Monday, April 18, 2005

Hidden House

Greg started working on the house and I started driving up to Dover, to the Delaware Public Archives, to find out more about it. We slowly realized that that there was a hidden house inside the house -- what's now the dining room. We discovered a beam in the cellar with the date1767 carved into its center, the date surrounded by an incised frame. The cellar is the foundation of the original house, and then there was a loft above, likely for sleeping. Next to the huge fireplace in the now-dining room you can make out the shadow of a winder stair going up to the loft above. The door to the stair is still there, and there's the shadow of a first stair on the floor. The original floor was underneath a late nineteenth century parquet upgrade. The story is that after the decline of the shipbuilding industry in Milton the ships carpenters got hired on to make inlaid parquet floors in the fancy houses around town. We kept the parquet in the entryway and the upstairs hall and the parlor, but took it out in the dining room to show what we could of the earliest house.

The house -- this little house -- shows up in the Archives when the daughter of Samuel Ratcliffe sold it to Robert McFerran in 1837, a few years after her father died. Samuel Ratcliffe had inherited the house from his second wife, Sally Conwell, who had inherited it from her mother in 1804. Sally's mother Eunice Conwell inherited it from her husband. The Conwells had acquired the land when the Osbourne family had sold it -- a vast plot that comprised all of what is now Milton on the south side of the Broadkill River. Matthew Osbourne had gotten it in the 1730's, and people think he then sold some land he owned in nearby Cool Spring and settled here, at the head of the Broadkill.

From earliest times the river was a natural place for settlement and trade and industry. Roads were poor if there were any roads at all, and river travel was cheaper, safer, and faster. You could sail down the Broadkill to Lewes and from Lewes up the Delaware Bay to Philadelphia or Wilmington. White oak and shingles and charcoal and bog iron, the earliest produce of the woods and swamps of Sussex County, were hauled here, to the headwaters of the Broadkill, and then shipped down the river.

Robert McFerren bought the original house in 1837 from Rachael Ratcliffe Draper, Samuel Ratcliffe's daughter, and set about enlarging it. Robert was an Irishman and a cabinetmaker who had immigrated to the United States in time to serve in the defense of Lewes against the British in 1814. He became a naturalized citizen in 1826, and he must have done well. Between 1837 and his death in 1843, Robert built an imposing Greek Revival house fronting right on Federal Street. That's the house as it is today. It's designed to impress. You enter a hall that opens up to a two story stairway with a sweeping balustrade. Two symmetrical spacious rooms open off the entry hall; and above them, two more identical rooms. On the third floor is an airy attic of two full rooms. The house Robert McFerren built is made of wood, one room deep and three stories high. It sits high on a hill, commanding the town. Hidden behind it, unseen unless you know to look for it, is the original house.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Getting to Milton

You can drive through Milton on your way to the beaches, or you can just as easily drive around it. Or you can go a different way entirely, through Bridgeville and Georgetown, for instance, and never even know Milton exists. In flat southern Delaware, the town rises gently on both sides of the Broadkill River. Fishermen sit in rowboats on the pond, as still as zen monks. Old wooden houses silently line the main street as it curves down to the bridge and then back up again on the other side. Narrow lanes loosely stitch together the half dozen streets. In a hidden square, delapidated houses gaze on an old Methodist graveyard. Just beyond the town lie ruined buildings, fields, farms, dark woods and swamps, creeks, tangles, and the river, all suffused with a pale luminous light, a silvery wash that emanates from an overturned bowl of sky. The landscape of the nearby beaches was sunny, cheerful, bright, and in retrospect, superficial. The landscape around Milton was Corot.

But when we drove through the town it seemed empty. Houses were dark, windows curtained. Only a few businesses were open downtown. We thought we could afford a house to restore in Milton, but we wondered what there could possibly be to do in such an obscure place.

We wanted to take the leap, though. We'll find a small house, we assured each other. Nothing too complicated. It will be a good investment, we told each other. A prudent move. It's just for a couple of years, we promised our friends in Rehoboth Beach. We'll move in, fix it up, sell it. Don't worry. We'll be back.

But it didn't work out like that.

For one thing, the house we found wasn't small. It's a grande dame, Greg told me. He had already knocked on the door and gotten a tour from the owner, the same day that I (still in DC) had discovered it on the internet.

It was, the advertisement told us, a Greek Revival, built circa 1830 by a sea captain, and on the National Register of Historic Places. The advertisement didn't mention that its last paint job -- a mustard yellow -- was curling off the clapboards. The once imposing two story porch sagged dangerously over the sidewalk. Victorian era gingerbread trim was broken and gaping. Vines hid unpruned azaleas and hollies. A volunteer crape myrtle poked out of the yews under the library window. Beneath a giant magnolia, a cracked concrete pond was filled with debris.

Inside, the house was dark and gloomy, and permeated with the sour smell of old fireplace ashes. Shredded silk drapes hid every window. Brittle dark wallpaper was glued to walls and ceilings. Bare wooden floors were dull with grime and the library floor was covered with lime green shag carpeting. Cobwebs drifted in corners. The kitchen was a period piece, built according to a 1949 USDA design, and covered in knotty pine. The seventies vinyl flooring matched the harvest gold appliances.

The man who was selling the house had bought it a few years earlier from its long-time owner when she moved into a nursing home. She and her husband, the owner of the local cannery, had bought it and restored it in 1949. Before that, the same family had owned it for 101 years. It had been one of the most impressive houses in town. But nobody had taken care of it for a long time.

