In May of 1991 Lawrence Maddry wrote a newspaper column in the Virginian-Pilot about the deWitt Cottage and the House Matriarch, Julia C. deWitt. Here is that column:
When Julia C. deWitt of Virginia Beach died last week at the age of 88, the loss of her spirit and grace in the community was widely mourned. And even those who barely knew her felt that a thread tide to something special in the past had been severed. She was raised in the eyrie DeWitt cottage at 12th St and Atlantic Ave a home that comes about as close to a sailing ship as a cottage constructed a Brit can get. It is a reminder to all who see it of gentle people and more graceful times.
The three-story gray cottage,with its wide porches, yawning windows and distinctive cupola, was built in 1895 by B. P. Holland,Virginia Beach’s first mayor. A national landmark, it is the only remaining private residence on the resort strip and soon will become the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Center. Julia de which father, Cornelius deWitt, bought the cottage with 22 rooms as a sanctuary for his wife, Cecile, and their large brood of children in 1909. Cornelius deWitt was a prominent Norfolk banker and cotton broker. A genial man, he summoned children to meals by blowing a bugle on the beach. And he dressed his ten children alike for their outings on streetcars or trips to church. A Hunter, like Bernard Holland,he used the cupola as a lookout for ducks and geese on Lake Holly at 12 St and Pacific Ave.
Author Louisa Kyle said that she and Julia de Witt first greeted each other from baby carriages on Freemason St in Norfolk. As a fourth grader she visited Julia by taking a forty-five-minute streetcar ride to their beach home. “The deWitt’s owned a whole city block that was catty corner to the house. They kept a cow over there with chickens and gardens.” she said. “Each of the children had their own garden with their own seeds. I think of Julia now with those yellow California poppies; so lovely.”
“It was a wonderful cottage. Everyone laughing and interested in something. Julia organized the first lunchroom in a Norfolk school at the Boush St School. My recollection is that Julia spoke French during meals in the cottage dining room. The deWitt’s had so many friends that the cottage became a second home for hundreds of their family friends, and, in time, for the children and grandchildren of their friends.”
“Anyone in trouble could go there to find tea and sympathy,”Louisa Kyle recalled. “But it was mainly a place for fun. They had an autograph book that you were required to sign. And they must have had a dozen replicas of the autograph book they had collected over the years. It was called the pig book. It was custom for the person signing the book to be blindfolded, first. Then, while blindfolded, they had to draw a pig before signing their autograph.”
The parents had little time to enjoy their home and children’ both had passed away by 1923, and Julia and her older sister, Elizabeth, raised their younger siblings. “Julia became the hub around which the whole house revolved,” Kyle recalled , “and she mothered so many children that were not her own.” Julia never married or had any children of her own.
Like other families, the deWitt’s were almost ruined by the Great Depression and took in boarders to earn extra money. Elizabeth deWitt and Julia babysat for the children of their friends to earn extra money. The sisters would carry bags of books to the children’s homes and read stories to them until they were old enough to read the books themselves. Elizabeth who died in 1971, helped establish the city’s first lending library. That library became the first Virginia Beach Public Library. The children’s wing of the library at Galilee Episcopal Church is named for Elizabeth deWitt.
Sometimes the children being cared for by the deWitt sisters were brought to the cottage and could prowl about the attic or peer out to sea from the cupola. One was Craig Slingluff, now a doctor at Duke University Hospital. He described the cottage, “with the wide hallways where summer breezes flowed through the front door straight through to the back door, as a place almost lost in a time that was very special! ”Slingluff’s Mother, Emily, remembers the cottage as a home,“where materialism was never considered. Kind thoughts and gentleness were all that mattered.
”Boy, with all that has happened over the past few months in our country; we sure could use some more kindness and gentleness!