In its century and a quarter of existence, the Victorian house with twin peaks in Milton had served, variously, as a family residence, a funeral home, a boarding house and, briefly, an antiques shop.
At the turn of the 21st century, the property was a work in progress—with a long way to go on its way to being restored to any semblance of its original grandeur.
A tired old house in sleepy Milton, population 2,576, was an unlikely destination for Ellen Passman, who had lived in various cities and preferred the conveniences of renting to the responsibilities of homeownership.
“I had only owned one place in my entire life—and I had never fixed up anything,” she recalls.
She was living in suburban Washington, D.C., and managing catering at the legendary Watergate Hotel when she discovered Milton through friends who owned a vacation home in Sussex County. Passman decided to devote a single day to house hunting, more as a tire kicker than a serious buyer.
“As crazy as it sounds, I knew I wanted to buy this house one minute after I walked in the door,” she recalls.
And, so, she did.
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A recent owner had stabilized the property and invested in a few important upgrades, including a new roof and a serviceable kitchen.
But it was up to Passman to make the house a home again. It didn’t take long for the old Victorian to take on a personality—and soon she and the house became intimate friends.
She was impressed by the home’s gracious porches—a veranda facing the street and a side porch off the kitchen—and saw the potential for a garden where she could grow herbs, shrubs and flowers. She was uplifted by its 10-foot ceilings. She waxed rhapsodic about its oak floors, laid in an unusual rectangular pattern, much like a log cabin quilt.
Still, the house had only one smallish bathroom, located in the upstairs hall. Passman took on the considerable tasks of converting three cramped bedrooms into a master suite with a luxurious bath and walk-in closet. On the ground floor, a summer kitchen would be converted to a laundry room, combined with a large bath with a stall shower and vintage claw-foot tub.
Whenever Passman was discouraged by the expanse and expense of renovations, she would give her home a pep talk.
“I would stand across the street, look at the house and say, ‘Some day, you’re going to be beautiful,’” she recalls.
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The town that won Passman’s heart was founded in 1672 and originally called Head of the Broadkill, an ideal site for the shipbuilders and captains who would build grand homes there. Just before the first cannon blasts of the War of 1812, the town was renamed in honor of John Milton, the English poet who authored Paradise Lost.
For Passman, Milton proved to be Paradise Found. The locale offered unspoiled architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as a budding gay and lesbian community. In short order, she became active in the local chamber and president of the board of the historic Milton Theatre. She made friends with other old house aficionados, who shared tools and restoration tips.
She joined Barbara Lilien, her partner in life and interior decorating, in establishing a signature style for the house. Both women brought antiques and family heirlooms to their home, pieces that blended seamlessly to create a sense of relaxed formality.
“I’ve been able to take everything I’ve loved and treasured and make it work wherever I have lived,” Passman says. “I’ve been carrying the same books and furniture with me since the 1970s.”
In the formal parlor, there is a large Empire-style end table that came from her childhood home in Chicago. In fact, she was photographed standing next to it when she was 10. Her mother bought the tall ceramic table lamp soon after Passman’s parents married in 1937.
“Because we have never gone with fads, nothing ever goes out of style,” she says.
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Both women are the keepers of extensive collections of family china. A large cupboard in the dining room holds plates, platters, crystal, salt cellars and a tureen handed down by Passman’s grandmother.
“Our tastes are remarkably similar and usually the only dilemma we have is where to put the second piece because we have two of something,” Lilien says. “That’s Ellen’s sideboard in the dining room—and mine in the foyer.”
The couple hosts frequent dinner parties and the lighting is as well thought out as the menu. Gilded torchieres are heirlooms from Lilien’s family. The back-lit stained-glass inset in the wall was once a fireplace screen. Rope lighting tucked inside crown molding provides uplighting.
In the library, a sofa upholstered in a cheerful floral print is tucked into a large niche surrounded by windows on three sides.
“This is where the bodies were laid out when the house was a funeral home,” Passman says. “You get the best naps on that couch.”
A French clock on the mantel is literally frozen in time. It stopped working years ago and is permanently set to 8:25, an opportune setting in both the morning and evening.
“A great time to wake up—and a great time to have dinner after a nice cocktail,” Passman notes.
Upstairs, both the ceiling and the walls were taken down to make way for the master suite, providing a lofty sense of space and drama. The attic stairs were left in place, even though the floor was removed.
“We call it the stairway to nowhere,” Lilien says.
Across the hall, she incorporated the French provincial living room furniture from her previous home in a light and feminine bedroom. An Art Nouveau crystal lamp and sconces are cherished family pieces.
The couple’s most recent project was updating and expanding the kitchen, reclaiming space from a defunct chimney. The existing maple cabinets were repurposed in the laundry room.
Outdoors, a barren plot has been transformed into a lush open-air sanctuary, blooming with old-fashioned favorites, including azalea, iris, hydrangea and roses. Chives, oregano and other herbs grow in a fragrant kitchen garden.
Passman has blossomed, too. After years of city life, her roots are firmly in Milton.
“I’m just the current caretaker of this house,” she says. “I’m happy to say she is solid now, good for another 100 years.”
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Be a visionary. Ellen Passman had never renovated a home but she saw the potential in the hardwood floors, tall ceilings and welcoming flow of the Victorian house she bought in Milton.
Rethink your favorite pieces. For years, a Chinoiserie desk, French provincial cabinets and a carved and painted mantel set the tone in Barbara Lilien’s living room in suburban South Jersey. Today, they are at home in a serene and feminine bedroom.
Get sentimental. Both Lilien and Passman cherish china handed down through their families, displaying their combined collection in a large breakfront in the dining room.
Be open minded—as in looking for opportunities to create open spaces. Passman took down walls and combined three cramped rooms on the second floor to make an expansive master suite. Replacing a small window with French doors in the kitchen ushered in more natural light.
Trends: Barefoot Elegance on page 6
Ellen Passman was 11 years old when she was swept away by a performance of “Auntie Mame,” the story of a glamorous, eccentric, free spirit who introduced her young nephew to a madcap whirl of society, style and wit.
“It changed my life,” she recalls. “Who wouldn’t want to live like Auntie Mame?”
Passman has a name for that exuberant design sensibility. She calls it barefoot elegance.
“It’s kicking off your shoes, sitting on the floor and drinking Champagne out of Baccarat crystal glasses,” she says. “It’s feeling relaxed and casual, yet formal and special, at the
Barefoot elegance is a happy blend of accessible style and sophisticated, high-end niceties. It is the rustic patina of oak dining chairs and the opulent sheen of gilding on a marble-topped hunt board. Imagine the nubby threads of a well-traveled vintage carpet and the sparkle of family silver.
In Passman’s house, guests enjoy both the homey comfort of a cozy sofa and the upscale ambience of art and antiques. The good china comes out on a regular basis, not just holidays. Nothing is too precious or out of bounds.
“We enjoy living with our favorite things rather than hiding them away,” she says. “That way, we can appreciate them every day.” —Eileen Smith Dallabrida