This has happened to me before: I have this notion of Boston/Salem pre-eminence in all material Federal, and then I see something from Philadelphia or Baltimore, or on my most recent trip New Castle, Delaware. I visited three museums on my recent spring break trips to the Delaware River Valley: at the Court House Museum in New Castle I learned all about Delaware’s nearly simultaneous separation from Great Britian and Pennsylvania, at a return visit to Winterthur I saw some old favorites and learned some things from new perspectives in the galleries, and at the Read Museum and Gardens I was quite simply blown away by the magnificence of a mansion built and embellished by Philadelphia craftsmen in down-river Delaware. The Read House, a National Historic Landmark owned and operated by the Delaware Historical Society, was built by George Read II, the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Delaware Constitution, between 1797 and 1804 on New Castle’s the Strand, running alongside and overlooking the River. Its size (14,000 square feet) and scale and surrounding gardens give it a majesty that rivals the grandest urban townhouses of the era, evident even before you step inside. And then you step inside! The Gardner-Pingree House here in Salem used to be my standard for Federal perfection, but now I think it has been surpassed.
There’s just something about the scale of this house: everything is about a foot or two bigger than you expect it to be, or I expected it to be, with my Massachusetts standards. But it’s not just about size, of course, it’s the details that make this mansion truly majestic: the plaster, the woodwork, the hardware. Mr. Read had to have the best of everything, and that meant everything Philadelphia. And as he didn’t really have the brilliant career of his father and namesake, this mansion represents something quite beyond his means, and something that could not remain in the family for very long after his death. It passed to a succession of owners, but fortunately remained relatively intact. In 1920 Philip and Lydia Laird acquired the property and installed a “ye olde British pub” for prohibition entertaining in the basement while also amplifying a Colonial Revival image for the rooms upstairs. Mrs. Laird bequeathed the house and grounds to the Delaware Historical Society in 1975, and a comprehensive (and ongoing) restoration ensued. My tour began in the prohibition pub, but I’m going to leave it until the appendix as I want to showcase the house as a contemporary visitor might have entered it, but it is a great cue that you’re about to enter a house which has both “Colonial” and Colonial Revival elements. (I’m putting Colonial in quotes as all the Colonial Revivalist authors I know extend that period up to about 1820, very conveniently).
Double Parlor: just a complete WOW. I couldn’t catch my breath! Fortunately I had a charming guide who told me everthing I wanted to know because I couldn’t manage to ask. This was your not-so-standard convertible double parlor which served many occasions and capacities: Mr. Read set up his office in what is now the dining room across the hall, so the front (peach) parlor served as a dining room in addition to other functions. Amazing “punch and gouge” carving by Philadelphia craftsmen EVERYWHERE. The (nearly) floor-to-ceiling windows in the rear (green) parlor open up at the bottom, creating doorways to the garden outside. Across the hall (featuring more punch & gouge and unfinished floors to facilitate clearning, according to my guide is the Lairds’s Colonial Revival dining room.
The Dining Room: features a scenic hand-painted mural of a romanticized “Colonial” New Castle from the 1920s with the “three flags” messaging that I also saw at the Court House Museum. William Penn landed in New Castle in 1682, very close to the Read House, and he is pictured being greeted by Dutch, Swedish, and English settlers as well as a members of the native Lenape tribe. On (back) to the kitchen…………..where there was a surprise!
The Kitchen: has a variant Rumford Roaster! My guide explained to me that Mr. Read had to have the best of everything, and the latest technology, so of course he had to have a Rumford Roaster, but somehow the original Rumford design was adapted: the second photograph is the Read House and the third is Hamilton Hall’s roaster right next door to me in Salem: as you see the firing compartments (for want of a better technical term) have been moved over to the main hearth. This was tremendously exciting to me as we have SEVEN Rumford Roasters in Salem and this was quite different! The first photograph in this group shows the bell display for service; the last, a warming station for dishes and plates, also quite ingenious. And on to a few singular shots and details:
Details, a model New Castle house, and Mrs. Read’s bedroom: how to summon servants, door hardware, stair detail, a model of another New Castle house (and more of the unfinished floors), and lots of soft furnishings in Mrs. Read’s bedroom. Regarding service and the many hands that must have been required to maintain this large house, I did ask about slavery, which was legal in Delaware right up until the ratification of the thirteenth amendment (which it notably did not participate in—OR the 14th and 15th!). Reseach is still ongoing, but account books indicate that the Reads’ cook was a free woman of color.
Appendix: the taproom downstairs, which I prefer to call the “Prohibition pub,” and back in its heyday.