This Lovely City Home is Filled with History, Charm and Convenience
A rare find in Wilmington almost had it all. Kay and Bryan Keenan made it even more incredible.
Visitors are welcomed with a city garden of flowers and shrubs.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
On Kay Keenan’s 23rd birthday, the man who would soon become her husband helped her move.
It would be the 24th place she had called home, one for each year of her life, plus one.
Kay was born in Japan. Her father’s career in the military had taken the family around the globe, from Germany to Kansas to Rhode Island and beyond. When Kay’s husband, Bryan, a lawyer, accepted a job in Delaware, they built a home in Landenberg.
But it wasn’t until 2001 that the Keenans found a long-term destination, a big, old house in the city of Wilmington.
“We had actually looked at the house when it was for sale previously, back in 1988,” Bryan says. “When we started looking for a home in the city, we found ourselves comparing everything else to this house.”
At 4,700 square feet, the house offered such enticements as a large formal dining room, 9-foot ceilings and an attached, two-car garage with five parking spots—a rare find in the city. There was plenty of room for Kay, a sought-after marketing and fundraising consultant, to set up a home office. And it was near Bryan’s work at Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella.
“Our work, our younger daughter’s school, the arts—so many of the things we care about are in Wilmington,” Kay says. “It made sense for us to live here.”
Features that attracted the homeowners include 9-foot ceilings and original hardwood floors.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Life in the city
The Keenans and the city were a great match from the start.
“The first night, we walked up to Ciao pizza to get dinner after the movers left,” Bryan says. “We hadn’t been able to walk to get food since we were at grad school at Syracuse.”
Their house was built in 1902 for Henry Lea Tatnall Jr. and his wife, Frances Swift Tatnall, who taught at the Misses Hebb’s School, a private school for girls that closed in 1930, the year after the Black Tuesday stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression.
To fill the void, Frances Tatnall started teaching girls at home. Students soon filled all three floors of the house, so the Tatnalls moved to an apartment on Delaware Avenue. Eventually, the school evolved into The Tatnall School, an independent co-ed prep school in Greenville.
A long to-do list
The couple moved in and, in short order, began making the house their own.
“I was an Army brat, so I am used to moving,” Kay says. “We learned how to make a house a home instantly. The boxes were out of the house within 48 hours.”
They embraced original features, such as hardwood flooring in the foyer, parlor and dining room. They appreciated some of the updates made by previous owners, including a second-floor laundry room.
The Keenans also started compiling an extensive to-do list of projects they would complete over the years.
Along the way, they consulted with several pros, including architect Leslie Kelly and interior designer Lee Kallos. Contractor Dennis Cuccurullo of Brandywine Repairs & Services became their go-to guy for construction.
“We choose the people we work with very carefully,” Kay says. “They have to love old houses.”
Biff Bartron of BW Design Group came up with a plan for a sumptuous master bath, part of an expansive master suite that includes large walk-in closets illuminated by chandeliers. The bath, in shades of white and pale gray, includes heated floors, a his-and-hers vanity, and a spacious shower with seamless glass doors and Arabesque glass tiles.
A kitchen for two cooks
The kitchen’s white- and-gray grained quartzite counters complement white Shaker-style cabinets.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
They saved the kitchen, the largest and most complex project, for last. They asked Cathi Hodgins, founder of Kitchens By Design, to come up with a plan that would provide lots of storage and several prep areas.
“We invited her over for dinner. Cathi watched us cook, and she knew just what to do to make a kitchen work for two people who enjoy preparing meals together,” Kay says.
One of the Keenans’ first projects was to take down a wall between the kitchen and adjoining family room. Hodgins’ plan heightened the connection between the spaces, extending the oak flooring in the family room into the kitchen. White- and gray-grained quartzite counters are durable and elegant, complementing white Shaker-style cabinets and stainless steel appliances.
“We have so much cabinet space, we haven’t filled it up,” Kay says.
They first spied the adjustable, pull-down pendant lights over the peninsula on a cruise ship. But tracking them down was not smooth sailing. The lights surfaced again in a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, but had been discontinued. Bryan finally found replacement lights in a retirement community while visiting his 97-year-old father.
“They are heat lamps, but we had them wired for lighting,” Kay says. “The lighting is so good you can pull them down and thread a needle.”
Dinner for 16
The spacious formal dining room features a mahogany Hepplewhite table that easily expands and contracts.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
The couple enjoy eating in their formal dining room, which runs the width of the house. “We can easily seat 14,” Kay says, “and 16 if we have to.”
The mahogany Hepplewhite table easily expands and contracts with multiple leaves and drop-down rounds. It was handed down by Kay’s mother.
“It was the perfect table for our family because we never knew what size dining room we would have in our next home,” she says.
They enjoy setting a fine table, with Waterford crystal in the Kildare pattern and the Wedgwood china they acquired as wedding gifts 39 years ago. The monogrammed Gorham St. Dunstan sterling flatware was discovered at an estate sale. “It had a K on it already,” Kay says.
The breakfront and buffet were purchased from homeowners who were redecorating their dining room. “They were happy to get rid of the mahogany—and we were happy to buy the mahogany,” Bryan says.
The foyer features a turned oak staircase and stained glass windows. It’s a gallery of sorts for the works of area artists the couple have collected over the years. Throughout the house are paintings by Scott Cameron, Mary Page Evans and Nan Jackson. There’s photography by Jim Graham and a print of Carolyn Anderson’s rendering of the annual greens show at Christ Church in Greenville.
In the parlor, a pair of taupe linen camelback settees flanks the fireplace. There is a brass-and-glass cocktail table. A small sculpture by Dee Crowley on a marble-topped Victorian end table depicts their daughter Katy as a young girl. A second seating area offers a window view.
The Keenans enjoy sharing their home with others. The bedrooms and baths on the third floor accommodate their grown daughters and their families when they visit. They have hosted members of a church choir from England and a family of six displaced by a hurricane.
“I love nothing more than the phone call or email when someone asks if they can stay at our house,” Kay says.
Adds Bryan, “It’s fun to have the grandchildren come and go up one staircase and down the other.”
The Keenans completed their urban oasis with no-mow landscaping. Visitors are welcomed with a city garden of flowers and shrubs that borders the walkway to the front door.
“Our project list is done,” Bryan says. “Now, we get to enjoy it.”
GET THE LOOK
Dine in style. The Keenans have a spacious formal dining room, which they enjoy often with guests or for an intimate supper for two. Designate the space in your home to reflect your lifestyle. The homeowners, who are empty nesters, transformed the second floor of their house into an expansive master suite. Bedrooms and baths on the third floor accommodate guests. For a carefully curated look, cluster like items. Kay Keenan, who was born in Japan, displays a grouping of small Japanese paintings in an upper-floor corridor. Renovate respectfully. Wood floors and white Shaker cabinetry are classic choices in a new kitchen that is in keeping with the rest of the house, which was built in 1902. Consider grass-free landscaping. The welcoming no-mow city garden in front of the house is a blend of flowers, low shrubs and ground cover.