Despite Renovations, This Chester County Home Retains its Roots

A century-old stunner gets an update that stays true to history.


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A porch, featuring hand-coped millwork, was enclosed to make room for the owner’s prized baby grand piano. // All photos by Thom Thompson

Polly Robbins lives in a big, old house, a 6,000-square-foot stone manor built in 1917—and she enjoys every inch of it.

“Home is my happy place, where I bake cookies and invite my friends to come over and share them,” she says. “It’s a place where my sons can bring their friends and everyone feels welcome and comfortable.”

A native of Seattle, Robbins moved to Chester County when her husband went to work for a bank in Wilmington. 

Along the way, the family also lived in Connecticut, always gravitating toward homes with history. 

“In Seattle, I had a teeny, tiny 1927 Tudor that was adorable,” Robbins recalls. “It was my first house, and my mother was born in 1927, so it was doubly special.” 

Robbins is one of eight children. Both her parents are engineers, so she had lots of help transforming her first home into a jewel box.

“We had a lot of demo parties, painting parties,” she says. “I made over every inch of it.”

A table of Brazilian cherry anchors the dining room. 

 

‘The bones of the house were magic’

Her husband discovered the classic center-hall house only hours after it went on the market. Among its more recent owners was a federal judge, Robert Gawthrop III, known as “the singing judge” by virtue of his performances in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. 

A deal was struck on the spot, to the consternation of locals who had admired the property for years and hoped that it would become available someday. 

That did not surprise Robbins, who also was immediately smitten by the charms of the house, its carriage house and three-acre grounds.

“It was quite evident that the bones of the house were magic,” she says. “It is very solidly built, and the previous owners had done a great job in keeping the infrastructure up to date.”

Still, Robbins was intent on putting her own stamp on the property. To come up with a plan, she turned to Period Architecture of Chadds Ford, a firm that specializes in melding the architecture of the past with 21st century lifestyles.

The first order of business was to create a special place for the grand piano the family brought with them from their previous home. The solution was to transform a covered porch into a four-season sunroom with a brick floor. Each piece of millwork is hand-coped to fit seamlessly around the natural stone surface of what was originally the exterior of the house. 

It’s a cozy, welcoming space. Mahogany windows crafted in Canada contain glass treated to protect the piano and furnishings from the harmful rays of the sun. A window seat in the corner is outfitted with a bookcase below, an ideal nook for curling up with a book. A painted table doubles as a desk. “With so many windows, it’s a great room morning, noon and night,” Robbins says.

During parties, French doors open outward to an expansive stone patio with a fire pit. “Having access to the outdoors makes the house so inviting,” she says.

 

Starting from scratch in the kitchen

A vaulted ceiling floods the all-white kitchen—once
an outdoor space—with natural light. 

The biggest project would be a new kitchen. Robbins is an accomplished baker and hostess, and she envisioned a space that would accommodate both large-scale food preparation and entertaining. Abundant natural light was another priority and the motivating factor in deciding to relocate the kitchen.

“After living here for a year, it was apparent that the sun fell in a different spot and we had to move the kitchen to what had before been an outdoor space,” she says.

The space that originally housed the kitchen was made into a cozy den. The kitchen addition also included a mudroom, laundry room and bath.

Robbins designed the kitchen, which includes such niceties as a large center island, professional-grade appliances and lots of storage with cabinets that extend to the ceiling. She chose classic materials: white Shaker-style cupboards with polished nickel hardware and subway-tile back splashes. The countertops on the perimeter are matte black soapstone. The center island is topped in milky marble, which is prized by bakers because it keeps dough cool. 

A vaulted ceiling is sheathed in tongue-and-groove planks reminiscent of a Victorian porch. A large glass globe light hangs from a cupola. Wall sconces with glass globe shades provide task lighting. The vintage pine floors were salvaged from an old house in Ohio. Banks of six-over-six windows usher in sunlight and views of the gardens.

“It’s an all-day glory fest, from sunrise on,” she says. “I can watch the moon across the sky.”

Robbins wanted a Lacanche range like one she had seen in Paris, “but the conversion rate was ridiculously expensive.” The interim solution was to get a stove on loan from a showroom in New York while awaiting arrival of the Lacanche that will be permanently installed.