Still, the lawn swept down stone steps lined with mock orange all the way to the river, and though most of that riverbank belonged to the State of Delaware, ten or fifteen feet of it would belong to us. Back inside, I breathed the smell of ashes: a haunting smell.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The first house

We bought our first old Delaware house a decade ago, in Rehoboth Beach. When we bought it we thought we were getting a potentially charming colonial revival from the 1930's. It was a run-down little beach cottage that deteriorated along with the former owners' marriage, until they got divorced and decided to split from the house, too.

When we first saw it it was home to most of the summer life guard crew, even though it only had three tiny bedrooms. Extension cords bloomed on top of extension cords, criss-crossing each other like a wildly metastasizing permanent cool party. The largest bedroom was filled with a double bunk bed made out of two by fours. The dying refrigerator leaked puddled water in a room not the kitchen (though near by). A huge rubber portable hot tub sat like a happy throne on the screened-in porch, which glistened with thousands of staples embedded in every square inch of wood, for some long-forgotten purpose. Outside, the trees were filled with tiny white lights (stapled to bark, strung and looped through branches), and the packed earth of the yard turned up brightly colored beer bottle caps -- signs of a lost culture. You climbed up to a rickety deck over the side porch by some wooden stairs. We guessed that no housing inspector had ever dropped by with a code book in his pocket. In the living room the day we went to see the house there was a note on the coffee table: You pigs! Clean up this mess! We all have to live here! it suggested. The real estate agent fumbled for words. It's just what we want, we told her.

Every neighbor on the block told us how happy they were that we had bought the place, how they had endured the late night parties and loud music, the life guards' robust all-hours social life. All but one. I miss seeing their perfect bodies up there on the deck, sighed the middle-aged blonde across the street. They were just wonderful to look at.

When we bought the house one of the real estate agents, a Lingo, said it was his aunt Eleanor who had owned it first, and moved it into Rehoboth in the 1940's when the lots on Kent Street were first being developed. People have always moved houses in that part of Delaware, even back in the eighteenth century, maybe because the land there is so flat. Some of the houses on Kent Street came from a World War Two prisoner of war camp near Georgetown. The camp was dismantled after the war and the barracks were sold off, and some became Kent Street beach cottages. Our house came from the country, near Milton, one old member of the Lingo family told us. It had been a farm house before it was a beach cottage.

Back then we were both pastors serving churches in DC. All that first winter we would jump in the car on Thurday afternoons, turn on the heat pumps in the house when we arrived, and then go have dinner at Tiajuana Taxi, the only restaurant open in the winter way back then, while the house gradually thawed out. We'd work like fiends through Saturday morning, then drive home and write sermons for the next day. We began the work of restoration by throwing out two mountains of old furniture, moldy carpet, lineoluem, and tar paper. After that we sanded the floors and finally painted the floors and walls and ceilings beautiful beachy colors with names like periwinkle and harvest moon and seabreeze.

One day that first winter we took a trip to the nearby historic Peter Marsh House, where the Rehoboth Art League is. Walking into the Paynter House, a little house on the Art League ground, we realized for the first time how old our house was. It wasn't a colonial revival house, after all. It was colonial, or close to it.

But our house had undergone a lot of changes over its two hundred-year life. You could see, once you knew how to look, how the original house was this old traditional three room house, called an open hall plan because the front door opened directly into the main room where the fireplace was. Next to the fireplace was a little door leading to the boxed winder stair, or string stair, that turned on itself and took you upstairs to the loft. Some time after it was first built two little outbuildings were attached to the main house. One has old dutch- style casement windows, and the other looks like a tiny little fairy tale house, with a door and a window (now covered over). These two little added-on rooms are each about 8' x 9'. The last one has hand-hewn beams and ancient rough plaster walls. All the rooms have wide plank flooring, and in the main room the beams are beaded -- a sure sign that they were meant to be seen, because that was decorative, and required careful work -- and the ceiling above the beams is the loft's floor. The whole house sits on top of huge oak logs fitted into a dug out pit in Rehoboth Beach's sandy soil.

I tried to find a news article about the house being moved into Rehoboth Beach -- it couldn't have happened that often -- but I haven't found one yet in the microfilms of the newpapers from that time. But Greg did find -- in the back yard -- an old, rusted trammel -- the long iron piece people used to attach the cooking pot in their fireplace long ago. I guess the trammel had travelled to Rehoboth Beach with the house and then sometime somebody tossed it in the back yard. It was a magical discovery: we had an artifact even though we didn't have the original location.

I was sad, though, that we didn't know the house's history. Eleanor Lingo had moved it onto its current site, but the property records speak of land not houses, especially not houses that have been separated from land. Over the years we wandered around in the country near Milton, a dozen or so miles from Rehoboth Beach, knocking on old doors and asking at churches and museums. I guess our house had never made much of an impression on anybody else (except, I hope, the people it belonged to) when it sat on its original home ground. I longed to connect it with its past. I longed to know who had lived there and where it was situated, before Eleanor Lingo moved it. I thought of it sometimes like Dorothy's house, which had flown throuh the air and landed in a strange place indeed.

Our little Rehoboth Beach house is within a few miles of where it stood for a hundred and fifty years. But the mystery of its origin is wrapped in a profound silence.

My mother died two years ago, suddenly, and with her death came a similar silence about all sorts of things: the origins of old diamond rings, for instance, and names of people in old photographs. When Greg's grandmother died nobody had remembered to ask her about that ne'er-do-well husband of hers, Harry Brown, who played such a bit part in her own life but was Greg's grandfather after all, and was he really Iroquois? He was said to have died in a fishing accident in North Carolina, but with a name like Harry Brown how could we ever find out, unless somebody had thought to tell somebody else the story?

Eleanor Lingo could have told us about where the house stood before she moved it, but Eleanor was dead, and nobody else recalled it.