In Midtown Brandywine, a Brownstone Re-Imagined
Tynetta Brown's heritage-rich home evokes special time periods and places.
All photos by John Lewis
In the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, well-to-do African-Americans infused brownstones in New York with a vibrant blend of glamour, comfort and ethnicity. It’s the inspiration for Tynetta Brown, whose century-old townhouse in Wilmington’s Midtown Brandywine neighborhood exudes a hip, welcoming vibe with a strong African influence.
“I like to think that my home is a reflection of the creative side of me, the way I live and the things I care about,” Brown says. “My heritage is important to me, and I enjoy my collections and historical reminders.”
Brown is associate director of health at United Way, where she also manages youth development. But before her career in health policy began, she had earned a degree in interior design. Ten years ago, when she moved to Delaware from North Carolina, she moved into a new townhome in the suburbs. “I wanted a house that was new,” she recalls. “But I had a friend who wanted to buy in the city, and I would go house hunting with her.”
One of the neighborhoods they explored was Midtown Brandywine, a small, tight-knit community of Victorian-era brick homes near Wilmington Hospital. “Once I started walking to the dry cleaners, the nail salon, all the amenities that are close by, I understood the attraction of an urban lifestyle,” Brown says.
Brown rented the three-story townhouse for six months, with an option to buy. That gave her an opportunity to get to know her neighbors, a diverse blend of professionals, artists and retirees who gather throughout the year for chili cook-offs, block parties, holiday meet-and-greets and an annual progressive dinner held at various homes.
“There is a very good feeling among the people in this neighborhood,” she says. “Folks look out for each other.”
She also developed an appreciation for the charms of an old home. She admired such architectural details as interior transom windows, arched doorways and carved wood corbels. A small, enclosed courtyard is an urban oasis, a peaceful retreat in the city.
Brown also liked that the house offers amenities not often found in vintage homes, including a second-floor laundry room and abundant closet space.
The third floor is designated as Brown's master suite.
A sense of heritage, history
After she decided to buy the property, she set about making it her own. She replaced ceiling fans with sparkling crystal chandeliers. And she decorated with African artifacts and art, including an impressive collection of dolls and Maasai figures.
The room Brown christened the Harlem parlor is a formal space. Guests relax on upholstered settees with arched wood frames. An ornately carved occasional chair came with the house.
“My mother always had everything coordinated, and she was a great influence on me,” she says. “People tell me that this room is restful, and I think that is because it’s also cohesive.”
A bronze-and-glass cocktail table didn’t suit a relative, but it was the perfect match for the parlor. “My sister was going to get rid of it and I said, ‘No, bring it to my place,’” Brown recalls.
A framed sign from 1915 reads “Colored Waiting Room,” part of Brown’s collection of artifacts from the Segregation Era, which lasted from 1900-1939.
The room Brown calls her "diva den" is a great place for her to hang out with friends.
The parlor is a serene place that invites contemplation and reading. A glass-front banker’s bookcase holds her favorite volumes. “Sometimes, I just sit in here, eat cereal, and enjoy the peace and quiet,” she says. Brown has resisted the temptation to install a television in the parlor. Instead, she retreats to an open seating area in a large second-floor landing. With a cozy sofa and expansive media center, it’s an ideal spot to take in a movie. “I call it my diva’s den,” she says. “It is a great place to hang out with girlfriends.”
Brown enjoys designing and making jewelry and cigar box purses. The rest of the second floor is dedicated to crafts, as well as space for guests. “When people come and stay for a few days, they often say they feel like they are at a bed-and-breakfast,” she says. “I think that is a wonderful compliment.”
The hallway is decorated with artfully arranged vignettes of dolls and soapstone eggs carved and painted in African motifs. There’s a framed newspaper from August 1963 that documents the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
Brown finds her art and artifacts while shopping online, at auctions and at specialty shows. “There’s a growing interest in collecting, and people who are looking soon get to know where the resources are,” she says.
The dining room, like the rest of Brown's home, is decorated with African artifacts and art.
Brown also incorporates designer tricks into her decor, such as framing beautiful pieces of handmade printed fabrics to display as art. The dining room wall hanging depicting a village setting was discovered during an outing to the fabric district in Philadelphia.
The third floor is designated as a master suite, which includes a spacious bedroom and bath. Brown appreciates having several closets, including shallow cupboards in the hall, which are ideal for storing shoes, belts and purses.
As a busy professional and active volunteer, an organized home office is a priority. Aesthetics matter, too. A magnifying glass, letter opener and other traditional tools of a well-appointed desk are part of the design. “I am a stationery geek,” she says.
While the palette in the rest of the house is soft and hushed, the office is bold and striking in red and black.
“I have used red and black in every office I have ever had,” she says. “Those strong colors keep me alert.”
The passageways and public spaces on all three floors are unified with color, a sophisticated neutral reminiscent of a wheat field. “I didn’t want the typical ivory beige,” Brown says. “This paint color is named Tawny Birch.”
Brown enjoys helping friends to select tiles, colors and other design elements. She also is involved in her own project, making plans to update her kitchen.
A previous owner took down the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room. She wants to enhance that open concept with a space that blends good looks and high-level function.
“I see it as flowing, very inviting,” she says. “I still have that interior designer inside of me—and I am having fun creating my Harlem brownstone in Midtown.”
GET THE LOOK
Embrace your heritage. Tynetta Brown’s home in Midtown Brandywine reflects her African-American roots. / Establish your priorities. Brown recommends getting the public spaces in a home in order first, followed by the master bedroom. Seldom-used rooms can wait. / Get the lay of the land. Renting to own offers an opportunity to discover if a location is a good match for you. / Look for creative storage solutions. Brown bought racks for her clothes from a store that was going out of business. / Find a soft place to land. An expansive landing is put to good use as a den suited to entertaining.