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Tour a Local Couple's Dreamy Dockside Home

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At the southern end of Broadkill Beach, where the road has twisted and turned nearly to a stop, there’s a contemporary, salmon-toned home set back from the west side of the street overlooking the marsh. Because of its location, it would be easy to miss the wooden sign perched atop a pole in the pines, a sign naming this home Casa de Refugio.

Something about the white-trimmed exterior, with its bending stairway up to the front porch, makes the architectural style unassuming in an interesting way. But the face of the house is not nearly as interesting as the tale of how this home came to be.

It’s the home of Eli and Sher Valenzuela, former residents of Texas by way of nearby Milford. The Valenzuelas own First State Manufacturing Co., an industrial sewing company in Milford. Their home, like their successful business, connects to their son, Simon, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3.

First State Manufacturing started as a one-man (Eli) venture out of a one-car garage adjacent to their home. It was started to make the money needed to pay for Simon’s therapy and special needs not covered by insurance.

The business grew. So, of course, did Simon, now 26.

But let’s go back. On a family outing to the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, when Simon was about middle-school age, Sher bought a book on house designs. She fell in love with one called Nassau Cove.

Sher carried the book around for 10 years. “It took a lot of faith to believe that not only would we someday find where we were supposed to build that house, but that we’d be able to afford it when we did,” she says.

At one point, the Valenzuelas had a contract on a lot in Slaughter Beach, but the deal fell through. “We were heartbroken,” says Eli. “We pretty much gave up on the idea of ever building our dream home at the beach.”

“Pretty much,” though, is not entirely throwing in the proverbial towel.

A few years later, on a rainy and cold March day, the family went on a bike ride as an antidote to cabin fever.

From their home in Milford, they drove south and took a turn off the highway to Broadkill Beach. They pedaled down the deserted street where they noticed a For Sale by Owner sign on a wooded lot with a dock.

“I vividly remember stepping onto the dock and thinking, ‘This could work,’” says Sher.

It didn’t work overnight. The Valenzuelas purchased the lot with payments spread over three years, and hope continued to flourish.

The Valenzuelas’ dream home is situated between the Delaware Bay and Prime Hook National Wildlife
Refuge.//All photos by Thom Thompson 

Before they built their home, the Valenzuelas visited the property every day and imagined the paths that wind
through the property.

They visited the lot every single day, no matter what the weather, and with each visit “imagining paths that would wind to fire pits, the boat house…imagination is free. I think it makes a difference to dream big. What do you have to lose?” says Sher.

Eventually they hired Brendon Warfel Construction, a Milford contractor who had renovated commercial space for their business, and eight months later on Oct. 10, 2013 (Eli’s birthday), they moved into the 1,800-square-foot home.

Today the home is furnished with an eye toward comfort, with plenty of books and an eclectic mix of contemporary, rustic and vintage. It’s hard to believe the family brought only a bed and two lawn chairs with them on moving day.

A local designer turned the kitchen into a “grotto” that took the homeowners’ love of cooking to another level.

The Valenzuelas worked with Barbara Anderson of Preferred Designs in Rehoboth Beach, who helped them articulate interior design decisions. “She turned the kitchen into a grotto—her word—that took my love of cooking to a whole new level,” Sher says.

The eye-catching turquoise screen door on the pantry and the crimson knobs on the commercial-size stainless steel gas range were also Anderson’s contributions.

“We found this great place called Gristies (Bucks County Antiques and Oddities, Kintnersville, Pa.)”, where she bought home accent pieces, Sher says.

The larger windows overlooking the marsh bring the
outdoors inside.

Not surprisingly, it’s not the couch nor the stove nor the well-stocked bookshelves that first catch a visitor’s eye. It’s the view, the larger windows overlooking the marsh and the natural lighting that brings the outdoors inside.

“Broadkill has an ecosystem that delivers different experiences in different seasons and a front-row seat to Mother Nature,” Sher says.

The light and the view change subtly, and sometimes almost minute by minute, throughout the day.

“The outside has always been more important than the inside to Sherri,” Eli says. Perhaps that is why she latched on to a house plan designed to bring the outdoors inside. The Delaware Bay is on one side of the property. Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge is on the other.

Casa de Refugio is a work in progress. It is not only beautifully landscaped, but also hardscaped, much of the interest added by reclaimed materials washed up after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

The Valenzuelas recruited family and friends to haul pieces of driftwood, some as large as refrigerators, back to their lot. That reclaimed wood was crafted into the boat house, the kitchen island, the pantry shelves and outdoor seating areas.

One particular piece holds tremendous sentimental value, and that is a portion of a deck found near Big Stone Beach. The Valenzuelas discovered the decking on a walk, and through their persistent detective work, located the owner, an elderly man living in a Maryland rest home.

They eventually learned that the deck came from a home that one of Sher’s friends once owned. That friend, who had since passed away, never realized her dreams for her own home, so the Valenzuelas consider some of their landscaping details to be a living memorial to her.

They hired Elements Design Group of Lewes to articulate and plan their exterior vision. Michael Schimmel and his team from Bella Terra helped turn design into reality. They also relied on a good friend, master craftsman Jeff Mast, for hands-on expertise in the hardscape’s details.

Bird feeders made from reclaimed and recycled objects also attract the human eye, and every niche has a little story.

The details of the yard—the bird feeders, a swing tucked under the back screened-in porch, sequestered seating, a fire pit, paths that wander here and there—beckon friends back.

Bird feeders and other decorations are made from reclaimed and recycled objects. 

In the summer, vibrant crimson hibiscus and swaying native grasses lead from the house to the street, but no matter what the season, there’s a blend of pines and evergreens, and if you’re lucky, deer may wander through.

The Valenzuelas recently purchased an adjacent lot. It already has well-worn, winding paths created by wildlife walking to and from the marsh. The secret trails help the Valenzuelas preserve their privacy, as well as that of their nearest neighbors.

“Dreams come alive while they cook on the back burner of our brains. Right now, we fantasize about the solar greenhouse that will be built out of reclaimed windows and wood and a dry sauna. In my mind’s eye, I see it. In my lifetime, we’ll live it,” Sher says. 

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