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Style Home: If the Walls Could Talk

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Photographs by John Lewis

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At Woodburn, Governor Ruth Ann Minner lives side by side with 206 years of Delaware history.

Outside, boxwoods planted by Charles Hillyard, who built the house in 1798, form the verdant backbone of a formal garden. Inside, the governor enjoys reading in a light-filled parlor, where a portrait of Thomas MacDonough, the Delaware-born admiral and hero of the War of 1812, hangs over the mantel.

It’s Minner’s favorite room in the house. Furnished with antiques from the collection of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who built the splendid San Simeon estate in California, the room also showcases pieces of Delaware’s past. Witness the 19th-century watercolors of Blue Hen. Staffordshire transferware china commemorating MacDonough’s victory on Lake Champlain is in the cupboard, near a framed letter to his doctor, thanking him for a remedy of herbal tea.

“Many refer to Woodburn as the governor’s house, but in my mind, it belongs to all Delawareans,” Minner says.

The origin of the name Woodburn has been lost to history, but the house speaks for itself as one of the finest Georgian homes in the First State. It boasts elegant proportions despite its massive size, with three full floors, an attic and a cellar. The builders layered the brick work in Flemish bond at the north and south sides, with a belt course five bricks wide between the first and second floors.

Inside are classic features of the Middle Georgian period, including fine molding, wainscoting and chair rails. The elaborate lock-and-key molding on the parlor mantel is the finest example of the form in the state.

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Despite its 12-foot ceilings and stately furnishings, Woodburn is very much a home. Governor Pete du Pont’s four children and two dogs made it a lively place during family stays in the 1970s and 1980s. Legislative leaders from both parties regularly gather in the great hall to share lunch and talk informally.

“It’s a very comfortable house, just about all antiques, and all used on a regular basis,” says house administrator Julie Shaffer.

The state purchased Woodburn in 1965 for $65,000, then earmarked another $70,000 for renovations. Starting with Charles L. Terry, eight governors have held office since, but Minner is only the second to make Woodburn her primary residence. Governor Sherman Tribbitt and his wife, Jeanne, also resided there full time, from 1973 until 1977.

Only a few years after Jacqueline Kennedy captivated the hearts of Americans by restoring the White House, Terry’s wife, Jessica, supervised the renovation and decoration of Woodburn. She filled the house with antiques from many sources, some purchased by the state, others donated by individuals, some on loan from museums.

That deference to the past was respected in future administrations. While Russell and Lillian Peterson built a basement rec room for their teenage daughter, decorum ruled in the public spaces of the house. When a visiting journalist remarked that there was no television at Woodburn, Mrs. Peterson replied, “It’s in the closet. You know, it is not an antique.”

These days visiting school children still inquire about the location of the TV. In fact, it’s the most frequently asked question on tours, Shaffer says. (The second: What does the governor eat for breakfast?)

Minner maintains the tradition of tucking the telly out of sight in her private quarters. She takes her morning tea and toast at the table in the formal dining room, the only piece in the public spaces that is not an antique.

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“It gets so much use,” Shaffer says. “It was wiser to go with a reproduction.”

Technically, the Hepplewhite sideboard also is a reproduction. Crafted from mahogany inset with tulip wood, it is a faithful copy of George Washington’s sideboard at Mount Vernon. “But this reproduction was made in 1891, so it’s an antique in its own right,” Shaffer says.

The oldest piece in the house is a circa 1720 Queen Anne chest-on-chest with a burled walnut veneer. The tall case clock in the Great Hall was made in Philadelphia in 1765 by Scots craftsman James Kinkead.

Elise du Pont researched historical colors for the house, painting the dining room a brilliant Mandarin red. Today the walls are sunny yellow, though the color is not as intense as it would have been in the 19th century.

“It was typical before the days of electric lights to paint rooms in very bright colors,” Shaffer notes.

The dining room is illuminated by an enormous 19th-century chandelier of sparkling Baccarat crystal, and there’s another in the parlor. Antique silver shimmers against the salmon-pink interior of a built-in cupboard with butterfly shelves. The state china, rimmed in blue with the Delaware seal in 24k gold, is displayed in a massive mahogany breakfront.

The architectural balance of the house is pragmatic as well as aesthetically pleasing. Windows and doors are aligned to take advantage of cross ventilation. The massive Dutch door at the entry is also a practical marvel, with the top section typically kept open in warmer months.

“It kept the livestock out and allowed the breeze to come through,” Shaffer notes.

The kitchen was originally sited in the basement, in keeping with Early American custom. Today a large commercial-style kitchen is on the first floor, separate from the public spaces.

Of special interest to Minner is a portrait gallery of former governors at nearby Legislative Hall and another for first ladies at Woodburn.

In 2004 artist David Larned, a Wilmington native, worked with former first ladies Jeanne Tribbitt and Elise du Pont, creating period portraits through conversations and photographs. A lively Tribbitt is depicted in her inaugural gown. The artistic du Pont is shown in profile in tones of black, gray and white, fading to gold. Larned painted Mrs. Peterson, who died in 1994, from photographs.

Newark artist Donna Zador painted a confident Martha Carper, clad in a pantsuit and standing by the French doors leading from the parlor to the garden. Woodburn also is home to a portrait of Ann Valiant Carvel, wife of Elbert N. Carvel, who governed from 1949 to 1953 and 1961 to 1965.

Governor Minner also maintains traditions such as inviting trick or treaters into the garden at Halloween. Seeing First Staters appreciate the house that connects them all is what she likes best about living at Woodburn.

“I enjoy public events the most,” she says, “when we open our doors to all visitors and guests so they can personally enjoy Delaware’s rich historic heritage.”Ê

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