The History of the Amstel House

The Amstel House reflects the style and refinement of the town’s early prosperity. It is the single remaining, early Georgian residence, built in the 1730s by Dr. John Finney. Architecturally it illustrates a unique five bay, gable-end façade. A large portion of the original structure remains from the early 1700s. Architect Albert Kruse, involved in preservation of many New Castle buildings in the first half of the 20th century, wrote, “The Amstel House…is no dream…It is real, thanks to the fairy godmother of good architecture…”

The first owner of this property was Jan Roeloff deHaes, a trader who was among the original settlers when Fort Casimir was established in 1651. The property passed to his grandson near the turn of the 18th century. By 1708, records note a “small old brick house” on the property. John Finney built the current house, after purchasing the property in 1738. Finney is reputed to have owned half a dozen town houses and vast properties in the county, and is uncle to Declaration of Independence signer, Thomas McKean. After Finney’s death in 1774, the property passed to his children, and then to his daughter, Anna Dorothea. Family lore informs us that Anna had been so distraught at the loss of her fiance, a British officer under Colonel Braddock in the French and Indian War, that her father quickly married her to her cousin, John Finney of Pennsylvania. David Finney, son of the builder, was a prominent town resident and held a number of important positions in the town, including Trustee of New Castle Common.

The histories and stories of its 18th century occupants reflect the rich cultural life of the period. As home of the 7th Governor of Delaware, Nicholas Van Dyke, George Washington visited the home for a wedding in 1784. After Governor Van Dyke’s residency, his daughter Ann Van Dyke and her husband, lawyer Kensey Johns lived in the Amstel House until their home at 2 E. Third Street was built in 1790. Their daughter, Fidelia, born in 1785 in the Amstel House, married Governor Thomas Stockton. Today, examples of furniture from this family grace the exhibit rooms.

The Amstel House’s history in the 19th century mirrors the evolution of the town as a transport and administrative center. New owner in 1795, Joseph Tatlow had owned the stagecoach line to Maryland in the 1770s, and was part owner of the packet boat lines from New Castle to Philadelphia. Four generations of one family deeply involved in the town’s commerce and office holding class, Sheriff John Moody, the Burnhams, and the Birds, lived here from 1832-1904. Its last owner from this family is John Bird Burnham, noted environmentalist, born here in 1869.

The house underwent renovation by noted Delaware architect and preservationist Laussat Rogers before 1915. The result is a 1929 historic house museum that is a vivid illustration of the cultural phenomenon of the Colonial Revival, and of the rich and complex history of town preservation initiatives. Among important aspects of the Colonial Revival story at the house is the interpretation of a Georgian town garden done by noted landscape architect, Charles Gillette, in the 1930s.