As a house hunter, Jack Varsalona is the ultimate consumer. The president of Wilmington University is a pragmatist and an entrepreneur, qualities he has harnessed to grow the school into a regional powerhouse for career-focused students.
That sense of vision also applies to finding an ideal home. Call it Ph.D.: Perfect Home Discernment.
“You have to look at a property as it is—and at what it could become,” he says.
Varsalona was raised in a rowhouse in Trenton, N.J., with a total of six rooms, each 10 feet by 12 feet. It was a traditional home in a vibrant urban neighborhood.
He’s always been keen on the great outdoors. For several years, he enjoyed living in a six-bedroom farmhouse on an estate in northern New Castle County.
He delights in watching leaves turn from green to gold in autumn. But there’s little time for raking and bagging. New-fallen snow is fresh and lovely. But digging out the car is a chore.
Five years ago, when he decided to trade Chateau Country for city chic, Varsalona searched for a home that would provide ready access to retail and restaurants yet retain a connection with nature.
“I wanted to live in Wilmington,” he says. “I grew up in a city and I have always enjoyed both the community spirit and convenience that is part of city life.”
To that end, he contemplated a condominium that would provide the square footage of a house—but without the maintenance issues that accompany one.
The condo he found offered lots of space—a tad over 3,500 square feet—with two stories and a loft accessed by a spiral staircase. Built in 1976, the architecture offered a contemporary vibe in an established, upscale community.
Best of all, the property had jaw-dropping views of Brandywine Creek, and an immediate and impressive scene of rushing water and craggy rocks.
“The minute I walk through the door, I see wow,” Varsalona says.
The home wasn’t move-in ready. Achieving Varsalona’s goal of an urban oasis would require some renovation.
It was worth the time and expense. He cast a savvy eye over the property and gave it his own personal test, ticking the boxes on a list of amenities that add value to real estate.
• High-end kitchen? Absolutely.
• Second-floor laundry room? Check.
• Hardwood floors in the main living area? Yes.
• Space for a functional home office? Got it.
Equally important was the floor plan. An open concept living area was ideal for gatherings—a priority for Varsalona, who is devoted to community service as well as academia.
“I could see that it was a great house in a great location, well worth my investment,” he says.
An essential element in his personal appraisal was identifying what to keep and what to replace. Because he didn’t need to expand the footprint or knock down walls, Varsalona was able to complete his renovation in a six-week flurry of buzzing power tools. Soon, he was riding his bike to nearby Rockford Tower, making three round trips to the landmark daily.
That’s a lesson the educator can share with anyone who is undertaking a renovation.“If you get rid of everything, your project will take a lot longer and cost a lot more money,” he says.
Varsalona has always loved the glamour and style of films from the 1930s, when Art Deco was in vogue.
“For as long as I remember, I’ve been captivated by black and white, both photography and film,” he says. “I like the angles and shapes of Art Deco style.”
When it came time to decorate the house, he passed along most of his furniture to his two adult daughters and started nearly from scratch, keeping just a sofa and a pair of end tables.
He worked from the ground up, lightening oak floors stained chocolate brown to their pale, natural shade. That provided a crisp contrast to a curved, free-standing bar stained black. The mirrored wall behind the bar makes the space appear even more expansive.
The main living area is wide open with a large leather sofa in front of a fireplace flanked by built-in bookcases where Varsalona displays his favorite volumes, as well as ornate figurines from Italy handed down from his parents.
“They aren’t contemporary, but I still love them because they’re from my family,” he says.
A cupboard to the left of the fireplace once contained wood. Varsalona repurposed it as storage space after he converted the fireplace to gas. “It’s much easier to get a nice fire going when you don’t have to lug around a lot of wood,” he says.
The big leather sofa is tufted in geometric squares, a style he discovered in Florida, where he maintains a small get-away. A shag area rug in various shades of brown is loomed from wisps of leather.
“People always want to touch it and they are almost always surprised to find it’s leather and not wool,” he says.
A fountain in the spacious entry way was removed. In its place, Varsalona set up an intimate seating area reminiscent of a hip lounge, with a curved leather sofa. “It’s a nice place for people to have a conversation during a party,” he says.
The scarlet solid-surface countertops in the kitchen weren’t Varsalona’s style. But he appreciated the look and quality of European-made cabinets in solid oak painted a sleek black.
His solution was to replace the countertops with polished granite. He enjoys the look of the natural stone, which also adds a bling factor that matches the high-end cabinetry.
Varsalona doesn’t cook much—“only the microwave,” he quips—but the kitchen’s Sub-Zero refrigerator and professional-style stainless steel Dacor appliances are spot-on for caterers.
The previous owner maintained a kosher kitchen, outfitted to allow for the separate preparation of meats and dairy foods. The kitchen is blessed with two sinks, two dishwashers and abundant storage.
Because the former owners were serious cooks, they laid cushioned, non-slip flooring that is designed for use in restaurant kitchens in both the kitchen and adjoining dining area. Varsalona admired the quality and practicality of the floor.
“But there was way too much of it,” he recalls. His solution was to retain the flooring in the kitchen and replace it in the dining area, where pale beige pavers now brighten the space.
A large custom dining table is topped with a slab of tinted glass that’s elegant yet durable. Despite its heft, the piece is easy to move. Casters are hidden in the base of the painted black frame.
“When the board of our condo association meets here, I just roll the table against the window wall and load it up with food to serve buffet-style,” he says. “Moving the table also makes more room for people to circulate.”
The six chairs surrounding the table are equally flexible. Varsalona chose streamlined, armless Parson’s chairs clad in black leather. The chairs look cool, yet the upholstered backs and seats are warm and welcoming.
Upstairs, the master bedroom is spare, hushed and masculine. The bed is dressed in muted shades of slate, black and cream. The headboard is upholstered in ebony leather.
Every morning, Varsalona indulges in a long look in a full-length mirror—but he’s not contemplating his own reflection. Instead, the mirror is set on an angle at a bank of windows in order to capture a panoramic view of water, trees and sky.
“It’s a beautiful feeling, waking up and looking at nature,” he says. “It’s an inspiring way to begin the day.”
Still, duty calls. Varsalona heads to an office adjoining the bedroom, where he begins work no later than 6 a.m. “I don’t get up in the middle of the night to work, but I do like to put in some time before I go to the office or a meeting,” he says.
Varsalona updated the master bath by replacing solid-surface countertops with granite. An oversized shower is outfitted with multiple sprays. The shower floor is paved with river rocks. An added benefit of an extra large shower is that there’s no need for a door.
“I love it,” he says. “No worries about cleaning glass.”
A spacious walk-in closet is another plus for a busy professional on the go. Varsalona opens the door to reveal tidy racks of jackets, trousers and neatly pressed shirts, organized by color.
“All suits,” he says. “My uniform.”
» Râ€‹eturn to the January 2013 issue.