The winding lane that leads to the big brick house at Walnut Hill is a mile long, from the mailbox on the main road to the sweeping stairs of the front porch, a pleasant ride by car, bicycle or pickup truck through unspoiled countryside.
Walnut Hill is home to Linda and Mike Parkowski, who share a deep and abiding appreciation for the natural beauty of Kent County. She is the director of the Delaware Office of Tourism. He is director of Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze, a leading environmental law firm, and drafted the legislation that created the Delaware Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation, the public body that purchases development rights to preserve farmlands.
“When I get to the end of the driveway, I know I’m home,” Linda Parkowski says. “This is our dream house, our last house.”
The farm stretches over 225 acres, a blend of rolling green and wetlands that provides a natural habitat for waterfowl.
In deciding where to build their nest, the Parkowskis chose a large, level plot set far back from a rural byway, a location that provides them with bucolic views from every vantage point.
“Mike is very analytical,” Parkowski says. “He looked and looked at the property until he knew exactly where the house should go.”
The couple also had a clear vision for how they wanted their home to look and feel. Among the must-haves was plenty of room for their blended family of four adult children, who are frequent visitors. An in-law suite for Linda’s mom also was a priority.
“Because we love the outdoors, we wanted our home to have a little bit of a lodge feeling,” she says. “I also am drawn to the colors and style of Tuscany and the timeless look of homes in Europe.”
Starting from scratch opens up a world of opportunities—and a galaxy of choices.
The Parkowskis began with an ambitious wish list that included every amenity they could possibly want in their dream home, with the intention of gathering competitive bids for the project.
“We found out that building a house could be far more expensive than we had ever imagined,” Parkowski recalls.
So they started fine tuning their list, intent on maintaining a realistic budget.
But how to make the wisest choices? The Parkowskis turned to value engineering to decide which elements would most enhance their home—and what amenities would not contribute to the quality of the property.
Value engineering—VE for short—is a systematic method for improving the value of a product by balancing its function and cost. The concept was rolled out by General Electric during World War II, when materials were scarce and the company was looking for cost-effective substitutes. The principles of VE can be adapted to just about any project, including building a house.
A proposed slate roof with a jaw-dropping price tag was the first item trimmed from the wish list.
“It would have been beautiful but slate isn’t any more effective than any other material in doing what a roof is supposed to do,” Parkowski says. “Value engineering helped us to see that clearly.”
A sumptuous master suite with a luxury bathroom and walk-in closets stayed firmly on the list. Ditto for recessed lighting and a surround-sound music system. Those amenities enhance daily life for the homeowners and also add to the property value.
Other niceties can wait. The billiards room has been deferred. But the infrastructure is in place, a plumbed and wired lower level that will be outfitted for recreation in a future project.
The Parkowskis kept track of their choices on an Excel spreadsheet, creating a detailed list of features and materials.
“There was the appliance tab, the wood tab, the cabinet tab and so on,” she says. “When we met with the builders, they knew exactly what finishes they would be bidding on.”
After two years of planning and construction, the results are spectacular, a blend of rustic warmth and grand expanses.
“Our goal was to have a home that feels welcoming and cozy but with plenty of room for people to get together,” Linda Parkowski says.
The heart of the home is a gathering room with a dramatic stone fireplace flanked by expanses of glass that offer a vista of the outdoors. The soaring height of the space, a full two stories high, includes a gallery for trophies captured by Mike, who has hunted game around the world from the frosty reaches of the Canadian Arctic to the mountains of New Zealand.
There’s a large seating area for conversation or watching TV. In that space, Mike’s priority was his leather club chair, worn to the perfect state of comfort after 15 years.
“The entire palette was centered around Mike’s chair,” she recalls.
She started with the pale tan of the chair, and then added sofas and chairs upholstered in a relaxed mix of light and dark leathers, accented with masculine nailhead trim. The floors are Brazilian cherry.
The couple went to an Amish sawmill west of Dover to select wood for the mantel. At Walnut Hill, there could be no other choice than black walnut. They found a slab, cut from a single massive tree, which was kiln-dried and set into the stone.
Keeping a merry blaze crackling on wintry nights requires a steady stream of split logs and kindling. The backs of the large wood storage bins on either side of the fireplace are actually doors that open to the outdoor terrace, which makes loading wood a much easier—and less messy—task.
The kitchen is open to the gathering area, a warm and inviting space with cherry cabinets stained in deep, rich mahogany tones and dark, shimmering granite countertops.
“I wanted a full-bodied color scheme in the kitchen, like a great Cabernet,” she says.
For the kitchen floor, she chose ceramic tile that gives the space an Old World flavor. The cherry on top: Tile is a snap to maintain. Installing extra large, 16-inch tiles instead of standard 12-inch flooring yielded double benefits. First, there are fewer grout lines. And bigger tiles offer the visual trick of making the floor appear more expansive.
A U-shaped bar, outfitted with an ice maker, beverage fridge and wine chiller, bridges the kitchen and gathering room and is ideal for large parties.
Because the couple enjoys entertaining, a formal dining area was a priority. The Parkowskis also wanted to architecturally define the space without cutting it off from the rest of the gathering area.
In keeping with that spirit, walls would not do. Columns would break the sight line between the dining area and the gathering room. The solution was to create a half wall you can see through, custom made from turned, wrought-iron spindles topped with a wooden railing.
With 7,800 square feet, there is plenty of room to accommodate family and friends. There are guest suites for the kids and a two-bedroom apartment for Linda’s mother.
“It’s wonderful having my mom with us in a way that enables her to enjoy her own space,” she says.
The focal point of the couple’s master bath is a freestanding soaking tub surrounded by four stately columns. The super-size shower turns out to be the perfect place to wash the family’s Labrador retriever.
Outdoors, a terrace wraps around the back of the house. In the warmer months, it’s a great place for alfresco entertaining. When there’s a nip in the air, the Parkowskis gather around the firepit.
In planning the terrace, Linda envisioned a smooth expanse of stone. Nothing choppy or bumpy. “I didn’t want pavers,” she says. “I wanted something that would be set on concrete and then grouted.”
The couple went to a stone yard in Pennsylvania to explore their options. They settled on sandstone, with undulating bands in shades that vary from buff to umber. The stone looks as if it might have been quarried in the American southwest but came from much further afield.
“When we asked why it would take so long to be delivered, we found out it’s from India,” Linda recalls.
There also is a smaller, more intimate open-air dining space located off the kitchen, with tranquil sylvan views. Retractable screens concealed in the framing don’t obstruct the vista but keep the bugs at bay.
“They are called phantom screens,” Linda says. “It’s a wonderful invention, the one thing we would never want to be without.”