George Marrone renovates a A Mid-Century Modern home in Brandywine Hundred, Delaware
Rat Pack Redo: Blend 1950s cool with Frank Lloyd Wright, and this is what you get.
George Marrone was born a decade after mid-century modern design left its cool, indelible stamp on architecture and interior design.
He grew up in a two-story Colonial-style home in Brandywine Hundred. As a young man, he bought his own traditional house on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
But Marrone yearned for a home in sync with his inner hipster, a structure with the lean, spare lines of a Noguchi table, the uncluttered swoosh of an Eames chair, the unadulterated sophistication of a Rat Pack bar.
“I don’t know what my inspiration was, only that I have always loved the style,” he says.
Indeed. His niece and nephew used Lego blocks to make him a model of Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s contemporary masterpiece in western Pennsylvania. Marrone stalked 1950s lamps and 1960s
pottery on eBay and stowed the pieces in the attic after the packages arrived, hoping some day he would find a home for them.
“Wherever I went, I would drive around looking for modern houses,” he recalls.
It is unlikely that he would have cruised by the mid-century property tucked deep in a secluded, heavily wooded enclave that backs to Shellpot Creek in Brandywine Hundred.
But when he spied the house two years ago through an online real estate site, he was immediately smitten.
A personal visit sealed the deal.
Marrone walked through a broad entry into a foyer with a flagstone floor. A sweeping, curved staircase led to a bridge-like corridor overlooking the living areas. He gazed up and was captivated by a soaring cathedral ceiling of natural Douglas fir with big, beefy beams.
“I knew I had to live in this house, even though I already owned a perfectly nice house,” he says. “Everything I wanted was right here.”
The house was built in 1959 by esteemed Delaware artist Carolyn Blish and her husband, the late DuPont executive Stanley Blish. The 1.5-acre lot was located next to a home owned by the painter’s father.
“We loved the setting, being so close to nature,” recalls Blish, now 82 and living in Lancaster, Pa. “We picked the plan out of a magazine and thought, wow, this is really cool.”
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Signs of the Times
Mid-century modern is defined as the period from 1933-1965 and characterized by simple lines, organic shapes, integration with the outdoors, and large expanses of glass.
Marrone bought the property from the second owners, a couple who moved into the house in 1986. They, too, embraced the mid-century sensibility, retaining such classic features as a three-sided fireplace, where the cast of Mad Men might gather for a photo shoot.
The built-in floating buffet in the dining room was in pristine condition, as well. Ditto for streamlined walnut cupboards in the first-floor sitting room and bookcases in the home office, where the original hard-wired desk lamp illuminated a sleek custom desk designed for the space.
Also in place were such mid-century amenities as a built-in charcoal grill in the living room and a central vacuuming system, both in working order. There was a sauna, de rigueur in luxury homes of the period.
“It was amazing to find a house that was so complete, so well cared for,” he says.
From Blish to Bliss
Thanks to a new roof and mechanical systems installed by the previous owners, taking the property from Blish to bliss required mostly minor cosmetic changes.
The house is ensconced in stands of mature trees, which create an umbrella of shade in summer. To usher more natural sunlight into the interior, Marrone stripped away heavy draperies. He left the fir ceilings in their dark, rich tones, but painted the walls white to give the rooms a lighter and brighter feel.
He removed shag carpeting on the dramatic staircase, revealing the wood beneath. Asian-inspired insets of raked sand in the foyer floor were replaced with river rocks. A 24-light Sputnik chandelier, so named for the Russian satellite launched in 1957, was installed over the dining room table.
“The Sputnik looks as though it’s always been here but actually there was no chandelier in the dining room until we installed one,” he says.
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He found the black lacquer bar cabinet in an antiques store in Bellevue, where it was covered with a cloth and used as a stand for knickknacks. Marrone spied the tapered brass leg and asked to see what was underneath.
“The owner seemed surprised that I wanted something so contemporary but she was happy to sell it to me,” he remembers.
Marrone shares the home with his partner, Michael Nocera, and two English bulldogs, Sasha and Sophie. It’s a large house—4,400 square feet—with an open floor plan that is ideal for entertaining.
“You can have conversations going on all over and everyone is within eyeshot,” he says.
Blish says that was her intention when she and her husband hired builder Dick Ciotti to construct the house.
“It was absolutely perfect for parties, with each room flowing into the next,” she says.
Keeping Up With the Times
When Marrone bought the house, the kitchen had been updated with a full-size Sub-Zero refrigerator and matching freezer, as well as contemporary flat-panel cabinets that are in keeping with the mid-century sensibility.
“We have a lot of family and friends and they are always bringing food over here to store,” he says.
He kept the futuristic, stainless steel range hood but put in a new cooktop. Finding the right material for the counters required serious contemplation. Granite is too current. Soapstone is too vintage. A composite of pure white quartz, clean and cool, is just right.
A bit of renovation archaeology revealed that the original floor was vinyl in a lavender shade. The brick on the kitchen walls was painted pale purple to match.
That color scheme is one feature Marrone decided to part with, coating the bricks white. He installed a foot-friendly cork floor, with earth tones that are
compatible with the hardwoods in the adjoining den and dining room.
The den is a blend of mid-century and the 21st century, with a new sectional sofa flanked by a pair of Murano glass lamps made in the 1950s. The orange chair and ottoman are reproductions by Design Within Reach of the iconic womb chair designed in 1946 by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. The Knoll fabric, a wool weave blend, was a practical choice, selected to stand up to pet traffic.
“I don’t want the house to look as if you are walking into 1960,” he says. “It is important to mix things from different eras, pedigrees and price points because people naturally acquire things over time.”
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‘Like Being in a Tree House’
Marrone searched long and hard for the brown leather Barcelona daybed, dated 1964, placed strategically in the sitting room to capture a slice of afternoon sunshine.
“You have to be patient, plus you have to live with the fact that something special is often expensive,” he says. “My mother always said, ‘When you buy quality, you only cry once.’”
The second story is divided into wings on either side of the corridor that overlooks the foyer. On the right are guest bedrooms and a bath. On the left is a sumptuous master suite.
Nubby grasscloth sheaths the walls in this tailored, masculine space. The palette is an urbane blend of deep tan and black, with an upholstered headboard, cowhide rug and a single George Nakashima rope chair, stationed like a sculpture in front of a bank of windows that offer a jaw-dropping view of woods and water.
“It’s like being in a tree house,” Marrone says. “In winter, when it snows, it’s so beautiful I don’t want to get out of bed.”
In addition to three spacious closets, the dressing area is outfitted with an additional indulgence, a built-in cupboard for shoes.
“We love the shoe closet,” he says. “Carolyn thought of everything.”
When in doubt, don’t rip it out. Original built-in pieces are part of a structure’s architectural design.
Choose materials that are in keeping with your home’s period and style. George Marrone installed sleek white quartz countertops that jibe with his kitchen’s spare mid-century vibe.
Embrace the great outdoors. If privacy isn’t a concern, dress windows simply—or not at all.
Adopt an orphan piece. A single seat, like the George Nakashima rope chair in the master bedroom, is much less expensive than pairs and makes a statement on its own.
- Be willing to pay the price for furniture and accessories you truly love. You might feel the pinch when you write the check—but you will surely kick yourself later if you settle for less.