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Literary Lairs


It was the standard wedding gift for du Pont newlyweds in the early 20th century. Each couple was given a sweeping country estate with spectacular gardens and large tracts of meadows and woodlands.

Prominent Philadelphian R. Brognard Okie was the architect the du Ponts appointed to design their stately manors. Specializing in Colonial Revival style residences, Okie drew up plans in 1928 for Frances du Pont’s Fair Hill property that spread over 200 acres on the outskirts of Centerville.

The 40-room main house is an L-shaped construction of white-washed clapboard and fieldstone with a cypress shingle roof and large stone chimneys for its 11 working fireplaces. The ambience of the rambling interior is very much in keeping with the architecture. The living space is dotted with corner cupboards and traditional details.

Cocktail parties raged in Frances’ English-styled pub in a basement that is highlighted by a ceiling of exposed beams and a floor of antique bricks.

“It has great bones, and those bones can be great stepping stones to bigger ideas,” says Fair Hill’s latest owner.

Frances’ library room was one focal point in the restoration of the country manor by a Wilmington couple who purchased it several years ago.

An elegant wood-paneled library with a walk-in fireplace, it once held Frances’ husband Richard Morgan’s aviation trophies on the mantel. Today, an antique rifle is perched above it. Tucked away at the far end of the meandering house, the library/family room feels collected and cozy and is a space to relax surrounded by treasured books, interesting maps, some fascinating artifacts, and pieces of art.

Half a decade into the e-book revolution, does incorporating a space in your home for hardbound books seem like an old fashioned idea?

“Books create wonderful texture in a room and add unmatched warmth,” says the home’s current owner. “It’s my sanctuary, a place to unwind and relax with a favorite book. Books always were a strong force in the lives of our families. Both my parents and grandparents were avid readers. They would read books to me as a child when I was sick or at bedtime. My books have always been my friends.”

Local interior designer Roseanne Brown helped bring this old gem back to life. Comfortable furnishings and an area rug soften the room while keeping its warm and earthy tones. A long leather couch is a perfect touch to this gorgeous space. Sun beams through four south-facing windows.

“They wanted the rooms to feel accurate, but wanted to be living in today’s world, not the 1930s,” Brown says. “The library walls were yellow pine and we felt a richer, darker brown better suited the room. It gives a strong look to the built-in shelves, while softer touches keep it inviting to all. When you walk into that room of books it embraces you. It projects coziness and comfort that cries out to curl up with a book.”

Homeowners are finding clever ways of making the library an expression of their personalities. In some homebuilders— plans, libraries are replacing dens, offering a more functional way to create an upscale look. Others combine leisure activities, a spot where kids do homework or watch television.

“What can make libraries more soothing than other formal rooms is not so much the books but objects of beauty like porcelain and statuary as well as memory-evoking photographs, awards and mementos that share the shelves,” Brown says.

At the former du Pont home, scarlet leather-bound collected works of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain reside prominently on the upper shelves. The book collection mirrors the wife’s interests and activities: architecture, décor, fashion, and horticulture. Decorative objects such as a sculpture from a recent trip to Africa are placed among the books.

Brown advises clients to set the room temperature between 65 and 70 degrees and the humidity between 35 and 50 percent. Natural light should be limited to avoid discoloring the books, wood shelving should be treated to prevent natural acids from seeping into the books, and dust should be cleaned from them regularly. There should be some paneling between the books to provide space for lighting to read the titles. Opt for soft lamps and task lights for book reading.

A home full of books puts a wealth of resources at one’s fingertips. Ron Finch needs little coaxing to talk about the books he surrounds himself with in his Montchanin home, the oldest fieldstone house west of the Brandywine River. A recent visit reveals an elegantly designed library room with an antique brick floor that is filled with 3,000 books housed in built-in bookshelves.

Finch’s Delmarva history compilation of books, manuscripts, brochures, maps, etchings, prints and paintings is recognized as the finest collection in private hands in Delaware. The collection eventually will be given to the Special Collections Department of the University of Delaware Library.

Like a prospector sifting for gold, over six decades, Finch has built a network of rare book stores, catalog dealers, and book scouts who corralled signed first editions, and rare and out-of-print books for him. For book collectors, using the Internet cuts both ways.

“The downside of the Internet is the lack of personal and human interchange one can develop over a period of time with each dealer, provider, or book scout,” Finch says.

Finch’s Delmarva collection contains a number of unique items not held by the Library of Congress or any other historical repository in the state or region. Many items were printed prior to 1800. The rare 1784 copy of John Filson’s The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky is especially significant as are the only known copies of the 1758 and 1759 Maryland Almanac by Jonas Green.

“It’s been a passion all of my life,” says Finch, 78, an 11th-generation Delawarean. “I like to quote A.S.W. Rosenbach: ‘After love, book collecting is the most exhilarating sport of all.'”

Lovers of ink and paper, take heart. Crisply printed, tightly bound books are displaying surprising resiliency to the digital onslaught. A 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16 percent of Americans have actually purchased an e-book while 59 percent say they have no interest in buying one.

A chemical engineer by training, Bob Fleck let his book-collecting hobby get the best of him, opening Oak Knoll Books in New Castle in 1976. He says many readers will always prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures of “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

Back in the 1920s and ’30s, he says, those leather spines proclaimed a person’s social stratum. “People’s tastes have certainly changed since then but the library is still important when some folks expand their homes. The numbers are just on a lesser scale. In a way e-books may drive a greater interest in physical books in the future. To be a book person is sexy now.

“Books are a transforming element,” he adds. “There is something satisfying and historically accurate about reading a classic book in a light green cover, stamped in gilt. I get a thrill out of holding it—the feel, smell, the illustrations, and bindings. It brings me closer to the author sweating over it, bringing that book to life.”