Couple Leaves Yorklyn; Creates Jewel in the City
Footprint of the convent-turned townhouse is an entire city block.
For more than 10 years, Jeanne and Lawrence Bryce lived happily in the country, in a peaceful enclave in Yorklyn.
It was a lovely home, steeped in character, built in 1908 for managers of a snuff mill. Deer frolicked in green meadows across the lane. Only one thing was lacking.
“The city,” says Jeanne. “We missed the city.”
Years before, the couple had lived in the Highlands neighborhood in Wilmington, where they raised three teenagers.
In search of the ideal empty nest, they returned to their old neighborhood, which offers both tree-lined streets and ready access to shops and restaurants.
They found their new home in a community of semi-detached houses, originally a convent built in 1893 for the Sisters of the Visitation, an order of cloistered nuns.
“After living in homes with some history, we gravitate toward places that have unique quirks,” Larry Bryce says.
The terra cotta roof that crowned the nunnery was removed when the property was redeveloped 20 years ago. Chunks of Brandywine granite walls were transported to a new convent in rural Massachusetts when the last two sisters, age 99 and 101, moved out in 1993.
Blessedly, most of the walls remain, defining intimate garden courtyards. The community retains its original footprint, encompassing an entire city block.
In addition to charm and history, the three-story townhouse the Bryces bought offers modern amenities, including a spacious master bath with a jetted tub. A convenient, second-floor laundry room ticked another box on the couple’s wish list. An attached, two-car garage, a rare find in the city, was an added incentive.
“We love that the rooms are large and there’s a good flow,” Jeanne Bryce says. “There’s also great storage, including three big closets in the master bedroom.”
Making the House Their Own
Still, there was lots of work to be done before the Bryces would achieve their vision of a gracious city townhouse.
Larry Bryce took his designs for built-in cabinetry and bookcases to London Grove Cabinetmakers, where his ideas were translated into custom millwork. They added crown molding. They replaced wall-to-wall carpeting on the second floor with oak floors that match the hardwoods on the first floor.
Their greatest challenge was adding a wood burning fireplace to the living room, which has no exterior walls to accommodate a chimney. The solution was to run a flue through an interior wall, a task that required exacting measurements.
The couple ordered the graceful mantel from a woodworker in Alabama, who shipped it to their door.
“It was the wrong size so we had to make some adjustments,” Larry Bryce says. “But when we sit in front of a crackling fire all the hassles we went through to get our fireplace just melt away.”
A Recipe for Success
Jeanne Bryce is an accomplished cook and the Bryces enjoy entertaining family and friends. Installing a new kitchen was at the top of their wish list.
To come up with a plan for an attractive, functional space, the couple turned to a trusted friend, Catherine Hodgins of Kitchens by Design in Fairville, Pa.
“They wanted a timeless kitchen, with simple white cabinets and polished nickel hardware,” Hodgins recalls. “They also love to work together at the sink, so we needed a sink that was large enough for two people to use comfortably.”
For starters, the wall defining a cramped nook adjacent to the kitchen was removed, creating a huge galley, 29 feet long and nine feet wide.
The existing kitchen was short on counter space, with a large, inefficient pantry cupboard and a seldom-used closet gobbling up square footage. Tearing out the cupboard provided a place to extend the counters, as well as upper and lower cabinets for storage. The closet was replaced with a glass-fronted upper cabinet and wood-fronted lower cabinet, a staging area for serving in the adjoining dining room.
Namibian green granite counters, a distinctive species of stone flecked with silver and black, ramp up the glamour quotient. The mosaic backsplash depicting a 16th-century map of the world was a floor sample at the tile shop.
“It was glued to the display board, so Larry soaked it off,” Jeanne Bryce recalls.
After lots of research, she chose an electric induction cooktop, which works by directly heating the pots and pans used to cook food.
“It’s as responsive as gas and the smooth surface is a dream to clean,” she says.
From left to right: The bench in the master bedroom was refreshed and renewed with a silky stripe fabric and double cording; In the formal dining room, contrasting shades of blue highlight the chair rail, with light blue above and navy below; The spacious living room; The mosaic backsplash depicting a 16th-century map of the world was a floor sample at a tile shop.
