This Second Empire style victorian mansion, located in Middletown DE, was built in 1877 as the family home of Benjamin Biggs, Delaware’s 46th governor. It was designed to last many generations, but after 130 years, considerable neglect resulted in an infested, dysfunctional, energy-intense house.
The scope of the renovation covered the entire house and grounds. The goal was to modernize the home while maintaining its historic fabric and make it an energy-efficient gem of victorian glamor.
Images ©2013 Jay Greene Photography. All rights reserved.
The Historic Renovation story:
Built in 1877 by Benjamin Biggs, Delaware's 46th Governor, this home was designed to show off his success and to last many generations. It is a superb example of the French inspired Second Empire Victorian style.
The 6,000 square foot mansion, located in Middletown DE, was structurally sound but suffered from deferred maintenance. Although extensive renovations had been done in some areas, other areas suffered considerable neglect. Penetrations and rot gave home to various interlopers from bees, birds and bats to feral cats and a homeless man.
With a “Walk Score” of 89 out of 100, it also offers the opportunity to live in an opulent and unique home, having generous room sizes with 12 foot ceilings, massive brick and plaster walls, tall windows, decorative plaster moldings and unique period luxury. The 1970s additions posed their own challenges, but they added 1,000 square feet to the first floor of the original design and improved the traffic flow around the house.
The objective was to start with a neglected, infested, dysfunctional, energy-intense house and make it an energy-efficient gem of victorian glamor. While this statement may sound simple, there are a myriad of restoration choices to consider. The goal was to modernize the home while maintaining its historic fabric. The scope of the renovation covered the entire house and grounds.
Doing much of the work personally and using contractors as needed kept the total cost of renovation to just over $120,000. The cost of the roof and the copper gutter were $30,000; the geothermal HVAC and mini split heat pump were $42,000; pool and landscaping were $10,000. The balance was used for kitchen appliances, materials, paint and labor for hire.
Short list of accomplishments:
The gunite pool was made fully operational by mucking it out, acid cleaning it and installing new equipment. Five large trees were removed, vines were stripped from the siding, landscaping was trimmed and removed from close proximity to the house. The soil was re-graded to allow proper runoff.
The entire $100,000 budget could have been spent replacing the mansard roof with an exact replica of the original in slate. Instead, a CertainTeed asphalt shingle product was chosen. The roofer ran a pattern of horizontal bands of 3 rows of rectangle, 3 rows of bevel, etc. to mimic the original. In the 19th century, painters would scrape and paint the 10 inch wide metal gutters, 30 feet off the ground, without a ladder, every 5 years. That is impractical today, so maintenance-free copper gutters were fabricated by a skilled coppersmith.
On the exterior, some areas were painted simply to complete a color scheme while the 1970s additions had rotted siding and soffits replaced. The original wood window sills, gutter boards, their support brackets and dormer spindles were replaced as needed or renewed with epoxy and painted in 4 colors.
Inside, some rooms were only painted and carpeted, while others were completely gutted and transformed. In the master bedroom, missing moldings were re-created and wallpaper that mimicked the original metallic flower petal pattern was used on the ceiling. It was upgraded by adding an antiqued faux gold foam trim and a salvaged silver pendant chandelier. The second floor master bath was finished like the owners’ water closet, as was the original concept. The vanity was purchased at auction. Originally a dining room sideboard, it was fitted with vessel sinks and pump style faucets on sale at Home Depot.
Asbestos remediation was carried out and a vapor barrier added in the main crawl space and an underground storage tank was discovered and removed.
Total annual energy use was reduced from over $9,700 the first year to $4,200 per year despite rising energy prices. This was accomplished through a combination of more efficient heating and cooling systems, air infiltration reduction and compartmentalization. The combined savings of $5,500 per year plus state and federal energy rebates made for a system payoff in less than 8 years.
Annually, over 300 visitors come and enjoy viewing the home, as it is a favorite stop on the Odessa Christmas Tour. The owners are stewards of a classic victorian home which serves as a fine example of craftsmanship and style of a romanticized, bygone era.
by Jay Greene
First Floor plan (made using Punch Home Design Studio):