The grounds of Poplar Hall are in sight. A pair of outbuildings is evident first, to the left of the rocky driveway. The house itself sits to the right, shaded by a variety of trees and introduced by a marker announcing its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
Greg Shelton emerges from its back entrance, looking every bit the country gentleman and ready to reveal the diverse palette of interests that makes him a self-proclaimed renaissance man. In his backyard, bees busy themselves in a bank of hives. A 1964 Birmingham Small Arms 500cc motorcycle sits in the old corncrib, awaiting the installation of its rehabbed engine. Beside it is a gleaming 2010 Triumph Thruxton. Both were moved in October when the Sheltons threw their annual Halloween bash in the “crib” and will remain stashed for the family wreath-making party around Christmas.
A floor above, in what was once a granary, sits a panoply of paintings, furniture, artifacts and assorted oddities Shelton acquired when he purchased the contents of an estate. He paid $4,500 for the lot and expects to pull in much more when he auctions it all off. The 46-year-old Shelton cooks French food, plays the drums, is an artist and a businessman for whom technological advancement is a passion.
“Greg is a model of the new man,” says Jeff Archer, with whom Shelton is working on a concept for a TV show. “He’s not afraid to delve into feminine skill sets. Though he’s masculine, he doesn’t challenge the alpha- male concept of the ’80s.”
Archer and business partner David Sarasti are the principals in the Philadelphia firm Norsor Independent and have worked on HGTV programs over the past several years. They have created a “sizzle reel” for a show that focuses on Shelton’s pursuits at Poplar Hall. It positions him as a “male Martha Stewart”—a 21st-century post-metrosexual who’s confident in his abilities and willing to serve as a guide for others.
“A lot of men would like to have his knowledge,” Archer says. “The thing Greg has that others don’t is that he’s gifted and can put his mind to something and get it done. It doesn’t look hard, but you know he sweats the details.”
Shelton loves this idea. He’s a busy man who has little time for throwing back beers with the guys or watching a lot of TV. “Why watch someone do something when you can do something yourself?” he asks.
That’s Shelton’s mantra. If you think you’re busy, get a load of this guy. Shelton’s day job is director of marketing at 1313 Innovation, a Wilmington-based company begun by real estate developer Paul McConnell that is devoted to providing technological resources for students and professionals. And though the creativity he brings to that position is in line with his outlook on life and its possibilities, his identity is more tied to Poplar Hall, which he and wife Dawn continue to renovate, and received a big assist for from Shelton’s late father, John. The property is more of a homestead than just a house, with activity surrounding it at all times.
Thirteen cats, most of them rescues, and two dogs prowl the grounds, and the Sheltons’ 5-year-old son, Alex, is a classic “farm kid,” roving the property on his John Deere bicycle clad in a smart polo shirt, shorts and knee-high rubber boots. He lives a life in near-constant motion, and he wants others to join him in that activity. “I have a lot of things going on,” he says. “I’m uncomfortable if I don’t have a million irons in the fire. The human mind is bigger and able to digest more than people realize. If people want to populate their days with a million creative outlets, they can do it. It’s about having the nerve to put yourself out there 24 hours a day. Never sit still.”
Within a week of rock/fashion/culture icon David Bowie’s death on January 10, Shelton was on the phone to friends, putting in motion the first steps of a benefit that would take place in May at the World Café Live at the Queen in Wilmington. “A Night of Stardust” involved 10 singers, a house band, a choir from Wilmington’s Cab Calloway School for the Arts and a brief video kicking off the proceedings in which Greg and Alex wonder what’s beyond the clouds. Shelton chokes up as he describes the one-minute production, struggling with his mixed feelings about the wonders of fatherhood and the sadness surrounding his idol Bowie’s death.
He is sitting in a leather chair in the living room at Poplar Hall, one of the first spaces he and John had tackled upon reaching an agreement of sale with McConnell to purchase seven acres of the 180-acre farm. (Much of the rest is now a housing development one sees on the way to Poplar Hall.)
Shelton didn’t actually buy the place until a year, and plenty of work, later—quite a leap of faith. But Shelton couldn’t afford to carry mortgages on that property and his Chesapeake City, Md. farmhouse where he and Dawn were living at the time. (Shelton grew up in Chesapeake City, one of five children.) So, Team Shelton went to work, and after a year the house was not only inhabitable—it had been an overgrown, undermaintained mess—it looked good enough that McConnell declared it “Shelton’s resume” and practically offered him a job on the spot. “He said, ‘You might end up working for me some day,’” Shelton says. “And now I do.”
In his role as marketing director for 1313 Innovation, Shelton works to promote the company’s efforts while also attempting to create a technological critical mass in Delaware. To that end, he helped stage the third Tech2gether technology conference at the Queen November 16. The technopalooza event blends roundtables, demonstrations, competitions and music into something of an innovation stew not unlike Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest Conference. It’s designed to highlight Wilmington’s and the state’s growing resources, while also incorporating ideas and concepts from other areas.
McConnell, who has “been pounding the drum for Wilmington for a long time,” according to Shelton, will pool his resources with other heavyweights like Ben du Pont, whose commitment to expanding the state’s technology profile is well known.
“There are amazing things going on in Delaware,” Shelton says. “And there are things other states can teach us. We want to be change agents and are getting a lot of people together to pull off something big.”
Tech2gether is one part of Shelton’s personal whirlwind. He thrives on the ability to consider and attempt new things, and 1313 Innovation allows for that. But so does Poplar Hall. Shelton’s vision of the property’s final look cannot be found in an architect’s drawing, rather on a handcrafted rendition he produced himself. The half-stone, half-brick main house will be stately and worthy of its broad heritage. The outbuildings will be black, with brown roofs. The bees remain, the gardens flourish, and the field overgrown with milkweed to foster a monarch butterfly habitat stays scraggly and fecund.
Shelton can imagine not just a TV show that highlights his world but also an entire brand that encompasses his interests and creates a lifestyle ideal in which others want to participate. Archer calls it “urban homesteading” and traces its origins to the crash of 2008, when people started spending more time on what he calls the old-world arts.
“One of the things that drew us to [Shelton’s] home is that it’s like a homestead,” says Archer. “He does what he needs to survive and does it in an elegant way. The barn from the outside looks like we should call the code inspector, but inside, there’s champagne and parties, and upstairs there are antiques.
“A lot of people like to think about things like this, but they don’t do them. Greg does; he doesn’t just talk about it.”