A Spin on the Color Wheel
When the couple bought their home the interior was a blank canvas, with white walls from top to bottom, except for a powder room painted vibrant turquoise.
Before they moved in, the Bryces settled on soft yellow for the foyer and living room and a soothing, gray-tinged blue called winter lake for the master bedroom.
“I am a believer in staying away from trendy colors because your room will look dated when the next trendy color comes along,” Jeanne says. “We pick colors because we like them, not because they are the latest style.”
In the formal dining room, contrasting shades of blue highlight the chair rail, with light blue above and navy below.
In the kitchen, the walls are painted in Kitty Gray, a shade by Benjamin Moore that plays a cat-and-mouse game with changing light throughout the day.
“Sometimes it’s charcoal, sometimes it’s green and sometimes it’s blueish,” she says.
Furnishing the House
In the living room, an elegant camel-back sofa upholstered in a subdued print of golden yellow and slate blue set the tone for the design.
“Start with one thing you love and then go from there,” Jeanne Bryce advises.
To give their home a sense of history, the Bryces have mixed antiques, reproductions and high-quality furniture discovered at second-hand and resale stores. Oriental rugs—“they go with everything,” she says—add a layer of warmth and color.
The brass-and-glass cocktail table and Russian architectural renderings in the living room came from a favorite resource, Fabulous Finds in Centreville. The antique brass chandelier in the dining room, resplendent with etched-glass globes, reflects an era when Americans were transitioning between gas and electric light.
Larry Bryce is a bibliophile who loves having books around him. He organizes them, literally, by the book. The volumes in his collection of English literature are arranged chronologically on bookcases that flank the living room sofa, from ancient Irish sagas to the 20th century works of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Jeanne Bryce, a gifted seamstress, sewed the pillows on the sofa in the living room and the floor-to-ceiling drapes in the dining room. The upholstered bench in the master bedroom was refreshed and renewed with a silky stripe fabric and double cording, the work of Jim Stafford at Creative Coverings in New Castle.
A Sunny Outlook
The couple enjoyed the screened porch on the back of the house, so much so that they decided to convert it into a sun room for year-round relaxation. Taylor Builders of Newport transformed the jot of a room, 11 feet by 12 feet, into a cozy retreat with heated tile floors.
To maximize the view and access to the garden, the Bryces researched options at Chapman Windows and Doors in West Chester, ultimately combining products from three different manufacturers to get just the right fit.
“In the summer, we can open the casement windows and it’s very much like a screened porch,” Jeanne Bryce says.
Completing a series of projects requires hard work, patience and a willingness to endure the bumps in the road that accompany renovation. Larry Bryce recalls sitting among the boxes, eating his morning corn flakes with a plastic fork, the only utensil he could find.
In the end, the couple created a home they treasure, their jewel in the city.
“If you are buying a house you will renovate, do as much as you can before you move in,” Jeanne Bryce advises. “And buy a good vacuum cleaner.”
Get the Look
- Borrow light from adjoining spaces. With walls on both sides, the Bryce living room had only the doorway leading to a sun porch as a conduit for natural light. Their solution was to widen the doorway, add transom windows and install skylights in the sunroom, instantly brightening the living room and offering a view of the walled garden beyond.
- Designate rooms to suit your lifestyle. As empty nesters, the Bryces don’t need lots of bedrooms. So they repurposed two guest rooms into spaces they can enjoy on a day-to-day basis. One room is now a spacious sewing room for Jeanne; another is a cozy den where the couple can read and watch TV.
- Take a page from the classics. For a timeless look, embrace elements that never go out of style, such as Oriental rugs, fine art, subtly patterned fabrics, chairs arranged in pairs, crown moldings and hardwood floors.
- Create a master retreat. A pair of wing chairs or a settee tucked into the master bedroom will provide a comfy place to enjoy morning coffee, a relaxed setting for a couple to begin the day.
- Optimize your space. The Bryces removed the wall defining a tiny breakfast nook adjacent to the kitchen, providing them with both room for casual dining, as well as a built-in desk and home office area.