A Modern Family Updates an Old Home in Wilmington

A modern family touches some history when it updates this old house.

The family worked to restore the garden and preserve mature trees. Photograph by Carol BatesThe farmhouse where Maria Alonso and Terry Horton live with four lively children and two large dogs is set in an emerald oasis in bustling North Wilmington, shaded by centuries-old trees and rooted in family history.

“In the years after the Civil War, this was a working farm,” Horton says. “The farm is gone, but the land is still green—and it adjoins preserved lands with more green.”

Horton grew up in Brandywine Hundred, not far from the house. An internist who helps people with substance abuse, he and Alonso lived in Manhattan, where they enjoyed city life.

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After their twin girls were born, they decided to head to Delaware to be close to family. As Alonso searched for homes online, she came across an old homestead across the road from where Horton’s grandfather once lived.

When she showed her husband the picture, he smiled. He had cut the grass there as a young boy. Horton’s grandfather had worked on the house.

“So we got in the car, drove over and knocked on the door,” she recalls. “This lovely couple answered and told us the history of the house.”

 Tapestries reflect Maria Alonso’s Cuban heritage. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe farmhouse was built around 1869. It boasts such amenities as 9-foot ceilings. As it turns out, Horton’s mother played at the house as a girl and was photographed in the yard wearing a jaunty cap.

“We immediately felt a strong connection,” Horton recalls. “We knew it was the house for us, even though it would require lots of work.”

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Indeed. Renovations and additions over the years had blurred the classic simplicity of the farmhouse. The kitchen, baths and systems were in need of updating.

To come up with a plan to bring the home back to its 19th century sensibilities—and forward into the 21st century—the couple turned to Cara Carroccia, a Philadelphia architect and Wilmington native who focuses on historic properties. Boss Enterprises of Wilmington completed the restoration work.

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A former dining room is now devoted to music. Photograph by Jared CastaldiThe wish list included: an office for Alonso, a psychologist; open-air porches; and a master suite with ramped-up closet space. The flexibility to welcome extended family also was a priority, as Alonso’s mother went to live at the farmhouse during her final days.

On the exterior, the house was sheathed in vinyl siding, obscuring the original cedar clapboards. “I was jumping for joy inside when Terry said we have to get rid of that siding,” Carroccia recalls. “It was all wrong for the house.”

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Much of the cedar was still in good shape, but removing layers of lead-based paint and repairing some sections was an expensive proposition. Tearing off the wood and replacing it with new cedar was more expensive still.

The compromise was Hardie planks, a composite material containing cement fiber that looks remarkably like wood and wears like iron. The planks were installed to reveal 4-inch sections of board, just as the original clapboards were.

“Watching the Amish workmen carrying the planks across the yard, it looked as if we were back in the 19th century when the house was built,” says Carroccia, whose plans for the house earned a 2010 Merit Design Award from the Delaware Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

An enclosed porch was a recent addition to the home. But the design was awkward, a jarring contrast to the clean lines of the main house. “The porch was my nemesis,” Alonso recalls. “It was a barnacle stuck to an otherwise pleasant farmhouse.”

To transform the porch into a space that is both functional and visually appealing required serious contemplation. With the potential for creating a private entrance, it was the logical place to site her office. Yet she wanted the flexibility to integrate the square footage into the rest of the house if she later decided to move her practice.

The solution was to design an accessible entrance, plus a waiting room, powder room, consultation room and secure storage for records. “Or it could just as easily be a mudroom, powder room and den,” Alonso says.

Hand-scraped pine floors were crafted by prisoners in Georgia. Moldings replicated to match the trim in the rest of the house frame the windows, offering tranquil views of towering magnolia trees and flowering cherries. “No matter where my patients look, there is nature,” Alonso says. “That’s very grounding.”

The original farmhouse kitchen had been partitioned into a warren of three tiny rooms: a cramped kitchen and a jot of a breakfast room, with a bathroom shoehorned in the middle.

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In the kitchen, a fireplace is re-interpreted as a mantel over the range, in keeping with a rustic feeling. Photograph by Jared Castaldi“We had no idea what they were thinking when they came up with that plan,” Carroccia recalls. “But everyone was in agreement that it had to go.”

Down came all the walls, which restored an open space large enough for an eat-in kitchen that is an inviting gathering place. The rustic wooden table in the center of the room is a multi-purpose surface for dining, homework and entertaining. French doors flanked by transoms open to a porch with graceful columns that usher in views of the garden.

The couple had considered installing a fireplace, but that didn’t work out due to structural constraints. So they reinterpreted that architectural element as a decorative mantel above the commercial-style range where Alonso enjoys making Cuban dishes that reflect her heritage. “Maria is a wonderful cook who keeps all the burners going at once,” Horton says.

Hand-made tiles on the backsplash depict colorful roosters and Colonial-era gardeners. Painted and stained Shaker-style cabinets are accented with bin pulls for a vintage look. There’s a big, deep sink on legs with a plate rack above it that looks as if it would have been at home in the kitchen when the farmhouse was built.

A master carpenter, Horton’s grandfather helped to restore Lafayette’s headquarters at Brandywine Battlefield near Chadds Ford. In the farmhouse, he crafted an elegant banister for the staircase from American chestnut.

“It gives me a good feeling to run my hands over something that has been smoothed by many hands over the years,” Horton says. “That it was made by my grandfather makes it even more special.”

But the house is not a time capsule. Within its plaster walls are amenities that help to ease the flow of an active contemporary family. There’s a second-floor laundry room—with a large-capacity washer and dryer—equipped with a fold-down ironing board and built-in storage.

“In New York, we learned to use every inch of space,” Horton says.

These days, the family has more square footage—and utilizes every bit of it.

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Before Alonso and Horton bought the house, the third floor was relegated to storage. It now has a new life as a haven for the twins, with two bedrooms and a shared bath. Because it didn’t get much traffic, the upper story yielded interesting architectural clues to the home’s past, such as the thumb latches and decorative hinges on the doors. Beneath the blackened haze on the floor, workers discovered treasure—heart yellow pine.

The family is establishing a new tradition for the farmhouse as a place to live, work and gather. A seldom-used dining room is now devoted to music. Instead of a table, there’s the grand piano Alonso brought from New York.

In spring the property glows with electric yellow forsythia. Rhododendrons and azaleas unfurl their purple and pink blossoms. Horton barbecues on the old outdoor fireplace.

“This truly feels like home,” he says.

  • Connect with nature. The house, on a rare and verdant swath in North Wilmington, is surrounded by towering mature trees and flowering shrubs that can be enjoyed from open-air porches.
  • Make compromises that will still enable you to maintain your aesthetic goals. For example, replacing the damaged cedar clapboards on the house would be prohibitively expensive. Hardie planks provide the look and feel of wood with the added benefit of greater durability.
  • Bring ideas home with you. Terry Horton was inspired by the columns on porches in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
  • Look for treasures in the attic. In the farmhouse, restorers found heart yellow pine beneath a blackened haze.
  • Designate rooms to suit your lifestyle. The waiting room and office for Maria Alonso’s psychology practice could be re-interpreted as a mudroom and den. What once was a dining room is now devoted to music and is home to her grand piano.

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