Beacon on the Bay

Beacon on the Bay

A historic lighthouse shines on as a family getaway in Lewes, Del.

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Talk about a lightning strike. It had never occurred to Sally and John Freeman to turn a derelict, 19th-century maritime landmark into the anchor of a family getaway in Lewes, Del. But on the spring day in 2002 that they bought a lot on historic Shipcarpenter Square, the 129-year-old Mispillion Lighthouse seven miles away caught fire during a violent electrical storm and burned halfway to the ground. >>

A news report about the blaze caught Sally’s attention and, within weeks, the Edgemoor couple—he’s a developer known for adapting historic buildings for new uses, she chairs the board of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda—had walked through the lighthouse with a contractor and bought the decrepit wreck. What remained of the 65-foot wooden tower and lightkeeper’s quarters was dismantled, stacked on flatbeds and trucked off to storage. 

Built under Congressional authorization in 1831, the original lighthouse on the site was torn down in 1859 and replaced in 1873 to guide ships through Delaware Bay. By 1932, it had been decommissioned and sold to the first in a series of private owners. Over time, nearly all the additions and outbuildings fell into ruin, and in 2001, just months before the fire, it topped Lighthouse Digest’s “Doomsday List” of America’s most endangered beacons.  

Such history was irresistible to the preservationist and his wife. “We bought it for $2,000, spent $10,000 to move it, and seven figures to build all of this,” Sally says with a laugh, describing a massive project that took two years to design and another four to construct and furnish.

The result is a knockout. Painted the original colors of crisp white with black trim in the Victorian style of the late 19th century, the lighthouse tower and keeper’s quarters are now seamlessly joined to an identically painted large, rear addition complete with gables and balconies that the couple built on the Shipcarpenter Square lot.  

The Freemans’ well-honed preservation instincts followed two paths. First, they had snapped up the vacant lot to control the view from their existing and expanded 18th-century shingled Colonial farmhouse across the street. These days its six bedrooms shelter visiting friends and family, including the couple’s four adult children, spouses and grandkids.

Then they set about finding the best way to connect the old lighthouse and the new addition, a task made easier once they located “as-built” drawings of the lighthouse prepared for the Historic American Engineering Record. The plans were part of a successful civic drive that put Mispillion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

How else would the couple have known there were precisely 52 steps from the first floor to the light chamber, where Sally often sits with a birder’s telescope checking out all things avian?

“The view from up there is spectacular. You can see the spires of all the churches in Lewes, the rooftops of homes and the Delaware Bay. And the wraparound outdoor balcony is a great spot for watching July Fourth fireworks,” she says. 

Enter by the front door, and the first room is the lightkeeper’s office, with a framed 38-star American flag from 1877 resting on the mantel. A nearby doorway connects to a small parlor decorated in shades of pale green and a narrow stairway to the right leads upstairs to the master suite. The bedroom includes a sitting area just steps from a small bathroom where a few scorched timbers remain exposed as a reminder of the fire that almost destroyed the Mispillion Lighthouse.

A spiral staircase leads up to what proved to be the home’s most problematic element—the light chamber. “The metal lantern house was fabricated in Baltimore, brought to the site on an 18-wheel flatbed truck and lifted into place with a crane. And then it leaked,” says John.  “Fixing it took over a year of trial and error methodology. Finally a local vendor who provides sealants for the beds of pickup trucks dismantled the lantern floor section by section and waterproofed it successfully.”

For months, the couple searched for a rare Fresnel lens, which allows a common 40-watt bulb to throw a beam visible for miles from the rescued lighthouse. They finally found one in Maine.         

A potential catastrophe that could have ignited a repeat of the 2002 fire was averted after a construction worker discovered that none of the home’s nine lightning rods had been grounded.

The new addition proved much easier to build. It features a large open kitchen and family room, a living room, a formal dining room, and a screened porch on the first floor, plus three bedrooms and two baths upstairs. Antique furnishings, lighting, art and accessories share space with such high-tech essentials as a flat screen TV (hidden behind a contemporary painting of the Mispillion seascape) and smart wiring for music.

“We wanted this big open kitchen because we have a big family and it’s where we spend most of our time. It’s the emotional and social hub,” Sally says.

The focal point of the family room is the fireplace surround created by Colleen Everett, an artist in Ocean City, Md. It is imbedded with shards of pottery and china that washed ashore a dozen years ago when beach restoration churned up cargo from the “Severn,” a British vessel that sank in 1774. Donning a miner’s headlamp and carrying a bucket, Sally routinely went out during low tide—sometimes at 3 a.m.—to dig up dinnerware and ballast “untouched by human hands” for nearly 230 years.

The other side of the fireplace opens onto the dining room. Like proper Victorians inclined to display multiple signifiers of prosperity, the Freemans bought period antiques, including a 19th-century mahogany dining table that seats 12, and a large sideboard for china and silver. They had corner cupboards installed, and papered the room in a subtle, rose-colored William Morris print. An ornate, shell-encrusted mirror harkens back to the seafaring folk art form known as “sailors ’ valentines.”   

Past the dining room is the living room, where the Freemans hung one of their favorite acquisitions, a Jamie Wyeth painting titled “Shingling the Lighthouse.” A life-size, antique carved-wood mermaid by an unknown artist is another cherished purchase. It is often dressed for the season, wearing sunglasses in summer, Mardi Gras beads before Lent and a Santa hat in December, and even a veil for a family wedding.

A self-described “crisis shopper” who dashes to Lord & Taylor to buy a dress mere hours before a party, Sally says she and her husband did far more planning for furnishings as they visited antiques shops and art galleries along the Atlantic Coast during and after construction. A treasure trove of Victorian hardware—knobs, hinges, stained glass doors, even a hand-crank doorbell—came from the architectural salvage firm Olde Good Things in Manhattan and Scranton, Pa.

Sally wanted identical pulls for every drawer and cabinet, and she had dozens of them cast by a Delaware jeweler from a metal button that came off a uniform of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, an agency ultimately absorbed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

With construction and restoration headaches a fading memory, the Freemans revel in their handiwork while enjoying the company of family and friends. 

“We had a good laugh over the question of whether we would do this again,” John says. “Let’s just say that would be a close call. It took much longer than we anticipated, and the process generated a considerable amount of stress. The result, however, is gratifying.”

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com correspondent and columnist. She writes widely about design, culture and politics, and is at work on a memoir. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

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