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Decoration of Independence

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The dining table was made in Ireland, along with heavy wood Craftsman-style chairs and the sideboard. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThrough nearly 30 years of marriage and moves to nine different locations, Linda and Chuck Dorman’s vision of the ideal home is a house that requires only their toothbrushes to make it livable.

“We don’t know how to do home renovations,” says Chuck. “We would be completely lost in a home that needed to be fixed up.”

Here’s the rub: Linda loves old houses. So when the Dormans moved to Wilmington when Chuck became CEO of the Veterans Administration’s healthcare system, they set their sights on a vintage home that had been restored and was ready for them to decorate in their own artistic and eclectic style.

Their previous home was a 5,000-square-foot 1898 Queen Anne Victorian in California. In Wilmington, the Dormans were captivated by a house of the same era, but a different style, an elegant four-story Colonial Revival built in 1897 in the city’s Cool Spring community.

“I love the atmosphere. I love the architecture,” Linda says. “I’m a city person, not a suburban person.”

On the exterior, the bricks are laid in a glazed-headed Flemish bond pattern, in which the exposed headers are burned until they develop a black, slightly crackled surface that contrasts with the red brick.

The kitchen ready for entertaining. Photograph by Thom ThompsonInside, there are 3,700 square feet of space, plenty of room to roam for the couple and their three cats, Hazel, AJ and Smoky. The way the Dormans see it, a house is built to be enjoyed room by room, from top to bottom.

In the elegant foyer, a fireplace is flanked by built-in bookcases where Linda displays her collection of brightly colored glass and pottery. The oil painting over the mantel in the foyer is titled “Two Fat Ladies,” a pale portrait of women who exude friendship and joy. “It makes me happy,” says Chuck. “I love art that makes me happy.”

The Dormans were immediately smitten by the home’s gracious turned staircase in the foyer, a second back staircase, hardwood floors and large windows. Other original features, including a butler’s pantry and a pocket door between the parlor and the dining room, had been meticulously restored.
 

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Like the rest of the home, the living room is a showcase for the homeowners’ art collection. Photograph by Thom ThompsonWhat sealed the deal were the updates that had been integrated seamlessly into the design. Borrowing space from the butler’s pantry created enough room for a first-floor powder room, a rarity in homes of that period.

The kitchen, with its painted cupboards, bin pulls and milk glass pendant lighting, maintains the feeling of the time. Yet it is equipped for two busy 21st century homeowners who enjoy entertaining, with granite counter tops and professional-style stainless steel appliances. An island with a gas cooktop and bar-height seating invites conversation with the cook.

The Dormans upped things a notch, adding a sound system that allows them to enjoy music throughout the house. “I like high-tech things, but without the wires,” Chuck says.

The second floor was re-configured to include a laundry room. (Instead of a washer and dryer, the basement now boasts wine storage.) A sumptuous master suite includes a big, dreamy bedroom with a fireplace and a large walk-in closet. The spacious adjoining bath is steeped in luxury, with an oversized stall shower, a deep tub, a long counter with two sinks and a closet for linens.

In all, there are six bedrooms, which translates to plenty of space for friends and relatives visiting from out of town.

The kitchen, with its painted cupboards, bin pulls and milk glass pendant lighting, maintains the feeling of the time. Yet it is equipped for two busy 21st century homeowners who enjoy entertaining.

A bedroom on the second floor has been reinvented as a media room with a flat screen television where the Dormans listen to music and watch movies. The room is open to a sleeping porch overlooking the garden, a private perch for enjoying a cool breeze on a summer night.

“We don’t believe in watching TV in the living room or the bedroom,” Chuck says. “When we do watch TV, it’s in this cozy space where we can be together and relax.”

On the third floor, there’s a guest room with an en suite bath. Black-and-white marble in the classic basket-weave pattern is inlaid in the floor like an antique carpet.
 

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The homeowners display colorful glass and pottery on bookshelves in the cozy foyer. Photograph by Thom ThompsonThere’s also a den—“Chuck’s man cave,” Linda says—a retreat with sloping ceilings that is suited to reading or contemplation. Another bedroom has been transformed into a cheerful work room for Linda, with a large desk with a painted chair. “I wrap gifts up here,” she says. “I iron up here.”

Art, collected over the years in the many places they have lived and traveled, is everywhere. Linda has a keen eye for accenting furniture with art in unexpected ways and infusing rooms with a sense of fun and wonder.

They watched as artisans in Morocco began weaving the rug displayed on the wall in the foyer. Whimsical sheep and chicken figurines were crafted in New Mexico. The illuminated miniature buildings that form a village on the dining room sideboard were sculpted in clay by an artist in Michigan. The intricate black-and-white framed prints on the wall are the work of Delaware artist Steve Howard.

Sometimes art is close at hand, just waiting to be reinterpreted. The framed picture in the dining room—a century-old portrait of Linda’s ancestors in Italy—began with an aged photograph that was restored, enlarged and tinted. The two ceramic bowls, one pink, the other green, were handed down by her mother. They are displayed in the glass-fronted cabinets in the butler’s pantry.

“She used to make cookies in them when I was a girl,” Linda recalls.

The couple’s stained-glass lamps are art, as well as antiques. They shimmer on the desk in the foyer and on a side table in the dining room. A stained-glass torchiere illuminates the living room.

A rustic wood dining table was born in Ireland, purchased in California, then shipped west, along with heavy wood Craftsman-style chairs and the sideboard. They were discovered in a shop across the street. A vintage-style toy tractor is a playful touch beneath a Queen Anne side table.

Chuck wondered what lay beneath the paint on the massive front door, so it was stripped to reveal the warm grain of American chestnut, valued even more highly since the wood was wiped out by a blight and has not been available since 1950.

For routine maintenance and repairs, the Dormans call in the same workers from Porter Restoration who originally restored the property. “They still have a relationship with the house,” Linda says.

The Victorians were masters of siting homes in a way that took best advantage of sunlight, shade trees and prevailing breezes. The Dormans are appreciating that foresight today, enjoying the unique amenities of their home’s many porches.

“In the summer, the front porch is the place to be in the morning on a very hot day,” Chuck says. “In the afternoon, it’s much cooler on the back porch because that space benefits from the shade of the house.”

The Dormans designed a low-maintenance oasis in the garden, which they enjoy from the first spring day tulips burst from the earth until the autumn leaves fall.

They turned to Kerns Brothers of Wilmington to lay a path of antique railroad pavers and build a hand-pieced fence of red cedar. It’s a leafy, tranquil setting, a private getaway from the city where the only sound is a bubbling stone waterfall.

“I’m completely at peace sitting in my Adirondack chair, watching the fountain and smoking my cigar,” Chuck says.


GET THE LOOK

  • Look to everyday items for opportunities to infuse a space with charm and personality. Linda Dorman brightened a butler’s pantry with mixing bowls from her mother and dishes decorated with paw prints for her cats.
     
  • Get friendly with your porch. Set out a few chairs and a small table, furnishings that will draw you and others to the porch, a space designed for socializing and enjoying the outdoors.
     
  • Corral the TV. Instead of installing multiple televisions throughout the house, choose a single room for the tube. You will read and talk more—and free wall space for art.
     
  • Cherish the past and live in the present. If you live in an old house, look for ways to respectfully integrate such modern conveniences as a powder room and second-floor laundry room.
     
  • Embrace your whole house. You will enjoy every room if each space has a designated purpose, even if it’s ironing.

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