Victorian nest lures two Kiwis to Shore

Dream home

Desire: Two New Zealanders, both in their 70s, are restoring a Victorian house in Kent County.

July 11, 1999|By Joan Kasura | Joan Kasura,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rex and June Kershaw's dream began as a vague desire to find an old dwelling and make it into their retirement home. That vague desire eventually became a massive project which is still under way in Rock Hall.

To date, Mr. Kershaw, with the occasional assistance of his two sons, has spent more than 10 years and $60,000 refurbishing the huge, 100-year-old Queen Anne-style Victorian that his wife and their daughter, Lisa, found in Kent County back in December 1988.

The Kershaws' journey began in the mid-1960s in their native New Zealand, where they built a 45-foot, steel-hulled ketch. Rex Kershaw, a mechanic, spent two years outfitting the yacht. Once complete, the Kershaws sold all that they owned and began cruising the Pacific for the better part of a year.

The Kershaws settled in Hawaii, where Mr. Kershaw found himself maintaining deck equipment for the University of Hawaii's research vessels.

The Kershaws had visited the mainland in the early 1980s and decided in 1987 to leave Hawaii and cross the United States in a pickup truck with a trailer in tow.

This time their destination was Dover, Del., where friends -- whom they had met on their earlier visit to the mainland -- resided. Mr. Kershaw knew his best bet for finding his heart's desire -- an old house in need of restoration -- lay on the East Coast.

They made their base in Dover and eventually found the Victorian in Rock Hall, an hour from where they were staying. The home was in a sad state.

"We think the previous owners had tried to turn it into a bed and breakfast," Mr. Kershaw said, "but they didn't realize the extent of the work involved. When we got to it, they hadn't done much except put this awful kitchen addition on the back."

Unlike the former owners, the Kershaws, both in their 70s, knew what they were in for, and, on Jan. 6, 1989, they signed the papers in the middle of a snowstorm to purchase the house for $80,000.

Living in the trailer they had towed across the country, Mr. Kershaw and his younger son, Brent, set immediately to work. His older son, Forrest, a carpenter, joined them from his home in California and together they proceeded to jack the house up to level the structure and to tear out the interior all the way to the exterior walls.

Two factors dictated this last course. First, the keys, the thin, horizontal sticks that form the skeleton base for the walls' plaster, were falling down. Second, over time, the home's previous owners had patched the walls with inexpensive plywood rather than the more expensive plaster.

Mr. Kershaw hired contractors to update the electrical and plumbing systems as well as reinstall the interior walls to their original positions using drywall.

"It was easier to have them come in and do it rather than taking the time to sit and think it all out to make sure it was up to code," Mr. Kershaw said.

"But," he continued, "we still had the problem of getting someone in to look at it, give us a price, and then keep them on the job. It was the most frustrating aspect of the job, and it's why I finally installed the heating system myself, because that part I did know how to do."

During that first year, the Kershaws also had a contractor come in to help build the large barn-like building that houses their garage and Mr. Kershaw's workshop, and provides outside storage.

Once the drywall and the heating system were installed, the renovations began to fall into a pattern. Mr. Kershaw would do large exterior jobs during the warmer months and interior projects during the winter.

The three-story, 4,000-square-foot home had eight bedrooms, but two have been converted, one into a sewing room/office and the other into a walk-in closet in the master bedroom.

Starting at the third floor, renovation proceeded downward.

All the interior trim around the windows and doorways was redone, the pine floors were sanded and refinished, and new baths were installed. Both Mr. Kershaw's and his son Brent's workmanship is particularly evident in the intricate tile designs laid throughout the third- and second-floor baths.

As the work progressed, the Kershaws received greater and more numerous accolades from the locals of Rock Hall.

Then came a helpful visit by the son of an owner who had purchased the home in 1941. Through him, the Kershaws were able to obtain photographs that showed what the home's front and side looked like before the alterations and years of neglect.

The photos confirmed that the Kershaws had guessed correctly when it came to their renovations. For instance, the home originally had a circular driveway in the front which even then showed signs of growing over. A front balcony on the second floor had been converted into a closet.

Using the photographs as a guide, the Kershaws reopened the balcony and plan to begin restoring it this summer, along with the front and side porches. The photographs' biggest revelations were the number and placement of the posts and the intricate gingerbread decorations.

As for June Kershaw, her primary responsibilities have been "master flunky and interior decorator." She also did the initial landscaping, including beds of perennials at the rear of the home and along its pathways.

Asked when the restoration will be finished, Mr. Kershaw laughed and replied: "Hard to say. If we had a timetable, I can tell you it's shot!"

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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