“I want Portuguese blue, which is a very bright blue,” she says.

Original moldings in the living room are understated, in keeping with the age of the house.

 

From a historic perspective

To transform the design into reality, Robbins worked with Ted Trethewey of Trethewey III Building Contractors, a firm that focuses on historically respectful renovations.

When she asked for opulent moldings in the living room, Trethewey encouraged her to scale back.

“The moldings are period correct, not over the top, which is what it would have looked like,” she recalls. “Ted really kept us pure that way, and I love the end result.”

In the butler’s pantry, the original cupboards had been damaged by water from a leaking pipe. Artisans restored and reinstalled them. She kept the old cast-iron radiator, too, freshening it with a coat of silver paint. Robbins also opted to maintain the pantry’s wood countertops, burn marks and all.

“They have character,” she says.

The dining room was the ideal place for a table of Brazilian cherry that seats 14. It was crafted by furniture maker Jim Wright of North Carolina. “He is very much an artist,” Robbins says. “Each year he makes one, and only one table, and we are fortunate to have gotten this one.”

Raised panel wainscoting gives the room a formal feeling. Black-and-white photography adds a contemporary edge. Hickory dining chairs are upholstered in vintage blue velvet. Robbins chose a chandelier that pairs wire and crystal.

Workers removed seven layers of wallpaper in the three-story foyer. The new paint color for the space and the adjoining public rooms on the first floor were inspired by the serene blues Robbins discovered during a visit to the Mayflower Inn Spa in Connecticut. 

“Our last house was very whimsical and very Crayola with bright colors,” she says. “This time, we wanted something that was very soothing, spa-like and cohesive.”

On the exterior, the kitchen addition has a standing-seam roof. The quarry where the mica on the original portion of the house was mined is no longer operational, “but our Mennonite mason had a relationship with them and was able to obtain stone from them.”

The extra pickets atop the stone wall in front of the house look original. Actually, they were added to keep the family’s exuberant Bernese mountain dog puppy from leaping over it.

But while the house was coming together, the Robbinses’ marriage was coming apart. “I realized if I was going to keep my home I would have to put this house to work for me,” she says.

Robbins contemplated the huge copper beech in the front yard and found inspiration for what will be the next phase in the home’s history.

“I’ve heard there were three weddings beneath that tree,” she says. “I can totally picture that happening again.”

She renamed her home Maison du Bonne Chance—French for House of Good Luck—and launched a plan to host weddings, showers, dinner parties and other events.

“I want people to have their fondest memories on this property,” she says. “This is a very special house.”  


GET THE LOOK

Keep a sunny perspective. Polly Robbins moved the kitchen from a dark corner to a space that captures more natural light. Set the tone with color. A palette of pale blues creates an ambience that is soothing and restful. Find space for the things you love. A sun porch was enclosed to accommodate a grand piano. Specially treated windows protect the instrument from the damaging rays of the sun. Go with the flow. French doors are left open during parties so guests can move easily from the house to the patio and fire pit. Preserve pieces of the past. Cabinets in the butler’s pantry damaged by water were restored and reinstalled. Wood countertops were retained, along with their burn spots. 

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February 2018

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

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The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
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Cost: 10

Where:
Greater Philadelphia Expo Center
100 Station Ave
Oaks, PA  19456
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Sponsor: MarketPlace Events
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Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
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Cost: $10-$15

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 West Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
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A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Cost: $15 adults; $10 UD faculty/staff/alumni & seniors; $5 students

Where:
Gore Recital Hall
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
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Sponsor: University of Delaware Department of Music
Telephone: 130-283-12578
Contact Name: Megan Everhart
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"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

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A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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Cost: Call for cost.

