In Little Arden, an Early 20th-Century Cottage Returns to its Roots

A local trio saved the 800-square-foot cottage, called Rest Harrow, from disrepair and restored the charming home back to its early-1900s glory.

Photographs by Dan Lidon

When former baker Dink Pompper approached friends Rodney Jester and Sadie Somerville about purchasing and restoring an untended early 1900s cottage in Little Arden, the couple thought, we’ll pass.

Jester, a retired custom-kitchen contractor, and Somerville, who in recent years stepped away from Somerville Manning Gallery (Greenville), already maintained three dwellings, one of them a rental.

But with a little cajoling and creative vision, Pompper and his friends were soon constructing plans for Rest Harrow, the perennial herb after which the place was named long ago, though no one knows why. (The plant’s tough roots are known to stop the plow, or harrow, in the field, so they interpret the house as a “rest from labor.”)

- Advertisement -

A Makers’ Hamlet

Tucked away from Harvey Road, the 800-square-foot cottage sets on about a quarter-acre along the Stile Path—the original entryway to the area known as Little Arden, steps away from the old train station that once welcomed Philadelphians seeking respite from the pollution and heat in the city during the summers.

“People originally lived in tents and small shacks here,” says Somerville, who serves on the Arden Archives Committee, among others. In 1909, folks began building winterized homes to encourage year-round living, drawing early residents like Upton Sinclair, Scott Nearing and Mother Bloor.

“The idea was to attract artists and artisans to work with their hands and produce beautiful and functional things,” Somerville adds. “Influenced by William Morris, who said, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,’ the makers would benefit from the pleasure of the labor involved.”

- Partner Content -

Named for Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden and nestled on former farm tracts, the original Village of Arden (known to residents as “the village”) has been on the National Register of Historic Places since the early 1970s and is one of three leasehold communities that make up The Ardens. While each community reflects the architectural trends of its time—from turn-of-the-century Tudors to ramblers reminiscent of the 1950s—the Arts and Crafts influence is prominent throughout this eclectic enclave. Many homes, as well as neighborhood gathering spaces like Gild Hall and the Craft Shop Museum, exemplify the charming 16th-century rural England aesthetic—white-stucco-sided structures with contrasting timber and low-pitched roofs, their stone foundations hugged by wild, wafty gardens. Like Rest Harrow, many are given names.

With no preservation laws, Arden has seen storied properties demolished and less fitting abodes erected in their place. Rest Harrow’s new owners didn’t want to see this happen again. They set out to return the cottage to its most original form, salvaging and restoring what they could and removing additions that didn’t belong.

“The best thing about this house is that it was untouched, and the worst thing about this house is that it was untouched,” Jester jokes. But the trio thought it was a great example of Arden’s earliest cottages—probably built around 1912 and designed by architect William Price, one of the founders of this Utopian community north of Wilmington—and felt compelled to save it.

“We tried to take it apart gently enough to understand what it might have looked like at one time,” Jester says. “At the same time, we have put our own fingerprints on the house, at times keeping some things we know were added later.”

As You Like It

- Advertisement -

With its diamond-paned windows and carved white stucco displaying Mercer tile inlays, it’s hard to imagine this fairy-tale Tudor-style cottage was once in complete disrepair. Now its most prominent features include a dormer and a stone-and-glass portico punctuated by a vibrant red door.

While the bones were sturdy, the exterior needed polishing and fresh paint, and the inside was a mess—walls stained with nicotine and mold, a stone fireplace surround covered in soot (Jester notes an incident where a former resident stuffed a Christmas tree up there and ignited a fire), musty carpeting and a floor plan that needed reconfiguring.

It also needed new plumbing, heating and electrical, evidenced by wires that “kept catching fire when we tried to move them,” Jester explains.

Downstairs, the original heart-pine floors had been ripped up, concrete and carpet laid in their place. Wanting to restore the home’s original materials, they replaced it with new pine flooring to match what was still upstairs and in salvageable condition. They scrubbed the soot and stains, repaired every window (rotted frames, eaves and sashes), demolished walls and rebuilt them in their original locations.

Through the portico, Pompper emphasized a carved motto board inscribed, “Sit Down and Welcome,” a feature typical of these early homes.

Authentic Arden Forge iron and copper fixtures—made by artisans in the community craft shop—were either restored or replaced; the front batten door features the original hinges, latch and knocker, while a lantern still hangs inside and candle sconces illuminate the space with a warm glow.

Mixing modern and antique furnishings—all three are collectors from the Arts and Crafts period—they created a central seating area with a Persian rug and leather Ikea armchairs. The tables are all contemporary, while Stickley oak dining chairs, a chest Somerville bought at auction, and an antique screen and embroidered linens are more in line with the early 20th century. Handmade pottery, potted flowers and old knickknacks are thoughtfully scattered across the mantel and windowsills.

In back, the modest kitchen had been further minimized by a roofline that slanted down to the countertops. The floors, a foot below grade, invited flooding whenever it rained.

“That threw a monkey wrench in our plan to build on the foundation,” Jester says, noting they had no choice but to tear everything out and start over.

Opting for a more modern aesthetic that still complemented the old cottage, they extended the pine flooring throughout, and installed white cabinets with granite tops. To open up the space, they lifted the ceiling and inserted a window that looks out to a back patio and garden where Somerville has planted hostas and begonias.

Offering a quick exit to what has become their al fresco dining space, they added a new door to the side yard from the kitchen. A stainless-steel side-by-side fridge and 24-inch electric cooking range make up in convenience what the kitchen lacks in space, inviting a comfortable place to prepare delicious meals, sip sangria and stare outside at nature.

An adjacent bathroom was also gutted and updated with 1920s black-and-white tile, a marble sink and a closet that holds a stackable washer and dryer.

Upstairs, a wall divided the space into two tiny rooms. “We couldn’t tell if it was original, but it made the space untenable,” Jester says. So they removed it, reinstalled the pine flooring, and restored the four-panel windows and built-in closets.

Now, a diagonal queen bed (“We had to get one of those rollup mattresses because nothing would fit up the narrow stairs,” Somerville says), plus a small nightstand and dresser are the only furnishings besides an area rug, Japanese bird prints and a charming Dennis Sheehan landscape painting that hangs in the eave above the window.

They thought another painting at the landing would be a nice touch, “but kept having thoughts of someone tripping up the stairs and going through it,” Jester laughs. Instead, the bare wall catches dappled light through the side window, displaying a whimsical array of pictures throughout the day.

While stripping the creaky stairs that separate the two floors, they found “mysterious holes” in the risers that they later learned held speakers to project sound from an old organ that once played here.

Love’s Labour’s Lost (and Won)

Throughout the two-year restoration, the trio and its workers found an array of objects—buttons, a set of keys, a butterfly brooch—hidden in the home’s nooks and crannies, which Somerville showcases in a shadowbox in the living room.

What was a labor of love (and a comedy of old errors, to some degree) has become a point of pride. Pompper, whose property abuts Rest Harrow’s backyard, enjoys maintaining its lush gardens. Somerville and Jester inhabit The Castle, a nearby 1923 Arts and Crafts style named for its diminutive tower, purchased by Somerville 27 years ago.

Until Rest Harrow is rented (“We want the cottage to be a place for scholars and researchers to stay, who would be interested in the history of the house and the community,” Somerville says), she and Jester  are using it as “a little staycation,” getting together with Pompper regularly for socially distanced cocktails and Sunday brunches during COVID-19.

“We’ll be sorry when we won’t have it to use anymore,” Somerville says, “so it’s good that our tenants will be short-term.”

Published as “Restoration Harrow” in the September 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.