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Always Just Right

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The built-in cupboards in the living room were salvaged from an 18th-century house in Chestertown, Maryland. Photograph by Thom ThompsonPeni and Mel Warren have transformed their two-story, red-brick Colonial-style house in Dover from top to bottom, inside and out—all without extending the original footprint or taking down a single wall.

Built in 1974 in the upscale Pennwood neighborhood, the house offered such classic enticements as pegged hardwood floors, arched doorways with reeded columns and key pediments. The Warrens moved in with their two sons, Chase and Cameron, in 2000 and immediately embarked on what would become a 10-year plan, crossing a significant project off the list each year.

“We are the fourth—and final—owners,” Peni Warren says. “We don’t ever intend to leave.”

Their goal was to improve the house without compromising the original design, which offered large rooms, a circular flow conducive to family life and frequent entertaining, as well as a home office for Mel, an independent insurance agent. “We wanted to make the property more livable, not gut it,” Peni says.

The crowning touch in the family room is the eight-arm chandelier with Italianate detailing. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThree days after settlement, the family began bringing the house into the 21st century. The first step was to repaint the Williamsburg blue woodwork and trim in warm white. “We had to get that blue out,” Peni recalls. “It felt icy and cold, not at all the cheerful, inviting feeling we wanted to create.”

The Warrens’ antidote to the blues was champagne, as in a light and airy palette that would provide an elegant neutral backdrop for art and family heirlooms.

That first year, their project was a major undertaking, a renovation of the kitchen and adjacent family room. In order to integrate the spaces, a pocket door between the rooms was replaced with a wide, open portal that facilitates the flow between the areas.

Expanding the opening also visually enlarges the kitchen, borrowing light and volume from both the family room and adjacent patio. To give the cook a visual connection with guests, the Warrens moved the cooktop from a counter fronting a wall to the peninsula facing the family room.

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The enclosed porch, with its pine plank ceiling, is a space for all seasons. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThey installed white, raised-panel cabinets, granite countertops and professional-style stainless steel appliances. But they retained most of the original layout, including a second sink that can serve as a bar for entertaining.

“It was in an ideal location and the plumbing was already there,” says Peni, a financial consultant. “We were so fortunate that the house had so many nice features that were ahead of its time.”

In the expansive family room, the Warrens maintained the glazed knotty pine paneling and built-in cabinetry, but raised the 8-foot ceiling, breaking into the attic to create a dramatic, 11-foot tray ceiling. The crowning touch is an eight-arm chandelier with Italianate detailing and a plaster medallion.

“I’m a traditional person, but not period perfect,” Peni says. “I like an element of surprise, and I think a great chandelier makes a much bigger impression than a ceiling fan.”

Another unexpected touch is a cocktail table fashioned from a hammered brass tray from India mounted on a stand that came into the family in the 1950s, when relatives were teaching abroad.

Over the mantel hangs an equestrian drawing by Rehoboth Beach artist Becky Raubacher, whose name Warren already knew well from her childhood in Harrington. “Her father was my seventh-grade art teacher,” she says. It isn’t surprising that she was drawn to a rendering of a horse. Peni is the daughter of Ned Galentine, well-known in harness racing circles as a driver, trainer and judge.

The discovery of a framed drawing of cargo being loaded onto ships was pure serendipity. “We had taken another picture to the framers—and this was behind it,” Peni recalls. It is signed by American artist Henry Raleigh, the most celebrated illustrator of the 1920s.

A vintage photo vignette is dedicated to film siren Ava Gardner, who was a classmate of Mel’s father at what was then Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina.

The exquisitely carved Italianate armoire was handed down by Mel’s aunt. Too large to make it up the stairs, it found a home in the family room, where Peni uses it as a gift-wrap station.

Marble-topped Victorian tables collected by Mel’s father lend an air of formality in the serene living room, where white upholstered sofas are grouped on a creamy carpet. The carved, built-in corner cupboards were salvaged from an 18th-century house in Chestertown, Maryland.
 

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The swimming pool is the focal point of the Warrens’ brick patio. Photograph by Thom ThompsonOver the years, the Warrens have made over the secondary bathrooms, as well as installed a glamorous new master bath. They have replaced the carpet and subflooring in the dining room, family room and kitchen with oak. The basement was finished to create a man cave and media center. And the conduits from the original NuTone intercom and radio system have been repurposed to wire the house for music.

Along the road, they have discovered diverse sources for fabrics, furnishings and accessories. Peni found the pale yellow and cream floral fabric for the guestroom bedspread and curtains on closeout for less than $2 a yard. She bought big, plush claret-colored sofas online from Restoration Hardware. Lucy Findlay of Partners in Design on Dover’s historic Loockerman Street helped her find such unique accessories as the vessel lamp in the family room and also designed custom swags for the windows. “There is just a touch of metallic in the fabric, which plays off the chandelier,” Peni says.

Outdoors, the Warrens took out a walkway that sloped from the street to their front door—an unwelcome delivery chute for rainwater—then installed a winding paver walkway that reflects the brick of the house and solves the drainage problem. A concrete pad in the back yard, the foundation for a previous owner’s dog kennel, now serves as a secondary patio. It is surrounded by a lush, dappled-shade garden of hostas, ferns, rhododendrons and mahonia, which is known for its holly-like leaves and clusters of berries.

A dense stand of tulip poplars, beech trees and white oaks once dominated the yard. The Warrens were inspired to selectively thin the grove after a large tree was knocked down in a storm, removing trees that were diseased or had soft, shallow roots. The resulting space inspired a free-form swimming pool that glistens like a huge sapphire. Mel designed the modified hourglass shape of the pool and chose the black iron picket fence. Peni came up with the idea of building a rock waterfall that cascades into the pool.

“After a stressful day at work, you come home, put the waterfall on and forget about the cares of the day,” she says.

The Warrens are especially fond of an enclosed porch a few steps from the pool, where the only adjustment required was putting a proper seal on the flagstone floor. Overhead is a pine plank ceiling where the original ceiling fan whirls softly. It’s a timeless place, a space for all seasons.

“We’re toasty warm here in the winter, watching the snow. And in summer, we enjoy a little breeze and the garden,” Peni says. “It is always just right.”
 


GET THE LOOK

  • Listen to your home. Find ways to retain its original character in your renovation.
     
  • Pace yourself. If your house is structurally sound and has a good floor plan, design and execute one project a year instead of making over your entire home in one fell swoop.
     
  • Turn tradition on its ear. Peni Warren takes such fresh approaches as teaming a sequin cushion with a twig garden chair and a hammered brass tray-top table from India with traditional sofas.
     
  • Surround yourself with reminders of those near and dear. In the Warren home, you will find an autographed picture of Ava Gardner, a college classmate of Mel Warren’s father, as well as pieces from his collection of Victorian furniture.
     
  • Repurpose with purpose. Surrounded by lovely plantings, a concrete slab poured for a previous owner’s dog kennel becomes a small patio. 

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