Tavern that helped Middletown exist flourishes under Sully’s ownership

by Shauna McVey

Witherspoon Inn survived wars, Prohibition and Valentine’s Day fire


Middletown wouldn’t be what it is today if not for the Witherspoon Inn building at Cochran Square in Middletown. For 258 years, thirsty and hungry patrons have stepped over the same granite threshold that was placed during the original building’s construction in 1761.
The Witherspoon was built by Irishman David Witherspoon. It quickly became popular with traders who traveled a cart road between ports on the Appoquinimink Creek in what’s now Odessa and the Bohemia River in Maryland. Settlers started to fill the areas surrounding the Witherspoon and the name Middletown became official exactly 100 years after the tavern opened.
Chuck “Sully” Sullivan almost didn’t buy the building at the heart of town. When he crossed that threshold at 12 West Main Street, he saw a decades-old drop ceiling and wood-paneled walls that hid its beauty and its history.
He walked right out and said, “You couldn’t give me that place.”
After the previous tenant closed its bar doors a year later, Sullivan got curious about what that drop ceiling hid. He climbed up onto a chair and found five more feet of space. That five feet told him he could make the pub successful once again.
“I thought, we get rid of this drop ceiling, gut the place, expose the brick wall and just try to get some character back,” he said. “That’s what really got my juices flowing.”
Sullivan was looking to move back to the area from Ohio, where he had made a name for himself running a restaurant, to be closer to his aging father. He searched from Princeton, N.J, to Havre de Grace, Md., to Rehoboth Beach before settling on Middletown, his original target area. The fact that he loves eating, drinking and history made the building perfect for his business goals.
He entered a lease in 2009 and got to work on renovations. That’s when the history buff realized what a gem he had on his hands. Sullivan said the exposed ceilings revealed two large support beams that were added after a devastating Valentine’s Day fire in 1946. Only brick walls survived the fire.
The Witherspoon building has operated as a bar longer than any other business in the area and possibly the state, he said. Sully’s Irish Pub opened in January 2010 and Sullivan officially purchased the building in 2013.
“I’m in a 258-year-old colonial tavern that’s never closed,” he said. “It survived the fire the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, Prohibition and The Great Depression. We were able to capture that and give it back to Middletown.”
When he ripped the frame and plaster from the ceiling, the freshly-exposed beams exposed a clue to the Witherspoon’s rich history. A mason who moonlighted as a local firefighter signed his name, Odey Walker, on one of the long slabs of wood before the tavern re-opened exactly one year after it was destroyed by fire.
“He was part of the building and refurbishing of it, so he signed the beam,” Sullivan said.
That spurred the pub’s Odey Walker drink special – an Irish whiskey shot and a craft or draft beer, which patrons can enjoy at the new horseshoe-shaped bar that fosters conversation and allows bartenders to easily spot when a customer needs tending.
Sullivan also ripped up the decades-old, holey linoleum floor and replaced it with reclaimed wood installed by local construction company PHB Builders.
“It actually came from their Kentucky Mill. It was a Jim Beam barrel house where they used to aged the whiskey,” he said. “This floor is more than 150 years old and has a long tradition of being in the alcohol business.”
And he didn’t stop there. Driven by the new floor, he decided to completely renovate the building and reconfigure some things along the way.
Exposing the ceiling revealed another aesthetic feature Sullivan wanted to bring into modern day.
Sullivan outlined what surviving brick from the 1700s was in good condition and covered the rest with plaster for a historic, falling-apart look.
An old floor plan showed the back room to the south end was once a parlor with pool tables and a banquet space, so he’s now in the process to restoring it to that same usage.
When he’s done, the Witherspoon will resemble the kind of establishment it was when some of the nation’s most famous politicians stepped over that granite threshold.
A presidential hotel
The original Witherspoon was built with rooms on the second and third floor that were renamed “The Middletown Hotel” in mid-1800s when the structure was purchased by Robert Cochran, of the town square’s namesake. Cochran added gingerbread-style architecture, Sullivan said, and because patrons could stay there, Middletown has a connection to two United States presidents. But the 1946 fire destroyed the top two floors.

