Transforming a Small Home With Big Dreams

For one couple, moving from a colonial to a condo didn’t require a sacrifice in lifestyle at all.

For most of his life, Bruce Dittmar lived in a stately, two-story stone colonial in Alapocas, moving in with his parents as a boy after the house was built in 1948.Like his parents before him, Bruce and his wife Barbara raised their son Brian in the leafy community surrounding Wilmington Friends School. As he approached his 80th birthday, Bruce still loved the family home—but he had come to hate the stairs. “We knew we needed to make a change—and we wanted to do it when we wanted to, instead of when we had to,” he recalls. To create a home with the traditional feel of their old home with the easy access and maintenance of a new home, the couple turned to their son, founder of Brian Dittmar Design in San Francisco. His mandate: to transform a dated circa 1965 condominium at the Devon in Wilmington into a warm and sophisticated place where his parents could reside comfortably and entertain in style. “The goal was to make it feel like a home, not a condo on the 11th floor of a high-rise,” Brian says. “And we wanted to use as much of my parents’ furniture as possible.”

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‘A Free Hand’

The Dittmars turned the project completely over to their son. There was no wish list, no instructions, no budget. “We gave him a free hand with whatever he wanted to do because we knew the result would be ideal for us,” Barbara says. “When I look at how everything turned out, I don’t feel that we made a single sacrifice in downsizing from our home.” Brian’s design called for taking the existing condo down to its concrete walls. A wall between a galley kitchen and the main living area was removed to create an open, airy gathering space. The Dittmars commissioned Doug Green Woodworking of Wilmington to craft custom maple cabinets with a nutmeg stain. Instead of lower cupboards, the kitchen is outfitted with soft-close drawers that make it easier to retrieve pots, pans and other cookware. Sparkling white quartz countertops are ultra durable and simple to maintain. The kitchen is equipped with the same high-end appliances the couple enjoyed in their larger home: a SubZero fridge, Dacor range and wine fridge. “Even though the space is smaller, we did not have to compromise on amenities,” Barbara says.

Photos by John Lewis

The living room features an oriental carpet Bruce’s parents bought in the 1950s.

Buying Local

Although Brian spends most of his time in San Francisco, he relied mostly on local resources, many of which he developed through his mentor, Dick Poppitt of Feinberg’s Furniture on Market Street in Wilmington, who died in 2013. Maple hardwood flooring throughout the public spaces and carpet in the master bedroom were sourced through Pala Bros. of Wilmington. P.J. Bale of First State Inc. in New Castle served as the contractor on the project. Creamy Carrara marble, purchased at The Tile Market, gives the baths a sense of elegance. Strategically placed grab bars in polished nickel look like decorative accents rather than forward-thinking functional aids that will help the couple to safely age in place. 

What was once a third bedroom is now a multi-purpose den, packed with both visual charm and function. Custom cabinetry provides storage and display space for the Dittmars’ collection of blue-and-white china, the inspiration for the color palette throughout the condo. There’s a small, built-in desk for correspondence and paying bills. A table with a wood top carved in the shape of the state of Delaware was a gift from Brian to his parents. The sofa folds out to a full-size bed for guests. Reading lamps on either side are anchored in the cabinetry, conserving precious floor space. Pocket doors with opaque glass panels create instant privacy. “My parents were quite adamant that they did not want to go to a retirement facility or 55-plus community,” Brian says. “So we agreed that we make the condo conducive to possibly having live-in care down the road.” Window treatments are minimal throughout the gathering spaces of the condo so as not to interfere with views of the city and the Delaware Memorial Bridge beyond.

Because the condo is high above the tree line, there’s no source of natural shade. On the sunny side of the unit, windows are equipped with retractable shades that absorb heat. Thanks to technology, Brian was able to supervise much of the project remotely from California. His mother regularly took photographs of the work in progress and emailed them to him. “That’s how we discovered the painters were painting the den the wrong color,” Barbara recalls. “I emailed pictures to Brian and he said, ‘The walls are supposed to be red, not blue.’” He designed a master bedroom that is a private sanctuary for his parents. For the first time in 55 years of marriage, the Dittmars have a king-size bed. An upholstered headboard adds another layer of luxury. Brian borrowed space from a closet in the adjacent guest room to enlarge a smaller secondary closet. He strategically edited his parents’ existing furnishings, identifying what would fit in the new space and what would not. For example, the dining room chairs made the move. But they now surround a new, more compact table. 

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Clearing Out

In addition to designing his parents’ condo, Brian also spearheaded clearing out the old house, whose attic had become a depository for paperwork that had been passed on by earlier generations. “We found boxes under the eaves that had not been opened for 100 years,” Bruce recalls. “They had been closed for decades before they ever even got to us. Photographs the Dittmars wanted to keep are now preserved in plastic sleeves and organized in albums. In all, 19 banker’s boxes filled with outdated documents went to the shredder. During the clearing-out process, they uncovered such treasures as love letters written by Barbara’s grandparents. A pictorial Birth and Marriage Record dated 1846 is now framed and hangs in the master bedroom. Ceramic smoking pipes, likely brought from Bavaria by Bruce’s great-great-grandfather, also are on display. “When we moved, we made a vow to never again store anything in a box,” Bruce says. His son designed a system that will help his parents resist the temptation to fall back into super storage mode. A large closet is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling shelving, making it easy to identify its contents. “I don’t feel sad at all, giving up all that stuff in the attic,” Bruce says. “We brought all our memories with us to our beautiful new home.”



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