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A Room with a View

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John Dewey and Gary Wirt relax in the living room of their dream home. Photographs by John LewisIt didn’t take long for John Dewey and Gary Wirt to realize that they’d found their dream home. In fact, they knew it even before they saw the second floor. The clincher was the view from the picture window at the back of the house, on The Strand in Old New Castle. “I mean, look at this,” says Wirt, standing in front of the glass.

It is hard not to. The window gazes down on a narrow lawn flanked by dwarf boxwoods and arborvitae. Like a verdant arrow, the yard stretches toward the Delaware River, which sparkles like polished silver in the afternoon sun. A cargo ship glides by on its way to Philadelphia, its weathered facade forgotten with the grace of its movement. “We always said we wanted a river view,” Dewey says. Adds Wirt, “I looked out the window and said, ‘Sold!’”

Wirt and Dewey, who bought the house in 2002, were no strangers to historic New Castle. They had lived in a house on Sixth Street for more than 30 years before deciding to move to The Strand, a street lined by some of the town’s oldest structures. Wirt and Dewey’s new home, for instance, was built in 1798, by William Aull, an Irish merchant, who also built the adjoining twin.

Aull died shortly after the house was completed, according to a Drexel University student’s research project. Aull’s wife, Rachel, continued to live in one house while renting out the other.

The Aull property and its neighbors were saved from the 1824 fire thanks to the George Read House, whose property extends to the river. The open land helped keep the conflagration from ravaging houses on the other side. That was good news for the Cooper House next door, one of the few wood structures to survive the fire.

“The first week we moved here, it was foggy,” Gary Wirt recalls. A low bellow woke him up. “It was the foghorns on the river,” he says, visibly pleased at the memory.

Wirt and Dewey toured the Aull house shortly after a sale fell through. “It was the right size and the right price at the right time,” Wirt says.

Painted pale yellow with a green metal roof, the three-story home once had six bedrooms. Two have since become bathrooms. Two others are now a library and office.

When the men purchased the house, the interior was “contractor white,” Dewey says. Today the wood trim and chair rails are painted in Williamsburg colors, giving the rooms a colonial accent. The exception is the library, which they painted entirely in a rich, restful shade that sometimes looks gray-blue and sometimes dark sea green, depending on the light.

The library, unlike the rest of the house, is painted in a rich, restful shade. Photographs by John Lewis “We wanted a nice comfortable color,” says Wirt. They often hang out here, enjoying a fire and relaxing on the Chesterfield sofa. A small TV is tucked on a shelf in the closet. “We’re not big TV-watchers,” Dewey says.

The room provides access to a second-story screened porch, which is outfitted prettily with a hanging swing, white wicker furniture and potted plants. When they show the place during house tours, confined to the first floor, they often entertain friends on the porch.

From top to bottom, the house is a proper showcase for the couple’s reproduction and antique pieces, many of which represent the Federal period. “It’s an addiction,” Wirt says of their many collections. But don’t put all the blame on the owners. “The house would tell us what it wanted,” Wirt says. “So we had to buy some additional things.”

Wirt orchestrates most of the displays. “The Dollar Store loves me,” says Wirt, who buys bags of extension cords and nightlights to spotlight certain pieces.

Shelves in the back room with the water view, now dubbed the “river room,” and the library demonstrate his skill at creating interesting arrangements. Old books share space with presentation silver, diminutive paintings and candle lamps. Since many of the books are part of a set, they create an attractive block of color and texture.

Tea caddies occupy places of honor in the living room. “These are my babies,” says Wirt, who admires the intricate inlay. “I have about 15 of them.”
 

Page 2: A Room with a View continues…

 

In the river room, silhouette portraits hang between shelves. Other silhouettes face half-hull models, which are affixed to wood backings.

The kitchen is bright and modern. Photographs by John Lewis You’d be hard-pressed not to notice the nautical theme sailing throughout the house. Wirt has always been drawn to the water. Once he started collecting items, including the hulls, “it was hard to stop.”

Lustrous paintings of ships in gold frames hang above fireplaces in the master bedroom and the library. A model of the ship The Flying Fish, a vessel built in Boston, occupies nearly one wall in the living room. When Wirt found the model, the mast and rigging were in bad shape. An artisan in Lewes restored it for him. The model now rests in a glass tabletop display case that Wirt refinished himself.

The pair does not limit its gold-framed artwork to ships at sea. Wirt found a painting of a judge’s wife, which hangs in the dining room. Her white lace cap shimmers like glossy egg whites, and her lash-less eyes follow you around the room.

An equally austere lady peers from her portrait next to the living room fireplace. Barometers and 18th-century mirrors also adorn the walls. “It is not that far afield from what Rachel and William Aull might have brought to the house,” Wirt says.

