Despite Renovations, This Chester County Home Retains its Roots
A century-old stunner gets an update that stays true to history.
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
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.