A mention in “Thomas Jefferson the American Purist” that the third United States president and author of the Declaration of Independence stopped at the Witherspoon in 1775 sent Sullivan on a quest to authenticate the visit.
After two years of searching, Jefferson’s Charlottesville, Va., estate, Monticello, was able to finally verify the stop. In one daily journal entry, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “June 11. Leaving Williamsburg for Philadelphia, attending the second Continental Congress” and that he paid 6 pence to lodge at The Witherspoon that night.
Sullivan also found out from the Delaware Division of Public Archives that George Washington stayed in the hotel twice when he attended a meeting of the Cincinnatians, a fraternal group of officers that served in the Civil War.
Chris Slaughter, whose family has lived in the area for more than 100 years, said he thinks it’s a shame the Witherspoon wasn’t rebuilt to its former glory with three full stories, a lobby and the head-turning exterior.
“It was probably one of the better looking buildings in town with the brick work and all,” he said. “That old hotel was the nicest looking one of all of them.”
But of all the owners over the years, Slaughter said Sullivan is doing the best job at breathing life back into the building with its food, camaraderie and historically renovated look. It did well initially whenever a new owner took over, but it always eventually went downhill.
“Nobody really turned it around like [Sully] did. Since he bought it, it just keeps improving,” he said. “It wasn’t the kind of place that you would take your wife to back in the old days. Chuck’s place is like a family thing.”

Slaughter said it now feels like home when he goes there. Sullivan even goes to Slaughter’s house “all the time” now.

Sullivan has worked with the Delaware Division of Public Archives to erect a historical marker outside of the building to tell its 250-plus-year story to passersby on Cochran Square. He anticipates the marker’s installation will be in May.

Sully’s Irish Pub at The Witherspoon
Inside the pub, a firefighter’s jacket hangs proudly with the Sullivan name across its back. It belonged to his uncle, but Sullivan joined the firefighting family soon after purchasing the building thanks to a few of his Volunteer Hose Company of Middletown patrons.
“The guys were coming in and wanted me to join. I actually always wanted to do it,” he said.
If he misses an alert for a fire on his phone, within seconds he’ll hear the fire whistle blare loudly right from his parking lot.
An endless stream of emergency responder patches now adorn the shelves of the bar, started by Lt. Allen Rachko of the Dover Police Department in 2011 and grown by firefighters, police officers and military personnel over the years.
In addition to helping townsfolk in emergencies, Sullivan gives back to the community through the pub’s annual 5K that supports local children’s charities in the town.
And in return, the community gives back to the pub.
“On any given day there’s local cops and firefighters. After the high school football games all the coaches come in and talk about the game,” he said. “During the renovation, we were going to be closed, and we ended up setting a bar outside. All our customers came out every night and supported us.”
Because of that community support and The Witherspoon’s rich history, Sullivan said the town will be able to find him there for the rest of his life.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to die here. This is my die job,” he said. “I could probably make more money doing something else, but this is what I love. We’re 365 days a year and we never close early. If these walls could talk.”
Sullivan named the pub after his heritage to pay homage to its Irish roots. Soon, he will officially name it “Sully’s Irish Pub at The Witherspoon.”

Tavern that helped Middletown exist flourishes under Sully s ownership 2

Tavern that helped Middletown exist flourishes under Sully’s ownership_2
Patrons at Sully’s Irish Pub can oder an Odey Walker, an Irish whiskey shot and a craft or draft beer at a special price, and pay homage to the history of the Witherspoon building. Pub owner Chuck Sullivan created the drink to honor a man who fought the building’s infamous and disastrous Feb. 14, 1946 fire and then signed his name on the support beam pictured here when he helped with the rebuilding. Photo courtesy of Chuck Sullivan

 

Tavern that helped Middletown exist flourishes under Sully s ownership 3

Tavern that helped Middletown exist flourishes under Sully’s ownership_3
This Middletown Hotel sign was one of the few things that weren’t destroyed in the 1946 Valentine’s Day fire that decimated the Witherspoon Inn. Sully’s Irish Pub owner proudly does his best to keep the building’s history alive. Photo courtesy of Chuck Sullivan

Cover Photo:

Tavern that helped Middletown exist flourishes under Sully’s ownership_1
The original Witherspoon Inn building, which was constructed in 1761, is shown here during a devastating Valentine’s Day fire in 1946. The current owner, Chuck Sullivan, has revitalized the building, received approval for a historical marker and plans to honor the tavern’s history for the rest of his days. Odey Walker, seen here with his hands on his hips, helped fight the fire and rebuild the Witherspoon after it was destroyed. Photo courtesy of Chuck Sullivan

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