Celebrating by Design

The holidays give Judy Duke the year’s best excuse to throw a party-and to redecorate.

Duke and her dog, Ralph Lauren,
are ready for some caroling.

Photographs by John Lewis

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The first Christmas was celebrated in a stable.

Judy Duke observes the holiday in a barn—a one-time home of dairy cows, now a dramatic and elegant abode for people.

At Yule time, the barn becomes a holiday wonderland, with a Christmas tree in every room—including the baths. “I love Christmas,” Duke says. “I still believe in Santa Claus.”

And why not? Even the reindeer would feel at home amid the greenery, twinkling lights and colorful reminders of the season that she delights in displaying for a wide circle of family and friends. She has had a lot more room to show the holiday spirit—12,000 square feet in all—since moving into the barn several years ago.

Duke and Allen Bobb, her longtime partner, had lived in a little country house down the road from the barn, which had been converted into a sophisticated, multi-story home by the previous owners. They had long been intrigued by its rustic facade, many levels and expansive outdoor patios and terraces.

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Eventually, a For Sale sign went up on the property, but the couple didn’t bother looking at the place because they suspected the price was too high.

The silo is the perfect site for storing wine—and for tasting it.

The barn had languished on the market for more than a year when Duke and Bobb finally took a tour, where they admired the barn’s huge wood beams, soaring dimensions and 2-foot-thick stone walls. In an instant, they realized the home was a perfect fit—and by that time, the price was, too.

“It didn’t even take a minute,” Duke recalls. “We walked in, we looked at each other, and we knew this was it.”

Known as Sunny Ridge, the property includes four pretty acres, where Duke’s horses and a pony now graze.

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All year ’round, guests will find reminders of the energetic Duke’s many interests. Enormously fond of flowers, she puts together extravagant arrangements of silks, inspired by grand floral creations in the lobbies of fine hotels.

She is an avid collector of exuberantly patterned McKenzie-Childs teapots, the basis for the crisp, black-and-white color scheme in the kitchen. Decorative painting gives the walls the patina of aged Tuscan plaster.

Duke created a grand entry for her formal dining area by installing a set of tall wrought-iron garden gates. She heightened the drama by furnishing the space in big pieces, including a large mirror framed in gilt for additional sparkle. She kept a big brass chandelier, the focal point of the previous owners’ colonial-style design, but gave it a European look by adding shades.

To infuse the space with a sense of the exotic, she again turned to black and white—but this time in the bold animal print she used to upholster the dining chairs at a massive table. “I wanted something funky, with zebra,” she recalls.

Duke is an intuitive decorator with a keen eye for both good looks and practicality. She fashioned the striking window treatments in a sitting room by combining a lambrequin of her own design with fringed balloon shades from JCPenney and straight side panels embellished with trim. The handsome telescope on a pedestal in the formal living room comes in handy for keeping an eye on the horses.

The converted barn’s 12,000 square feet offers
plenty of space to decorate.

Underground, the stout stone walls of the barn’s silo are ideal for storing wine and for a small, informal tasting room.

Duke transformed the third floor of the silo into her office, which she decorated in an equestrian theme, integrating her collections of saddles and equine art. She bought many of her favorite furnishings, including her carved mahogany desk, at Briggs Auction in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania, where Duke is a regular bidder. “On Friday nights, it’s the place to be,” she says.

Furnishing such a large home starts with careful buying. In addition to auctions and traditional furniture stores, Duke also scours estate sales, classified ads and discount houses, discovering such finds as a baby grand piano that’s ideal for carol sing-alongs.

“I shop,” she says. “I look and look.”

That goes double for the holidays, when Duke shops for both decorations and ideas. Last year she adorned the two-story tree beside a massive stone fireplace with broad ribbons that cascade gracefully down the tree. It’s a dazzling effect. “There’s not a single ball on this tree,” she says.

A rounded bar in the kitchen is a popular spot.

Duke starts decorating the day after Halloween, unpacking the first boxes of ornaments. She gets out her toolbox and brings in a 12-foot ladder.

“I have to start that early because it takes a long time,” she says. “Besides, I can’t wait for Christmas.”

Though she enjoys putting together sugared fruits and greens and other arrangements herself, Duke says manufacturers have come up with some great ways to reduce labor for home decorators. Her favorites are trees outfitted with fiber-optic lights, which eliminate the annual ritual of unraveling strings of lights and arranging them on the trees.