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-629-6611 x2288
Contact Name: Nanticoke's Diabetes Education Department
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By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
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Show More...
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"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
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Website »

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Cost: FREE

Where:
Faith Victory Christian Center
301 Commonwealth Avenue
Claymont, DE  19703
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Sponsor: Faith Victory Christian Center
Telephone: 302.354.6726
Contact Name: Alvin Walker
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By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
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Cost: $20 members; $30 non-members

Where:
Delaware Center for Horticulture
1810 N. Dupont Street
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Sponsor: Delaware Center for Horticulture
Telephone: (302) 658-6262
Contact Name: Ruth Arias
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Cost: Free

Where:
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark
420 Willa Road
Newark, DE  19711
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Sponsor: UUFN
Telephone: 302.368.2984
Contact Name: Richard Field
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"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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STAR Health Sciences Complex
540 S. College Ave
Newark, DE  19713
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Explore connections between people and plants in these four inspiring presentations. Special thanks to Whole Foods Market for sponsoring this  year’s refreshments. Individual lecture pricing:...

Cost: $20 members; $30 non-members

Where:
Delaware Center for Horticulture
1810 N. Dupont Street
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Sponsor: Delaware Center for Horticulture
Telephone: (302) 658-6262
Contact Name: Mackenzie Knight-Fochs
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Tickets are $15 adults; $10 UD faculty/staff/alumni & seniors; $5 students. Tickets are available at the door. Cash or check only.

Cost: $15 adults; $10 UD faculty/staff/alumni & seniors; $5 students

Where:
Gore Recital Hall
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: University of Delaware Department of Music
Telephone: 130-283-12578
Contact Name: Megan Everhart
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

"What the water said…Flowers, Places, & Faces," an exhibition of watercolor paintings by Hugh Phibbs, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 2-23, 2018. A free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
Carvel State Office Building, 2nd Floor
820 N. French St.
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

The area’s largest sale of gently used books has been scheduled by the Wilmington branch of the American Association of University Women. The 49th annual Dollars for Scholars Used Book Sale, to...

Cost: free

Where:
Concord Mall
4737 Concord Pike
North Wilmington, DE  19803
View map »


Sponsor: American Association of University Women
Telephone: 302-428-0939

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Glory of Stories introduces young visitors to art and the Museum through a story reading followed by an interactive tour of relevant works of art and a studio art project. This program encourages...

Cost: Free to Members, $5 per child and one adult free for Non-Members

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Delaware Theatre Company
200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »

More information

Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
Website »

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Show More...
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A winter warm up of colorful, vibrant paintings. Marlene Dubin - bold mixed media abstracts; Elaine Lisle - regional landscapes in oil; Mary Ann Weselyk – whimsical animals and still life...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

The area’s largest sale of gently used books has been scheduled by the Wilmington branch of the American Association of University Women. The 49th annual Dollars for Scholars Used Book Sale, to...

Cost: free

Where:
Concord Mall
4737 Concord Pike
North Wilmington, DE  19803
View map »


Sponsor: American Association of University Women
Telephone: 302-428-0939

More information

This community-curated exhibition brings together three painters—Alan Soffer, Brian Dickerson, and Moe Brooker—who are attuned to harmonies and contrasts in abstract forms. Each artist...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

Ronald Barron was principal trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1975 until 2008. He joined the orchestra in 1970 after being a member of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and also...

Cost: Free

Where:
Gore Recital Hall
110 Orchard Rd
Newark, DE  19716
View map »


Sponsor: University of Delaware Department of Music
Telephone: 130-283-12578
Contact Name: Megan Everhart
Website »

More information

Celebrate the 12th Annual Chinese New Year at the Delaware Art Museum! This celebration includes traditional Chinese art activities, artist demonstrations, a lion and folk dance, a Chinese yo-yo...

Cost: Free; donations accepted

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

More information

By Simon Stephens (playwright of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time") Directed by Matt Pfeiffer REGIONAL PREMIERE! Amidst the bustle of a crowded London train...

Cost: Varies

Where:
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200 Water Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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For this Saturday’s activity, visitors will have fun with fluid dynamics and hydraulics - Pascal would be proud! Visitors of all ages are invited to discover solutions to science and engineering...

Cost: Free with admission; Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under: Free

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
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Cost: *VIP $125.00; *Silver Mirror Ball $50.00

Where:
Dover Downs Hotel
, 1131 North Dupont Highway
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Sponsor: Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition
Telephone: 302-778-1102
Contact Name: Eliza Mohler
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Cost: 0 - $20

Where:
Newark United Methodist Church
69 E. Main St.
Newark, DE  19711
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