The owners have an obvious knack for blending reproductions and antiques. In the living room, a mid-19th century grandfather clock stands near a mahogany secretary built in the 1930s. An expandable dining room table, a Williamsburg reproduction, looks totally at home. “It’s just the right size,” Wirt says.

The four-poster queen in the master bedroom complements the home’s early American sensibility but provides 21st-century comfort. Dewey has installed his grandmother’s turn-of-the-20th-century bedroom set in the third-floor guestroom, whose recessed window offers a stunning view of the river.

The third-floor’s sloping ceilings, heavily painted wood floors and basic fireplaces imply that this area was for servants and-or children. In contrast, the other two floors feature high ceilings, ornate fireplaces and the original finished pine floors, which due to a previous owner’s penchant for carpeting are in fabulous shape.

The dining room is done in colonial colors. Photographs by John Lewis  Wirt and Dewey added crown molding and they also affixed chair rails to areas where they’d evidently been removed. It was no easy task. The walls are so hard that contractors finally used cement screws to secure the moldings.

The couple also renovated the modestly sized kitchen, adding oversized cabinetry and gleaming granite the color of gray flannel. But they had no urge to break down walls and flow into the river room, where they often have meals before the window.

“Neither of us are fans of large kitchens,” Dewey says. “For a two-person household, how much kitchen space do you need?”

They did, however, tackle the backyard with gusto. This is primarily Dewey’s domain, and his preference for a formal garden is plain.

Two white benches, each accompanied by two flower pots, face each other. White picket fencing opens to steps that lead to a raised yard. An iron gate marks the entrance to an expanse of manicured grass alongside the river, which is jointly maintained by neighbors. Though purchased in Cape Cod, the antique gate originally hails from Philadelphia.

You get the sense that each of these antiques store finds is a treasure, and Wirt seems to experience the excitement of the hunt all over again when he talks about them.

But perhaps no treasure is quite as dear as the house.

“The first week we moved here, it was foggy,” Wirt recalls. A low, resounding bellow woke him up with a start. “It was the foghorns on the river,” he says, visibly pleased at the memory.

For both Dewey and Wirt, it was clearly the sound of music.
 


GET THE LOOK

  • Formal gardens are defined by symmetry. John Dewey achieved the effect by placing benches precisely facing each other and making plantings in two perfect rows.
  • A place with a water view calls for nautical pieces. Gary Wirt proudly displays paintings of old ships and half-full models in prominent places such as the mantel.
  • Antiques and reproductions can mix. In Wirt and Dewey’s living room, a mid-19th century grandfather clock stands near a mahogany secretary built in the 1930s.
  • Colonial homes call for colonial decor. Start with the walls. Williamsburg colors do the trick. Then listen to the house. It will tell you what it wants. It was perfect for Wirt’s collection of tea caddies.
  • Enjoy the hunt for decorative items. Great finds make great conversation pieces and ample excuses for good stories.

Page 3: Getting it Together | A professional organizer can help you put everything in its place–and make it look really, really good.

 

Susan Frost of Organize My LifeGetting it Together

A professional organizer can help you put everything in its place—and make it look really, really good.

Does that pile of junk on your end table feel like weight on your back? You’re not alone. Many people find or make too little time to organize their homes. The dilemma makes professional organizers increasingly popular.

Susan Frost, owner of Organize My Life in Greenville, organizes single rooms to entire houses. She removes belongings that are outdated or unnecessary, then puts essential things in the most effective places.

“People come to me and they really need help keeping up with life,” Frost says. “They have work and kids and a social life of their own. It can be a lot, but it can be so much easier if I remove the clutter.”

beforeElaine Greaves offers a slightly different service through her home-based company in Newark, The Re Arranger: She can show you how to give a room a new look using the stuff you already own. That may require a few new accessories or paint, but the result is a space that reflects your personality and needs—big or small—without costing a bundle.

Greaves says simple changes, like a slipcover and throw pillows or a freshly painted picture frame, can make a big difference.

“A lot of times I get hugs and tears when I’m finished,” she says. “Tears of joy, that is.”

afterRebecca Lang, CEO of Clutter Organizers, one of the largest organizing companies on the East Coast, offers a variety of services, from hanging new cabinets and installing shelves to rearranging existing furniture.

But Lang specializes in helping people whose cognitive issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder lead to such things as hoarding behaviors. Her company works with anxiety centers and therapists to help people change their ways. “We call it collaborative therapy,” Lang says.

Clutter is as much a psychological burden as a physical one, Frost says. Therefore, when their space is cleaned and organized, clients feel better emotionally.

“When I leave, it really is the reactions you see on TV,” she says. “People feel like they have a new lease on life.”   —Sarah Kenney

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