“There are 1,400 lights on that tree, all perfectly spaced,” she says. “Can you imagine how much time it would take me to do that myself?”

As soon as the leftover Thanksgiving turkey is stowed in the fridge, she begins work on the outside of the house. Each Christmas Eve, after the last of the poinsettias have been arranged, Duke and Bobb host an open house for loved ones.

Because the home is so large, Duke establishes themed party zones, setting up a wine and cheese bar in the kitchen, hot sandwiches in the game room, a martini bar in the lower-level tavern room, and desserts and coffee in the pool house. Cheese trays and tubs of bottled beer, water and soft drinks are stationed throughout.

Even the bathroom gets its share of holiday glitz.

In order to spend as much time as possible with her guests, she brings in help: bartenders, a pianist to accompany carol singers, a sushi chef, servers, and staff to whisk away discarded plates and glasses.

“It’s much more effective to have people to take things away than to expect guests to track down a trash can,” she says.

Like most folks, Duke doesn’t have the same zeal for taking down Christmas decorations that she does for putting them up. She suggests capitalizing on days when energy levels are high to accomplish the big tasks and focusing on smaller, more easily managed jobs on days when you feel less enthusiastic.

“Take it down in spurts,” she suggests. “If you can only take down one tree a day, do that, and do another the next day.” 


Establish a strategy, laying out which elements of decorating a home—or decorating for the holidays—you will tackle each day. Don’t juggle too many projects at once. Finish one task before going to the next.


Find ways to simplify the job. Judy Duke saves time each year by putting up trees outfitted with artfully spaced fiber-optic lighting.


Look at ways to repurpose items you own. At the Duke house, a traditional brass chandelier got a new look by adding elegant shades.


Let your home reflect your personality. Duke, who loves horses, displays a collection of saddles in her equestrian-themed office.


Shop with the curiosity and spirit of an explorer, searching for furniture and accessories at auctions and estate sales, in addition to traditional stores. You never know what you’ll find.


The Buck Tavern near Lums Pond before its resident
curators moved in (left) and after.

Park Place

Live among the natural beauty of a state park—for free. (Just bring your tools on move-in day.)

How does this real estate deal sound?

You live in an authentic, historic Delaware home, surrounded only by state park land. You pay only for necessary renovations and annual maintenance.

Sound too good to be true?

Pinch yourself.

Such juicy deals are all part of the state park system’s resident curator program, which provides for the preservation of as many as 100 of Delaware’s historic structures by their occupants.

“We currently have two properties available to serve as private residences,” says Dr. Cara Lee Blume, historic preservation manager for Delaware’s Division of Parks and Recreation. “One of them, Buck Tavern at Lum’s Pond, is currently occupied, and the other, the Warrington House at Trap Pond is ready for occupancy.”

Those buildings and others became state holdings when the park system was created in 1934. Though the state has found ways to use many of the buildings, a few have deteriorated so badly, they’re unusable. With no budget for rehab or maintenance, the park system, in 2004, embarked on a curator program originally pioneered in Maryland.

“Curators will use their own funds to renovate the structure according to state requirements,” Blume explains. “And while there are no explicit standards for maintenance, properties are subject to annual inspections.”

Oh, we didn’t mention the catch, did we? When you decide to leave the building, you leave the building.

“There is no equity,” says Blume. “But what you are getting is the chance to live among the peace and beauty of a state park for as long as you live.”

For more, visit www.destateparks.com and click on “Things to know.”

New Castle County’s parks department is currently preparing four structures for similar curator residency. Contact the county’s Department of Special Services at 395-5700 for more information. —Reid Champagne


Habitat ReStore

Recycle, Re-use and ReStore
Through its retail outlet, Habitat for Humanity helps all.

Looking to do good in the world while looking for home products? Welcome to Habitat ReStore in Wilmington, where sales of donated merchandise support the home building of Habitat for Humanity.

At Habitat ReStore, customers can find new and used home improvement supplies at 50 percent to 90 percent off original retail prices. Merchandise comes in the form of tax-deductible donations from area businesses and individuals. A Middletown woman, for example, donated five brand new appliances from her new-construction home as she replaced them with those of her preferred manufacturer. Another, prompted by her interior designer, donated a set of solid cherry kitchen cabinets that Habitat ReStore manager Tom Gibbons could only describe as “spectacular.” He estimated the set—which included a matching cherry paneled Sub-Zero refrigerator—to be valued at $16,000 when originally purchased. ReStore sold the set to one happy customer for a mere 10 percent of that price.

