Style Home: Guiding the Light

A couple in Lewes turns a dilapidated lighthouse into a shining landmark.

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Jamie Wyeth’s “Reshingling the Light” hangs in the living room.

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all home photographs by John Lewis

Beginning more than 130 years ago, the beam of the Mispillion Lighthouse guided mariners from Slaughter Beach on the Delaware Bay to the inland port of Milford.

Today the light illuminates an extraordinary restoration, a project in which the lighthouse—storm-riddled, vandalized and burned—became the focal point of one preservation-minded couple’s summer home.

“We didn’t know exactly what we would do with the lighthouse, but we knew that we wanted to save it,” says Sally Freeman. She persuaded her husband, John, to buy the light shortly after it was struck by lightning and heavily damaged by fire in May 2002, just months after Lighthouse Digest magazine named it the Most Endangered Lighthouse in the United States.

The Freemans paid $2,000 for the lighthouse and $10,000 to move the structure seven miles over Sussex County’s pancake-flat roads. Its destination was a lot in Shipcarpenter Square in Lewes, where the couple already owned the Colonial-era house across the street.

“We bought the lot when it came up for sale because we didn’t want something going up on it that we didn’t like,” John says.

Sally and John relax with their dogs Baby (left) and Storm.

There’s no how-to guide for restoring a charred, neglected lighthouse. But the Freemans were blessed with a treasure map in the form of detailed drawings prepared for the Historic American Engineering Record, rendered in anticipation of having the lighthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the application was never filed, the paperwork included precise measurements and construction details, down to the number of steps leading to the lighthouse tower.

“It was remarkable, absolutely serendipitous,” John recalls.

Still, the project would require copious research, perseverance and problem-solving skills.

The Freemans were the right team for the job. John is a developer who specializes in adapting historic buildings to new uses. He was a backer of the original Shipcarpenter Square project, in which developers Jack Vessels and David Dunbar moved orphaned 18th- and 19th-century homes from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia to a verdant green in the First State’s oldest town to create a unique community.

Sally’s abundant energy, natural curiosity and keen eye for detail propelled the aesthetics of the project, down to the drawer pulls, which are cast from the button on a lighthouse keeper’s uniform.

It took two years to design the structure, determining the best way to restore the lighthouse and respectfully integrate it into a new addition that would provide enough space for the Freemans, their four children and extended family and friends.

“We needed to keep the master bedroom and living room in the old part, plan for a kitchen and dining room in the new part, and bring them together in a way that makes sense for the way people live today,” John says.

The Freemans found period doors, knobs and other hardware at an architectural salvage yard in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They also crossed paths with a supplier of hard-to-find clear heart pine and snapped up the entire stock.

“One person led to another,” John says. “Dozens of people have artistically touched what we have done here.”

The artisans and artists who contributed to the project shared their vision and enthusiasm. A local carpenter created the fine wainscoting, mantel and built-in cupboards in the formal dining room. A jewelry maker cast the lighthouse keeper’s buttons.

“We would tell them the story of the lighthouse and they’d get excited,” Sally says.

The gathering room fireplace is encrusted with artifacts from the local shipwreck Severn.

She envisioned the one-of-a-kind surround for the fireplace in the gathering room. It is encrusted with artifacts from the Severn, a ship that ran aground near Roosevelt Inlet in Lewes in 1774. A beach replenishment project in 2002 freed bits of crockery and glass from the wreck, inspiring Sally to don a lighted miner’s helmet and search for shards at low tide in the middle of the night.

“You pick a piece up, realizing it hasn’t touched human hands since the 1700s,” she recalls. “It’s that thrilling.”

The new section of the house features a large gathering space, with a seating area in front of the fireplace. Sally came up with the idea of placing the television in a niche over the mantel, hiding it with a painting of nearby Cape Henlopen.

There’s a kitchen with such modern amenities as a stainless-steel commercial-style range, granite countertops and wine storage, teamed with white, painted cabinetry reminiscent of Nantucket. Lighting pendants modeled after ship’s lanterns are suspended over the island.

To furnish the house, the Freemans shopped throughout their travels, looking for pieces that were made during the years the lighthouse was occupied by keepers and their families. Their first purchase was a pink slip-glass chandelier, which they tucked away for more than two years.

“We tried to keep each purchase within the stick-Gothic, low-Victorian style, not highly ornate,” John says.

The dining room is the most formal room in the house, in keeping with the Victorians’ penchant for setting a fine table. The fireplace is accented with shimmering glass tiles that remind Sally of the sea. A stately brass gasolier with glass saucer shades shines overhead. A mirror is surrounded by seashells collected from around the globe.

“The Victorians were fond of things that were made with natural materials,” she notes.

A charred beam set in the wall of the master bath is a vestige of the fire that almost doomed Mispillion. In several rooms, bracing beams were left exposed, John says, “so you can see how the building was constructed.”

The owners worked from an old photograph to come up with the home’s white, stick-style motif.

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