Maureen Milford, The News Journal
The years have been hard on this once-grand dame as decades of urban growth encroached ever closer to her hilltop property.
Never mind. She has refused to give up the stately demeanor of a proud Victorian lady.
“She must have been the Queen of the Hill,” when she was built from 1892 to 1893 at the corner of North Clayton and Seventh streets in Wilmington, said Patricia Maley, senior planner for design and review with the city.
“The view must have been spectacular,” she said.
Built in Victorian style with Queen Anne and Eastlake architectural influences, the 5,000-square-foot house would have been “pretty fancy” in its day – even in the fashionable district in which it was located, Maley said.
Although hard to believe today, the house would have been in an outer ring of the city where homes enjoyed wide yards and clear vistas of the Christina River. Trolley lines provided transportation to and from the downtown business district.
Land on which the house was built had been owned by the Pepper family, which subdivided it, according to city records.
The building permit for the house was issued in September 1892, said John Kurth, a city planner. A year later, Charles F. Thomas was listed as the home’s occupant.
Kurth said Thomas was the proprietor of C.F. Thomas & Co., a bookseller, stationer, printer and bank book manufacturer at 421 N. Market St. In 1888, the Thomases had been living not far away at 1321 W. Eighth St., according to a city directory.
But by 1897, Thomas’ business, which was the successor to a business dating to the 1700s, was in trouble, according to The American Stationer.
Still, the house was secure in Thomas’ hands. He died there in 1917 at the age of 73, according to American Stationer and Office Outfitter.
The house then passed to his son, Victor, a Wilmington attorney. Victor stayed in the house until at least 1955. By 1959, John Del Negro was listed as the occupant, according to city directories.
The next time it changed hands was in 1981 when it was bought by Dr. Emilio Valdes Jr. for $160,000, according to public records. Valdes wanted the three-story building for a medical practice and he converted rooms to exam areas, offices and other uses.
Yet, most of the original elements remain, making it easy to visualize what the Thomases’ home life was like in the late 19th- and early 20th-century.
A visit on a recent winter evening – when the house was decorated for the holidays – felt like being in a time machine. The Thomases must have thought they’d arrived when they moved into such a gracious property.
Today, it’s clear that the waiting room was the former parlor and the reception area with its fireplace was the hall.
The biggest change, next to the elimination of the kitchen, was the division of the large former dining room into offices. But the spacious library remains.
Throughout most of the house the floors, millwork, stained-glass windows, pocket doors and indoor shutters are original. It has three working fireplaces, including one in the hall, and curved windows in a castle-like tower.
The only thing that is not recognizable is the former kitchen, which is now used for record storage. For Valdes, the once-tiny kitchen in such a large house was the most surprising thing to him when he took ownership.
Still, the built-in cabinets of the pantry remain, including an early intercom for the cook to announce to the Thomases that the soup was on.
Michael Kelczewski, a real estate agent with Brandywine Fine Properties Sotheby’s International Realty, which has the listing, said it is not known who designed the house.
When Valdes bought the house from Del Negro, it was still a residence. Del Negro kept a huge garden on the side of the house.
Valdes said he used to eye the property every day when he was at St. Francis Hospital. As an ear, nose and throat doctor, Valdes thought it would be a perfect location for his practice.
When Valdes would see Del Negro in the yard, he’d ask Del Negro when he planned to put the house up for sale. Time after time, Del Negro said he wasn’t interested.
Then one day, Del Negro responded he was ready to move to Maryland and take up farming, Valdes said. After buying the house, Valdes turned the side garden into a parking lot for the practice.
Now, Valdes, 79, who has been focusing on allergies in recent years, says it’s time to sell.
Valdes, who was born in the Philippines, talks about the property:
What was the property like when you bought it?
It needed fixing – a new roof, siding.
Why were you so fascinated with the house?
I thought it would be convenient for patients and doctors. At one point, we had five doctors here and they could go across the street to do surgery.
Was Del Negro’s garden really lovely, with flowers?
Not, really. It was corn. It had 100-year-old beech trees on the property, but slowly they died.
Did you find any hidden surprises when you bought the house?
No. The only thing that caught my attention was that the kitchen was so small. But then, they didn’t have big refrigerators and stoves.
Now, you’re ready to sell. How come?
Five years ago, I decided that I was going to retire. I had a target date – I turn 80 come this spring. I had stopped doing surgeries and have an allergies practice. I told the doctors here that I planned to retire in five years and sell the building.