“The ReStore provides folks with another opportunity to make a contribution to Habitat for Humanity through purchasing or donating items,” says Denise Tolliver, who has done both with items from and for her homes in Dover and Wilmington.

“It’s a little gem for homeowners,” says Diane Bell, who looks there first for materials whenever working on renovations in her home. “If I can’t find what I need here, then I go to Lowe’s or Home Depot,” says Bell, a frequent shopper since she and her husband, Tom, bought their first home four years ago.

“It’s also a great way for people to recycle, re-use and keep the materials from going to a landfill,” says Gibbons, who makes regular pick-ups of donations by appointment. 

The Habitat ReStore, at 17 Buena Vista St. in Greater Brandywine Village, is open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. “It’s like an old-time hardware store where you can find anything,” says Tolliver.

For more information, visit www.habitatncc.org/restore.                 —Susan Oates



Windows into the Soul
Whatever will you do with that old valance in the kitchen? Look here.

 Here are some places that can shed some light on your design dilemma.

At Somethings Unique (3834 Kennett Pike, Greenville, 426-1950), window treatments range from relaxed shades to tailored panels in designer fabrics that run the gamut, from natural muslin to high-quality silk. The store and design service also offers rods and hardware, including hand-painted finishes, woods and metals.

Katrinka Contant specializes in period window hangings. The owner of Design One Interiors (Dover, 674-0727), a full-service decorating firm, she designed and sewed the swags and jabots that adorn the windows at the governor’s mansion in Dover. Contant carries designer fabrics such as Stroheim & Romann.

Creative Concepts (1055 Highway One, Lewes, 645-6200; Creekside Plaza, Ocean View, 539-6989) provides window dressings from simple toppers to complex swags and pleats in designer fabrics, including the ADO line of seamless sheers. Shoppers also can view examples of shades, shutters and hardware at the center’s two showrooms.

At Innovative Interiors (201 Wyndtree Court S., Hockessin, 234-0515), proprietor Maryde Hand offers an array of design options and items, including Hunter-Douglas blinds and custom curtains and drapes in a choice of trims and fabrics, such as Robert Allen, Scalamandre and Laura Ashley.

Interior Alternative (1325 Old Cooches Bridge Road, Newark, 454-3232; 211 Executive Drive, Pencader Corporate Center, Newark, 224-5383) is the place to find seconds on ready-made valances and curtains. It also offers designer fabrics that can be transformed into window treatments by home sewers or the company’s sewing division.

The Design Center of Rehoboth (112 Atlantic Ave., Rehoboth Beach, 227-9341) dresses windows inside, as well as porches and outdoor rooms. It offers expertise on light control, including films on windows that provide UV protection. The showroom hosts a full line of rods and drapery hardware, as well as a library of fabric choices.

 —Eileen Smith Dallabrida



Going Green for the Holidays
Whether you buy a hand-made ornament or the acorns to make your own, local cultural organizations can help.

Looking for decorating materials and items? Buy here, and help a worthy cause.

The Gibraltar Gardens’ annual Greens Sale showcases wreaths, topiaries and flower arrangements made with materials from the gardens. The sale, held December 7-9, benefits the gardens at Gibraltar, Greenhill and Pennsylvania avenues, Wilmington. Visit www.preservationde.org.

For 35 years volunteers have used natural materials to create ornaments such as acorn squirrels and pinecone reindeer for display and sale during the Critter Sale, December 1-2, at the Brandywine River Museum, routes 1 and 100, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Visit www.brandywinerivermuseum.org.

Learn to set the perfect holiday table (December 4), make a pomander (December 11) and more during ’Tis the Season Tuesdays at Winterthur, an American Country Estate. Demonstrations are held each Tuesday until January 6 at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. Winterthur is on Route 52. For more, visit www.winterthur.org.

Children will enjoy the Holiday Centerpiece Workshop at the Delaware Center for Horticulture, where they can select greens, dried materials, ribbons and ornaments. The workshop is December 15. Registration is required. Call 658-6262, ext. 100.

A highlight of the seventh annual Spirit of Christmas celebration in Old New Castle on December 8: a show of hand-made crafts and holiday decorations. For more, call 328-3279, or visit www.newcastlepreschurch.org.                                 —Susan Oates


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