The handsome 1805 brick house in Burlington City sits proudly on a street that could easily be found in Philadelphia's Society Hill. Its side and back gardens, barely visible from the sidewalk, unfold in a series of visual surprises.
It's a serious house, one with innate grandeur. Yet its owners, Nancy Measey-Kurts and John Kurts, have allowed themselves some playfulness and whimsy, especially in the gardens, creating a place that makes visitors smile.
There will no doubt be many smiles on May 19, when Burlington hosts its annual Home & Garden Tour. This East Union Street house is one of the highlights of the Delaware riverfront city's historic Yorkshire section.
"We're delighted to be part of the tour," says Nancy, a longtime art teacher at Burlington City High School and a spirited booster of her beloved hometown.
"Both of my parents grew up in Burlington, and five generations of my father's family owned the William Measey and Sons Flower Shop," she explains. Nancy spent her own childhood at one end of the same street where she has raised son Mick, 21 and daughter Magill, 19.
Although John, a lawyer, grew up in Trenton, he now shares his wife's love and loyalty to Burlington City — and has developed an affectionate tolerance for her penchant for buying old houses.
The couple met when John decided to buy a gag gift for his male secretary on National Secretary's Day: "The tradition then was to give one's secretary flowers, so I decided to present mine with dead flowers, knowing he'd get a kick out of that."
So this young lawyer walked into the well-known Measey Flower Shop, and there was Nancy, working behind the counter that day.
"I was a bit stunned when he asked for dead flowers, and initially refused to give him any — I didn't want our store's name associated with that!" she recalls.
But he prevailed, and soon the couple was dating. In 1990, when they married, they moved into a house Nancy had purchased — her third in a decade, all of them old and in need of tender, loving care.
This one, also on East Union Street, was built in 1737 and was, in Nancy's words, "a wreck."
"It looked like a place that had suffered a bomb attack. I remember an all-pink master bedroom — the only room in the house that was finished," says John. "But we worked on it for months, and I came to love the place."
With the arrival of two lively kids, the house seemed to shrink, and that was when the couple moved on to their current house on East Union Street, which they say gave the young ones more space and them a little sanity.
This house, with large, gracious downstairs rooms and five bedrooms, a library, and a laundry room on the second and third floors, had been well-maintained. And Nancy and John decided that they wanted it to retain its period integrity and dignity, rather than be "updated" in the name of modernity.
Step inside the vestibule, and you're instantly back in another century. The "newest" part of the house, along the garden side, dates to 1879.
The carriage house on the property is arguably from the same period, and possibly earlier. Its two-story outhouse — yes, outhouse — is charmingly surrounded with shrubs and vines now and remains a definite conversation piece.
The living room is traditional, with a formality that's not a bit foreboding. The original tiled fireplace is the focal point, but antiques at every turn — including a rare Victorian waxed-fruit still-life arrangement under a glass dome — also grab attention.
In the dining room, used for weekend family dinners, reigns one of Nancy's treasures, an enormous old breakfront/buffet bought at a local auction for a song. On a back wall are three vibrant tiles, representing love, life and peace, that are believed to have been glazed by Salvador Dali, whose signature appears on them.
Nearby is a glass-fronted cabinet, where Nancy has created a treasure of a different kind: Showcased within it are photos of her mother, now deceased, at all stages of her life.
A cozy kitchen, modernized but still perfectly harmonious with the house, is clearly a hub of family activity, along with a den with plump, comfy chairs and sofas and a summer porch that is command central for Scrabble games.
But it's the outdoors — and the series of gardens — that truly delight the home's occupants. Just beyond the gate at the street is a perennial garden, with a mature umbrella pine tree, and dogwood and boxwood. A brick pathway leads to a rose and hydrangea garden, near a sprawling vine that climbs an entire wall.
A sitting area, complete with copper birdbath and urns filled with annuals, is surrounded by boxwoods. Nancy's nearby "Shabby Chic" herb and vegetable gardens are a reminder of the family playful spirit, and are close to where John loves to relax and read.
The piece de resistance of this meandering area is a majestic 200-year-old Japanese maple tree. Planted near it is an area ablaze with pink and red flowers in season, a tribute to Nancy's mother, who loved those colors.
It will be in these gardens that an artist, one of several scattered throughout the neighborhood, will be painting en plein air during Burlington's Home and Garden Tour.
This family can't wait to greet the visitors.
"When you love a place," says Nancy, "you want to share it."