot of people walk to work,” Weirauch says. “It’s like an urban suburb.”

The prosperous painting contractor who commissioned the Burke house built it to last, with such details as raised panel doors, pocket doors and a claw-foot, cast-iron tub that are still functioning after more than 120 years.

As for the Burkes, they intend to spend the rest of their days in the elegant house on Eighth Street.

“I fell in love with Cool Spring, with the social life, the people, the communal spirit,” Joanne says. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”


GET THE LOOK

  • Shop around until you get it just right. The Burkes looked at more than 100 homes before they found the precise fit.
     
  • Create a sanctuary. The Burkes love jazz, so they designated a third-floor family room as their listening area.
     
  • Be neighborly. A front porch is a direct conduit to pedestrians in your neighborhood. If you don’t have a porch, say welcome with a small garden. Even an inviting stoop can spark friendships.
     
  • Live with the things you love. The Burke home reflects their interests and experiences by blending family heirlooms, mementoes from travel and their appreciation for history.
     
  • Embrace the unexpected. Many Victorian-era homes have back staircases that gave the staff ready access to the second floor. The Burke house boasts a spiral staircase in the kitchen.
     
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