Home Renovation One Century in the Making

A 100-year-old, Rockford Park estate gets a makeover for the 21st century.

In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts and the luxury liner Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. On Red Oak Road in Wilmington, an army of artisans set to work on a two-year project building what would become one of the most iconic properties in Delaware, a Tudor-style brick mansion with soaring chimney pots, a many-gabled slate roof and a lofty view of Rockford Park and Rockford Tower, the picturesque stone water tank that had been completed 10 years earlier. The home’s 5,750 square feet were replete with such amenities as two solariums, multiple sleeping porches, a wine room, a cloakroom and a garage with a mechanic’s pit and chauffeur’s quarters. A century later, a new generation of craftsmen went to work on the stately old house, fulfilling the current homeowners’ vision of a faithful restoration and judicious updates that will accommodate generations to come. “This is a very special home, and we wanted to respect the original grandeur and style,” says the lady of the house. “At the same time, it needs to be a place of support and comfort for a family.”

Photos by Angel Eye Photography

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“This is a very special home, and we wanted to respect the original grandeur and style,” says the homeowner.

Past, Present and Future

To come up with a plan that would accommodate a modern household without sacrificing vintage charm, she turned to Wilmington architect Leslie Kelly, whose projects include the renovation of Buckley’s Tavern in Centreville. “She had a very distinct plan to preserve as much of the house as possible,” Kelly says. A large living room and a formal dining room—the main entertaining spaces—required only cosmetic updates. The living room, where the children of the house practice piano, was painted pale blue, echoing the antique Delft tiles on the fireplace. The ornate coffered ceiling, mantel and moldings in the dining room were crafted from fumed oak, an alternative to staining that brings out the richness of the grain. “All the wood needed to give it new life was Formby’s oil,” the homeowner says.

The ornate coffered ceiling, mantel and moldings in the dining room were crafted from fumed oak.

Reinterpreting the Kitchen

But the kitchen was unsuited for the family and friends, who enjoy cooking, congregating and conversation. In the early 20th century, the food preparation area was the domain of live-in servants and was divided into a warren of small rooms: a kitchen, storage pantry, butler’s pantry and a break room for the staff. The first decision was to restore the butler’s pantry, which retained much of its original cabinetry. To replicate missing or damaged cupboards and drawers, the team brought in custom cabinetmakers, GTI Millwork of Wilmington, formerly known as Group Three. Soapstone counters are durable, good-looking and enhance the vintage vibe. To conserve space in the kitchen, the homeowners opted to install two dishwashers in the butler’s pantry, where much of the household’s dishes and glassware are stored. “It isn’t a conventional solution, but we are happy with the way it turned out,” she says.

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The restored butler’s pantry retained much of its original cabinetry.

A new kitchen and gathering area combine the original kitchen and break room. Although the footprint is the same, removing a wall gives the space a more open feel. Classic white cabinetry and marble counters blend seamlessly with professional-style appliances. An exuberantly patterned art-glass backsplash adds sparkle. The homeowners brought in more natural light by adding a window, using a multi-paned Tudor-style frame they discovered in the basement. Artist Lore Evans of Chadds Ford, Pa., installed antique glass panels. Throughout the house, interior storm windows are attached with magnets, preserving the charm of the leaded frames. “Because the window is identical to the others, it looks as if it has always been here, which is just what we wanted,” the homeowner says. The kitchen is open to an informal gathering area with a fireplace. There’s a banquette for casual dining. A hot tub was removed from an adjoining porch, which was enclosed to create a tranquil sunroom that quickly became the homeowner’s favorite spot in the house.

The living room was painted pale blue, echoing the antique tiles on the fireplace.

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Remaining True

To assemble the craftsmen and artisans required for the renovation, the homeowners relied on Scott Porter of Porter Construction in Chadds Ford. “The goal was to remain as true as possible to the house,” he says. “That meant milling all the moldings to match the existing trim and preserving features like the original tile floor in the solarium.” In reconfiguring a large master suite, the homeowners’ wish list included his and hers bathrooms and additional storage space. For the shower in the husband’s bath, Porter suggested Moroccan plaster, a polished, waterproof surface made from olive oil and other organic materials. A nursery that was originally part of the suite was reinterpreted as a closet.  In the early 20th century, an entire room on the second floor was designated for linen storage. This 21st century family repurposed the space as a laundry room. Exterior lighting was controlled with a panel of push-button switches in the upstairs corridor. The homeowners preserved that piece of the past, creating a niche with a door. Despite the age of the house, rewiring the electrical system was remarkably simple, thanks to the original, forward-thinking builder. “All the wiring was in metal conduits,” Porter says. “Our electrician pulled out the old and put in the new.” 

Gathering spaces are furnished in a relaxed and elegant blend of pale upholstered pieces in natural fibers.

Next Generation

The children of the house were encouraged to express their creativity in decorating their rooms. They chose cheerful pops of orange and such 1960s-inspired touches as a hanging chair and shag carpeting. A cozy third-floor reading room, where volumes are arranged alphabetically, has a treetop view of the park. Gathering spaces are furnished in a relaxed and elegant blend of pale upholstered pieces in natural fibers. Wool and sisal carpets ground the spaces. A soothing palette of blue and aqua flows through the rooms, inspired by the floral wallpaper in the foyer. “I carried that piece of wallpaper with me everywhere,” the homeowner says.

Many of the home’s rooms provide a prime view of Rockford Park.

The original room-size coal bin is still in the basement, although the house has been updated with a super-efficient heating and cooling system. There’s a lower-level gymnasium for the man of the house, an avid cyclist. The manse’s crowning glory, its magnificent slate roof, had been replaced with asphalt shingles years ago. The new owners decided to revive the roof, this time with a DaVinci Roofscape, a technology that offers the beauty of natural slate with the durability of engineered materials. “It isn’t an investment we ever expect to recoup,” the homeowner says. “We committed to the roof because it is what this house deserves.” Throughout the restoration, the new owners discovered that other city dwellers love the house, too. Dog walkers and joggers incorporate the house into their daily routes. Drivers tapping their brakes to check out progress were involved in at least four fender benders. “The moving men asked if they could bring their families back for a tour,” the homeowner recalls. “Of course, we said yes.”

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