Tour a Tranquil Retreat in Chateau Country
A few personal touches turn a promising property into a 'lovely place to call home.'
The well-equipped kitchen is ideal for entertaining.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Bill Church was looking for a home that offered peace and quiet—with room enough for a musical instrument that makes a great sound.
He found it in a sylvan enclave of homes near Mount Cuba in northern New Castle County’s picturesque Chateau Country.
With a first-floor master suite, it was the ideal setting to care for his longtime partner in business and in life. And after his partner died, it was a place where Church could heal and ultimately begin life again with a new love.
“This is a special place, a tranquil retreat from the worries of the world,” he says.
When Church first looked at the house, it had more than its share of woes, including soiled carpets and widespread wear and tear. But those negatives were far outweighed by the home’s attributes, including superb custom moldings and cabinetry, an expansive, high-end kitchen ideal for entertaining, a climate-controlled, three-car garage and multiple decks and terraces overlooking verdant grounds.
But the high note was a place for Church’s pipe organ, which requires space for the instrument, plus a separate room to house the pipes.
“I measured every inch of the house and found that I could cram the pipes in a room upstairs, with half an inch to spare,” he says.
The 4,750-square-foot home is nestled in New Castle County’s picturesque Chateau Country.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
A harmonious home
In decorating the house, he pulled out all the stops, covering the walls in the home’s public spaces in rose-gold grass cloth. Church, who has renovated several houses over the years, took on the job himself.
“I have hung miles and miles of wall paper in my day,” he says.
For many years, he had a successful career in menswear, founding the iconic tie maker Brown and Church with partner Sam Brown. He also is as handy as a pocket on a shirt—he can hang chandeliers, revitalize antiques and restore pipe organs, most notably the organ at Archmere Academy in Claymont.
After Brown’s death, Church lived alone in the 4,750-square-foot house. As time went by, an old friend asked if she could introduce him to an acquaintance, John Alan Washburn, a retired Navy man and interior designer.
“She was convinced we would hit it off,” Church recalls.
His friend was right. Church and Washburn married in 2017. Their friend gave them an unusual wedding gift, a fireplace mantel inscribed with the four-word Latin phrase: Sic ego ixi vobis.
“It means ‘I told you so,’” Washburn says.
The homeowners share an affinity for art, antiques and
Partners by design
Combining households was a seamless process, mostly because the couple shares an affinity for art, antiques and classic furnishings. “We have similar tastes,” Church says. “He likes what I have, and I like what he has.”
Each partner contributes a unique set of skills to their home. Church brings an engineer’s perspective to each project by calculating how to get the job done. He is a hands-on homeowner, tackling wiring, woodworking and restoring such pieces as a circa 1775 Chippendale chair. He taught himself to sew, stitching together draperies.
Washburn is a visionary with a gift for reinterpreting seemingly ordinary items as something special. He is a natural problem solver who finds artistic solutions to design challenges.
Washburn’s curio cabinet, a mahogany secretary he bought for $350 at a consignment store, is a microcosm of aesthetics, staged with vignettes of silver, crystal and everyday items reinterpreted as art.
He originally used the cabinet for storage, tucking away paperwork, socks and underwear in the drawers. Then he began curating pieces he had collected over the years. The cabinet now displays 25 individual pieces on glass shelves.
Each piece has personal significance. A birthday card from a friend depicting a landscape by the French painter Georges Philibert Charles Maroniez is a work of art in itself, so it is framed to preserve the memory. A small, leather-bound New Testament and Psalms, published in the 1880s, is a reminder of his spiritual journey. The cast bronze of a recumbent dog was picked up at a resale shop for $12. It reflects his love of animals.
Because the shelves are glass, light passes unobstructed from the top of the display area to the bottom. Washburn installed three hockey-puck style halogen lights he bought at a hardware store, then mounted a dimmer switch on the back of the cabinet.
“This type of lighting has a greater ability to direct its light downward, highlighting the items on the shelves,” he says.
The back of the display area is lined in black to showcase the contents. “Curio cabinets often have a mirrored back, which can distract from your display because you are seeing doubles,” Washburn says. “Covering the glass with black panels is a quick, easy solution.”
Soaring 28-foot ceilings allow for a large and eclectic collection of art to be displayed.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Art and antiques
An eclectic collection of art is displayed throughout the house. The gathering room is an expansive space, with ceilings soaring 28 feet overhead. It calls for pieces that make a big statement.
A ship’s figurehead, a comely maiden more than 10 feet tall, is mounted above the French doors to the terrace. A large folding screen depicting a piazza in Venice is displayed on the wall above the pipe organ. It is crowned with a gilded finial repurposed from a headboard. Washburn found the German bronze statue stationed on the organ at a consignment shop.
“The grass cloth on the walls is a beautiful finish, an elegant backdrop that makes the art pop,” he says.
For Church, the most meaningful piece is a salesman’s sample of a ladderback chair crafted by his father.
“My dad fell on hard times during the Depression and made a deal with a man who had a woodworking shop,” he says. “Dad made a sample chair, and soon other craftsmen were there, sharing the space and helping each other.”
The cut-glass vase was handed down by Washburn’s grandmother. He positions it on a lightbox, transforming the vase to an art piece.
Shopping, sales and serendipity
Their furnishings were acquired through shopping, sales and serendipity. A tiger’s eye maple chest, made in 1810 by Massachusetts cabinetmaker Samuel Brown, was won at auction at Pook and Pook in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Church bought the 16th-century English black oak chest directly from a picker in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
He discovered the stately lanterns on the terrace at a yard sale.
“I have always loved things that are old and unusual,” he says.
Outdoor spaces are a priority for entertaining, as well as daily reflection. There is a wide terrace on the lower level where guests enjoy an occasional glimpse of deer. An upper deck is accessible from the gathering room and the master bedroom.
“It’s a great place to enjoy a cocktail, talk about our day and listen to nature,” Washburn says. “It’s a lovely place to call home.”
GET THE LOOK
Live large. A figurehead from a ship mounted on the wall is just the right size for the gathering room, where the ceilings are 28 feet high. The room also accommodates a grand piano and a pipe organ. Rethink your spaces to suit your lifestyle. Instead of a large formal dining room, the couple enjoys an open area off the kitchen, where they can seat intimate groups of six or eight. Retain the home’s best features. One of the biggest attractions of the property was a large, well-equipped kitchen that needed only a few personal touches. It is ideal for entertaining. Establish a backdrop for art. Grass cloth throughout the public spaces is an elegant showcase for paintings, sculptures and carvings. Create a personal theme. A guest room, affectionately called the Mothers’ Room, is decorated with portraits of the mothers of the homeowners.