Twice a Charm
How the historic Runge-Fales House and warmth of neighbors sealed the deal for a pair of New Jersey empty-nesters
By William Irvine • Photographs by Rick Ricozzi
For Mary Grace Denton and Peter Maloff, it was time for a new chapter. The couple had successful careers and had been long settled in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, when the siren song of a Southern retirement beckoned. “Actually, Wilmington was not our first choice,” says Peter. “We actually looked at about 10 places first, among them Savannah, Charleston, Nashville, Athens, Georgia and Chapel Hill.” Their requirements were not too rigorous: They wanted to live in a place near a lively downtown that also had a yard. Peter’s son was living in Charlotte at the time, and New Jersey friends suggested that they look on the coast. “And we fell in love with Wilmington,” says Mary Grace with a smile. “The historic district sealed the deal for us,” adds Peter. “Just the idea that there were all these historic houses right downtown. We were sold.”
Soon they were shown (and swiftly purchased) the elegant Runge-Fales House on Fifth Avenue, one of the highlights of this year’s Back Door Kitchen Tour, which will be hosted by the Residents of Old Wilmington (ROW) on October 20.
The Greek Revival-style house was built around 1870 for Gerhard Henry William Runge (1828-1876), a grocer and saloon keeper, and his wife, Johanna Eckel (1936-1920), natives of Hanover, Germany. A foresighted businessman, Runge built two houses — his own large residence and a smaller house next door, so his wife would be able to rent the property after he died and produce some income.
Soon after Johanna’s death, the house was purchased by the Fales family. James Benjamin Franklin Fales (1859-1925) was the proprietor and owner of J.B. Fales and Sons Wholesale Fish House. The Faleses were quite prolific, and the house stayed in the family until 2016. When James and his wife, Maggie Hewlett, lived in the house, the entire family would gather there. “The last owner told us that he used to love to come here for the family visits to his grandparents,” says Peter. “He and his cousins would fight about who got to retrieve the eggs from the chicken coop in the backyard.” The Faleses added the dramatic portico in the front of the house and the commodious wrap-around porch, where Peter now likes to read the morning papers.
At one time there were Fales children in two houses across the street and another near Wrightsville Beach. One of the children was Dr. Robert Martin Fales (1907-1995), a physician and local historian, who begin his early practice in their house. “You can see that there is an extra door off the living room — that was formerly the waiting room for patients,” says Peter. The examination room was in the back south-facing parlor behind.
After World War II, the house was divided into four apartments. “At one time it was known at the Star-News house, because it was occupied by four reporters from the newspaper,” says Mary Grace.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s, when Jack McFale of California purchased the house from his Fales aunt. It was he who converted the house back into a single-family residence in 2007. After renting it for several years, he put it back on the market in 2016, when it attracted the attention of Denton and Maloff.
Wasn’t it daunting for two empty-nesters (and their standard poodle, Henry) to find enough furniture to fill the large house? “Furnishing the house was no challenge,” says Peter. “We got married in 2010 and combined two homes into one. Not long after, we retrieved some fine pieces from Mary Grace’s mom. And when we arrived in Wilmington, we were introduced to the pleasures and treasures of Southern Home and the Ivy Cottage, where we made some strategic additions.”
The first floor has a layout that is typical of the period: two pairs of formal parlors flanking the hallway and a kitchen in the back. The front hall has the original highly burnished 150-year-old heart-pine floors, in beautiful condition. Peter’s collection of American pottery is in a display case, mostly mid-Atlantic pieces supplemented with works from Chatauqua in upstate New York.
The parlor rooms are now furnished with a pleasing selection of modern upholstered pieces in earth tones, mixed with family heirlooms, including a handsome 19th century drop-leaf table and a group of four large watercolor landscapes that came with them from New Jersey.
The kitchen, in the back of the house, was designed with a serious cook in mind. There is a large kitchen island with a huge slab of green marble (all one piece). Cabinets are simple white, with iron drawer pulls that are faintly Colonial Revival in style. There is a Wolf range with a built-in grill and a side-by-side Sub-Zero refrigerator. All restoration work is by Tommy Rogers. Off the kitchen is a sunroom with a view to the backyard, which also features a brick terrace for afternoon cocktails.
They have made this glorious house a home. And it turns out that Wilmington has been a great choice, after all. Says Peter: “We were startled — twice — by the reception we received when we arrived in Wilmington: first, in the very beginning when we were warmly welcomed in our neighborhood; and second, when we realized that the kind expressions of welcome made to us were as sincere as they sounded.” Words to make a native smile.
Residents of Old Wilmington’s 13th annual Back Door Kitchen Tour will take place on October 20 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to the Runge-Fales House, there will be eight other downtown properties open for tours. Tickets are $25 in advance; $30 the day of the event. Tickets are available at Ivy Cottage, Cape Fear Spice Merchants, and various Harris Teeter stores or online at rowilmington.org. Since its founding in 1973, Residents of Old Wilmington (ROW) promotes preservation and beautification of the downtown historic districts through advocacy, volunteer projects, and monetary grants.