Full Circle

An old rancher filled with memories gets new life as a fully modern cottage—with all the touches that made it special.

The Kee renovation was influenced in part by such structures as a U.S. Coast Guard station in Cape May, New Jersey. Photograph by Keith MosherWinnie Kee was reared in a rambling rancher in Henlopen Acres, a house known for its distinctive red painted cedar shake exterior—and for an interior replete with cherished antiques, Colonial-style details and walls paneled in pecky cypress.

“We had wonderful parents, and it was a wonderful place,” she recalls. “When my mom died, I couldn’t stand the thought of the house being sold outside the family, knowing it would probably be torn down.”

So Kee, now with kids of her own, came home. Thanks to her loving renovation, the house has grown up, too, transformed from a dark, cozy rancher into an airy, expansive cottage well suited to the latest generation to live in the historic sylvan enclave.  

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The smallest incorporated town in Delaware, Henlopen Acres is home to 139 souls, according to the latest census. The 156-acre community was established in 1930 by Col. Wilbur S. Corkran, who developed farmland into a “residential development where quiet-loving, cultured people may live in a country seaside community amid conditions which make for health, comfort and refined pleasure.”

One of the home’s four fireplaces. Photograph by Keith MosherKee’s mother built a house and guest quarters there, moving in as a bride and staying on as a young widow. Her second husband was Jacob Reese White, who ran Houston-White Co., a lumber mill in Millsboro.

“As it turned out, my dad was already familiar with the house,” Kee says. “He had gone down to Georgia and had hand chosen every piece of pecky cypress when the house was built in 1948.”

Pecky cypress occurs when the tree is attacked by fungus, which creates lens-shaped pockets throughout the wood. When the wood is milled for paneling, it yields a prized, three-dimensional look unlike any other species.

During the renovation, workers painstakingly removed the wood, installed insulation, then replaced the panels. In the dramatic, room-size foyer, the pecky cypress was covered with sheetrock for a smooth surface. But the wood was retained beneath.

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The 3,500-square-foot rancher was converted into a two-story cottage with porthole windows. Photograph by Keith Mosher“So if we ever want to go back to the original, it’s there,” Kee says.

To take the house full circle, she turned to longtime builder Ron Coffin of Lewes, whose family had worked on the original home.

“Ronnie understood the house and I trusted him completely, knowing he was the ideal person for the job,” she says.

To get her creative juices flowing, she went to Cape May and looked at buildings, soaking up centuries of architecture.

The ultimate design cue for the cottage didn’t come from the historic town’s iconic Victorian homes. Kee’s wave of inspiration flowed from the circular porthole windows in the cupola atop the U.S. Coast Guard station.

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Moonlight Architecture of Lewes came up with a design to expand the 3,500-square-foot rancher into a two-story cottage that includes the porthole windows, as well as vaulted and coffered ceilings, seamed copper accent roofs and a garage. (To stay under the 6,000 square feet maximum mandated by code, Kee gave up an existing carport. The final amount of space under the roof: 5,993 square feet.)

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The dining room, like other parts of the home, is painted red in tribute to the homeowner’s mother. Photograph by Keith MosherDeciding which elements of the home to retain, which to update and which to replace was a priority. A one-bedroom guest apartment was preserved, along with such vintage elements as knotty pine kitchen cabinets. Originally entered via an exterior staircase, the apartment is now accessed through a staircase off an enclosed breezeway.

The stout Dutch doors throughout the first floor also stayed. Outfitted with Colonial-style wrought-iron hinges and hardware, the doors are charming, but their origin is practical. The bottom doors kept the Dalmatians lovingly raised by Kee’s mother from taking over the house, while enabling the dogs to maintain contact with their mistress. “When the top doors were open, the dogs could see my mother wherever she went,” Kee says.

Margaret Foster White, Kee’s glamorous mother, was never far from her daughter’s mind during the renovation. Throughout the house are antiques she collected over the years, including a chest on chest once owned by inventor Thomas Edison. “My mother loved her furniture,” Kee says.

Many of the home’s rooms are furnished with antiques collected over the years. Photograph by Keith MosherBut she put her own stamp on the house, choosing cypress floors in a light stain that doesn’t mask the grain and knotholes that infuse the wood with character. The cottage floorplan is much more open now, with rooms flowing into each other through widened passageways. “We live in this house,” she says. “We don’t walk on eggshells.”

The old flagstone patio is gone, replaced with a deck curved to mimic the prow of a ship. (If you look over your shoulder, you’ll see a cupola, which represents the wheelhouse.)

There’s an expansive master suite in the former attic, with a view of the deck and garden. Kee found the rustic bed and end tables, crafted from pieces of a 19th-century stagecoach, during a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and shipped it home.

She also included the niceties of modern life in the design, including a large master bath with a shower sheathed in slab marble. The crowning touch is a sparkling crystal chandelier that Kee’s mother once hung in the dining room.

In the center of a room-size closet is an island outfitted with drawers. The granite top is functional as well as decorative.

“You can iron on it,” Kee notes.

The kitchen was enlarged and modernized to include wall ovens, a warming drawer, an ice maker and a second sink built into the large island. Photograph by Keith MosherShe turned to local cabinetmakers Harley and Rue to craft built-in shelving and cupboards throughout the house. It was a happy collaboration, with Kee and the artisans designing pieces from such diverse inspirations as Pottery Barn catalogs and the drawer detailing on a china closet passed down by Kee’s mother.

One fireplace, originally off a small pullman’s kitchen with a brick floor, is still in place, along with three other hearths throughout the house. The tiny kitchen has been replaced with a big open kitchen with a floorplan identical to a new home Kee built only a few years ago.

“I knew the layout worked perfectly,” she says. “I brought that kitchen with me.”

The only exception is a large, stainless steel farmhouse-style sink, which replaces a double sink. “A big sink is so much more efficient,” she says. “No way would I ever go back to a double sink.”

The original pecky cypress paneling from Georgia was retained throughout the home. Amenities include wall ovens, a warming drawer, an ice maker and a second sink that can be used for prep or an auxiliary bar. Kee and her children, Megan and Jake, enjoy cooking together, so the big center island provides multiple cooks with plenty of space to work.

The island is topped with distinctive red dragon granite, one of several design tributes to Kee’s mother, who loved red. Another is the signature scarlet knobs on the professional-style Wolf range.

The pecky cypress walls in the dining room have been painted a vibrant crimson. The elegant Federal-style dining table is outfitted with four leaves that can be added for large-scale entertaining.

“You can seat 16,” Kee says.

On the exterior, the weather vane decorated with a Dalmatian, installed by her parents a generation ago, is back up on the cupola. New cedar shakes have been treated to withstand the rigors of beach weather and preserve the natural tones of the wood.

Still, folks ask if the cottage will ever be painted to the distinctive red of the rancher.

“It could go back to the original color—but not yet,” she says.

  • When making over a home, compile a list of the elements you love, then find ways to integrate them. Winnie Kee preserved a guest apartment, connecting to a renovated section of the home via an interior staircase.
  • Look up. Add volume, grandeur and architectural interest to a room with lofty ceilings. Options include vaulted tongue-in-groove ceilings and coffered ceilings.
  • The personal touch matters. A weathervane featuring a Dalmatian, originally installed by her parents, brings back happy childhood memories for Kee.
  • Discover great pieces during your travels. The homeowner found a one-of-a-kind bedroom suite, crafted from an old stagecoach, during a trip to Wyoming.

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