Back to Life

A historic farmhouse in Rockland is reborn as an everyday country retreat.

The homeowner left the floor joists of the second story exposed to create the ambience of a rustic, beamed ceiling. Photograph by John LewisEven before they had been properly introduced, Stephanie Krewson thought of the farmhouse as an old friend. She had been intrigued by the property, tucked among trees on rural Rockland Road, since she was a young girl. After she grew up, she ran by the site regularly as she trained for marathons.

“I have loved this house my entire life,” she says.

The romance was further fueled by Krewson’s passion for preservation. She has always had a soft spot in her heart for old houses.

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“Restoration is not necessarily practical,” she says. “There is a strong emotional element to it.”

The farmhouse was owned by W. Laird Stabler Sr., father of politician and public servant W. Laird Stabler Jr. The house was donated to the Delaware State Historic Preservation Office, which encourages the preservation and rehabilitation of historic sites. The agency was tasked with selling the property to a buyer who would restore the house and, preferably, give a conservation easement to the state so no McMansions could be built on the site in the future.

The first floor includes a quaint powder room. Photograph by John LewisKrewson bought the property in 2002, then donated the easement to the state, ensuring that the land would forever remain an unspoiled tract. Her initial plan was to revitalize the house for use as a weekend getaway from her fast-paced job as a stock analyst. She named her peaceful plot Tranquility.

“I think it’s impossible to not feel tranquil when experiencing so much natural beauty,” she says.

Though the rolling, wooded terrain surrounding the property was lovely, the house required reconstructive surgery. No one had lived in it for years, so its lonely walls ached for someone who could look beyond tattered wallpaper and rotting floorboards to embrace the home’s innate charm.

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Krewson possesses the rare ability to see clear through to a structure’s bones, a sort of X-ray vision that puts exciting possibilities into crystalline focus. “It was a mess,” she says, “but it had potential.”

To transform her ideal of a retreat that is compatible with both its natural surroundings and her innate aesthetic sensibilities, she turned to Mike Christopher of Bancroft Homes in Wilmington.

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The kitchen offers a great view of the countryside. Photograph by John LewisThe farmhouse was built in 1905, but Krewson’s research at Winterthur showed the foundation dates back to 1802, when the site was home to a manager of a mill.

A previous owner installed asbestos shingles on top of the original cedar siding, likely in the 1940s. Removing the shingles and replacing rotted clapboards revived the farmhouse ambience of the exterior. Krewson breathed more life into the façade with a coat of cheerful yellow paint and copper gutters and downspouts.

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Because the house was originally designed to keep a family warm in winter, the six-over-six pane windows are small. Ceilings were kept snug and low, at 7-feet 2-inches high.

Krewson’s loving and faithful restoration called for keeping the windows the same size to preserve the cozy, intimate feeling. She coaxed a few extra inches of ceiling height out of the first story by exposing the floor joists of the second story above it. Workers installed panels of sheetrock between each joist to create the ambience of a rustic, beamed ceiling.

Painting the joists and panels white visually raised the ceiling a bit further without compromising the integrity of the structure.

“For me, it was important to maintain the turn-of-the-century, simple American design and to respect the overall look of the property,” Krewson says.

By sacrificing attic space, she gained lofty, vaulted ceilings in the second-floor bedrooms, adding natural light and volume.

A variance in place from the 1970s enabled Krewson to expand the property by 500 square feet: 250 square feet on each floor. But claiming the space wasn’t easy because there was an enormous boulder on the site. The builders couldn’t dynamite it out without endangering the existing structure. And the stone is so dense, jackhammers could not chip it out. So the contractor devised a system to build over the rock, fusing the structure to the boulder.

“If the world ends, my addition should still be bolted to that rock,” Krewson says.

That change also enabled her to create a new, more welcoming entry and to move the kitchen to the original entrance, where it would offer a spectacular view of the countryside. She managed to save the pine floors on the second story and replaced the boards on the ground floor with vintage planks from a salvage yard.

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The Victorian settee and chairs in the upstairs sitting room came from the last Talley farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred. Photograph by John LewisKrewson configured the interior space to suit her lifestyle. The kitchen, a stylish home office, a jot of a powder room and a large living room with a fireplace inhabit the first floor. The gate-leg table under the crystal chandelier opens for dinner parties. On the second floor, there’s a guest room and a sumptuous master suite with a sitting room and bath. In the cellar, there’s a fireproof depository for records and climate-controlled wine storage.

Like her home, Krewson’s furnishings were plucked from the past. “I started buying antiques years before I even owned a house,” she says.

One of her favorite finds is the matching French loveseats she discovered in an antiques store in Los Angeles. Their silk was dry rotted and the cushions needed to be gutted and re-done. But their ornately carved walnut frames were in perfect condition, so Krewson knew she could bring them back to life. Today the loveseats provide a perfect perch for a conversation in her office.

She is only the second owner of a chest-on-chest commissioned by a family in Richmond, Virginia, and shipped from England around 1770.

The Victorian settee and lady’s and gentleman’s chairs in the upstairs sitting room came from an auction at the last Talley farmhouse in Brandywine Hundred, a site on Foulk Road that is now the New Castle County Library. The high poster bed in the guest room came out of the Weldin family farmhouse in North Wilmington.

“I also love to read and write letters, so every room has a comfy chair for reading and both floors have writing desks, complete with stationery,” she says.

Art is an essential part of the mix, and Krewson is committed to supporting Delaware artists. Their work is found throughout the house. They include pieces by two of her favorites, Daniel Jackson and Kelly McConnell Cox.

She is an accomplished hostess, so a well-appointed kitchen with a professional-style range and hardwood counters was a priority. She based her design on the kitchens of French farm country. She found the imported rooster tiles that decorate the backsplash during a break on a business trip to New York City.

The kitchen also is the site of the only television in the house, a wall-mounted model with a 9-inch screen, just large enough for viewing Phillies games.

Krewson’s job frequently took her around the U.S. and overseas. The company headquarters is in Richmond, where she restored a house in the city’s historic district and once lived during the work week.

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But Tranquility tugged at her heartstrings, drawing her back to Delaware for holidays and extended weekends. A year ago, when Krewson took a break from finance, she decided to live at her retreat year-round. The sylvan setting struck her as the ideal place to work on her book, a guide for investors in real estate investment trusts.

Her bond with the land was renewed in sweat when she dug out a small plot to grow herbs and vegetables for cooking, a pursuit that required hours of hard labor.

“They don’t call this part of the state Rockland for nothing,” she says.

Inside and out, the property is geared toward entertaining and sharing time with friends. Krewson enjoys popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly and relaxing with guests on the patio, luxuriating in views of Brandywine Creek State Park.

“After I am gone, this house will be my legacy,” she says. “I brought it back from ruin, and it gives me great joy every day.” 


GET THE LOOK

  • Create your own space. Decide how you will use each room based on your individual lifestyle. For Stephanie Krewson, that meant establishing a chic but hardworking home office, as well as a cozy sitting room with fireplace off the master bathroom.
     
  • Make the most of what you have. Exposing the second-story floor joints created a few extra inches of ceiling height on the first floor—and also added a charming architectural element.
     
  • Indulge in a few luxuries. The floor in Krewson’s powder room is onyx, giving a small space a large dose of glamour. Antique settees are upholstered in silk.
     
  • Shop far and near. She found the perfect crystal chandelier in Los Angeles—and wonderful paintings by artists only a few miles from home.
     
  • Listen to your heart. The cost and inconvenience of restoration are well worth the investment when the result is a home you love.

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