Historic Taverns Seek Modern Niche

Dan Linehan

, Uncategorized

Sully’s, Cantwell’s offer authenticity with their food and drinks

Chuck Sullivan knew that underneath the 1970s decor, the Colonial-era architecture of his Irish pub was waiting to shine. So he tore out the fake walls to reveal the more than 250-year-old brick beneath.

But what he found under the stucco was, in some ways, worse. Much of the brick, laid down in 1761, was rotting away.

His simple compromise mixed old and new. Sullivan, who reopened the historic Middletown tavern in 2010 as Sully’s Irish Pub at the Witherspoon, decided to remove the plaster where the brick was intact and leave it in place elsewhere.

The look, of stucco weaving around brick, become a brand; it’s the image that appears on his business cards, for example.

Just a few miles to the east, in Odessa, Cantwell’s Tavern had been making trade-offs, too – trade-offs meant to preserve history while doing business. Also in 2010, it finished a transition from art museum to restaurant in a move that was intended by its nonprofit owners, in essence, as a preservation tool.

But fitting in a sufficient number of seats was a major challenge, says Bob Ashby, one of the proprietors. Modern restaurants use wide-open floor plans to maximize seating, but knocking down walls at Cantwell’s, built as the Brick Hotel in 1822, was out of the question.

With the help of booth seating, Ashby and his team managed to leave Cantwell’s charm intact while making it viable as a restaurant. They found value, too, in historic integrity.

“When you put (a restaurant) in a historic building, you have character that’s already there,” Ashby says.

One is an Irish pub and the other an upscale casual restaurant. Though Cantwell’s and Sully’s occupy different food niches, these taverns are being revived by owners who care about their history. And they’re standing out in a crowded marketplace by taking advantage of a simple fact: No one is making new Colonial taverns.

The Witherspoon Becomes Sully’s

Built in 1761 by David Witherspoon, the tavern was one of Middletown’s first buildings and a popular waypoint for travelers. Caesar Rodney, the revolutionary luminary whose midnight ride to sign the Declaration of Independence gave patriots the deciding vote, stopped by in 1777. Gen. George Washington recorded his 1783 visit to the tavern in his diary, and Sullivan has found strong evidence that Thomas Jefferson was there, too.

The inn also has a fascinating Civil War history as a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers, says George Contant, a historian at the Middletown Historical Society. Johnny Reb, it was generally known, could find a friend—and, in mixed company, a fight—at the Witherspoon.

“You knew that if you could escape from Fort Delaware and get to the Delaware side you had a very ready, willing and able reverse Underground Railroad to get you back to Virginia,” Contant says.

Prohibition and then the Depression brought hard times for the Witherspoon. Then, tragedy. On Valentine’s Day, 1946, a fire that started nearby devastated the building, more or less destroying its upper levels. It was rebuilt, and continued as a pub until Sullivan took over.

From Brick Hotel to Cantwell’s

Historical photos line the wall at Cantwell's Tavern in Odessa. (Photo courtesy of Cantwell's Tavern)

Historical photos line the wall at Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa.
(Photo courtesy of Cantwell’s Tavern)

Cantwell’s Tavern, though it does not have as colorful a past, shares in the region’s boom-and-bust history. Its 19th-century prosperity as the Brick Hotel was a result of the town’s position astride the regional grain trade on the Appoquinimink River. But as the railroad displaced river travel, Odessa languished. For preservation purposes, that turned out to be a blessing, says Deborah Buckson, executive director of the Historic Odessa Foundation (HOF), which counts Cantwell’s among its historic holdings.

Though the town was in decay, she says, the lack of encroaching development meant it stayed essentially unchanged, a process called “preservation by neglect.”

“You’re looking at a Colonial streetscape,” she says of Odessa’s Main Street.

Along with much of Odessa, the hotel was restored in the mid-20th century by H. Rodney Sharp, who was married to Isabella Mathieu du Pont. It was through those family connections that the hotel would pass into the hands of the du Pont family, which most recently used it as an art museum under Winterthur’s auspices.

Both Sully’s and Cantwell’s have adopted modern uses while staying true to the past.

At Cantwell’s, mothballed by Winterthur in 2003, the HOF had plenty of modernization to reverse when it took control two years later. The building’s first use was its best use, Buckson says, and the HOF spent $1.2 million turning it back into a tavern. The business now generates about a third of the foundation’s operating income.

Today, the 165-seat restaurant also serves as an introduction to Odessa’s history, with walls covered with maps and other documents from the foundation’s collection.

Cantwell’s customers come for the charm, says Carolyn Davis, the general manager. Brunch is popular with locals; the extensive menu features hearty fare as well as sampler boards. The restaurant makes its own peanut butter and jam and does its own pickling. Signature dinner entrees include crab cakes ($24) and filet mignon ($31). Cantwell’s also caters, both to off-site events and weddings held in the nearby gardens.

Middletown Vitality

In Sullivan’s case, Middletown’s economic vitality, fueled by newcomers like him, made it a natural choice. But he wanted to make a place that the city’s old guard could enjoy, too.

A New Jersey native who most recently operated restaurants in Ohio, Sullivan knew he had to pay homage to the town’s history, so he appended “at the Witherspoon” to the Irish pub’s name, and filled the restaurant with nods to town history. You can, for instance, order an Odie Walker. Made up of a shot of Irish whiskey and a draft of your choice (at a reduced price) it’s named after a firefighter who etched his name on the rafters after the 1946 fire. The walls are dotted with local history, including a snippet from Sports Illustrated about an area football player and an American flag flown in Iraq by a Delaware National Guard unit.

The pub has a full menu, and Sullivan says the home-made Reuben, cooked from raw brisket and paired with sweet peppers, and the boxty, an Irish potato pancake, are among the highlights.

He wants to learn more about his bar’s history. The anecdote about Jefferson’s visit, which was unknown to the historical society until just a few months ago, appears to have only whetted his appetite.

“I don’t own this tavern,” he says. “I am merely the present-day caretaker.”

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