A former convent proves the perfect home for a pair of empty nesters.
The Sweeneys retained some of the home’s existing paint
schemes, including the deep green in the parlor-dining room.
Photograph by Thom Thompson, www.thomthompson.com
For a century, the site where Rita Sweeney lives was home to the Visitation Sisters of the Holy Mary, an order of cloistered nuns who rarely ventured beyond 9-foot-tall granite walls, even as a lively neighborhood sprang up around them.
In 1993 the sisters moved to a less populous retreat in Massachusetts. Their block-long, 35,000-square-foot city home was redeveloped into 24 semi-detached units. And though the main structure couldn’t be saved, the stout granite walls were retained, along with such details as the wrought iron gates the nuns walked through on rare trips into the outside world.
More than a decade later, the charming enclave proved to be a divine solution for Sweeney and her husband, Tom, who was approaching retirement after a distinguished career in law. The couple had raised four children in a big house a few blocks away in
“When we saw this house was for sale, we looked at it more out of curiosity,” Sweeney says. “But when we came inside and saw how light and spacious it is, we realized right away that it was right for us.”
Because the home is an end unit, it is blessed with both bountiful natural light and a side patio shaded by wisteria. The path the nuns trod to go to prayers is now an intimate courtyard.
Inside, the Sweeneys appreciated an open floor plan conducive to get-togethers with family and friends, flowing from a spacious kitchen to a cozy family room to a gathering area, where sunshine spills through skylights.
“We probably have more entertaining space here than we did in a four-story house,” she says.
But the configuration was visually broken by a transition from oak floors to wall-to-wall carpet. The couple rolled up the rug and laid down hardwoods, creating a single, seamless expanse.
Though the kitchen was in good shape structurally, it was short on storage. The Sweeneys decided to gut the room and start over, turning to Catherine Hodgins of Kitchens By Design Inc. in Brandywine Hundred.
The kitchen features an island topped with an
exotic granite from South America. Photograph
by Thom Thompson, www.thomthompson.com
Because storage was important, Hodgins recommended frameless cabinets, essentially three-sided boxes with doors. On the outside, the cupboards have flat center panels, trimmed simply in Shaker style, with a warm brown glaze reminiscent of a country inn.
“There’s no frame on the front to take away from storage,” Hodgins says. “It’s a more efficient use of space, but still beautiful to look at.”
The cabinetry is customized with such amenities as a drawer equipped with a cutting board—which is much more stable than the old-style, pullout boards—and specialized drawers for pots and pans.
A walk-in pantry provides ample room for staples, bulk goods for entertaining and enough snacks to keep 12 grandchildren happy. The door is outfitted with racks for cooking oils and spices.
The centerpiece of the kitchen is a large island topped with Crema Bordeaux granite, a type quarried in South America. It is characterized by vivid patterns in gold and cranberry, the color of an antique painted cupboard that inspired the room’s design.
“I’ve never seen a piece of granite that exotic,” Hodgins says. “It’s one of a kind.” She and Sweeney discovered the slab on a shopping expedition to a stone yard.
“It had a ‘sold’ sticker on it, but the people never came back, so we wound up getting it,” Sweeney says.
The island is equipped with a counter for casual seating, a wine chiller, a prep sink and a gas range top that is positioned so the cook can stay in touch with people in the adjoining gathering spaces.
“She can watch TV, look outdoors and interact with the family,” Hodgins says.
Because it’s an end unit, the house receives an
abundance of natural light. Photograph by Thom Thompson,
The Sweeneys are both native westerners who were transplanted to Wilmington for Tom’s career. The houses of brick and stone, many in colonial styles, were a marked contrast to the architecture Rita grew up with in Colorado.
She took one look—and liked what she saw. She got to work, raising a growing family and creating a comfortable and inviting home for her family to enjoy.
In addition to a keen eye for balance and harmony, Sweeney is blessed with two qualities that are a boon to a homeowner decorating a new house.
“I love color—and I make quick decisions,” she says.
The cranberry paint on the antique cupboard is reflected in a custom hutch in the kitchen that can be easily set up as a bar. Softer variations of the shade are found in the upholstery on a solid-color sofa and pair of cottage-style floral-print chairs grouped in front of the fireplace.
A large pine hutch is ideal for storing and displaying the sparkling array of Waterford crystal Sweeney has collected on frequent trips to Ireland.
Setting a lovely table is a priority for Sweeney. She’s especially fond of dishes, starting with the Lenox Musette pattern she received as a bride more than 40 years ago. Since then, she has added Belleek porcelain and an assortment of antique plates.
For large family gatherings, she sets up multiple tables, starting with the expansive pedestal table in the formal dining area. For a dinner party for 30, she arranges smaller tables in the gathering room, each with elaborate place settings.
A pine hutch displays Sweeney’s collection of
Waterford crystal. Photograph by Thom Thompson,
“It looks like a little Irish bed-and-breakfast,” she says. “I enjoy decorating the tables more than the cooking.”
In moving into a new place, it’s important to identify what needs to be changed and what should be kept. Sweeney’s color sense told her the existing sun-kissed gold walls in the kitchen and gathering area would be a cheerful backdrop for get-togethers, as well as a daily joy for the Sweeneys.
She also appreciated the deep green that defines the walls of a combined parlor and formal dining room. It’s dramatic in the evenings, in the ambient glow of the Waterford crystal chandelier in the foyer.
Sweeney teamed a Duncan Phyfe pedestal table and carved, Chippendale-style chairs with a stately Hepplewhite sideboard with inlaid wood trim.
“I bought the chairs, the table and the buffet at different times and places and brought them together,” she says. “They all seem to get along, without having that feeling of going out and getting a matched set.”
Sweeney’s mother also loved to decorate. She once owned the pair of chairs with finely carved backs and upholstered seats that now reside in the Sweeney’s parlor. Her mother also handed down a rocker with a seat in a sweet, floral needlepoint pattern.
“Family is everything to me, and it’s special to have things that belonged to my mother,” Sweeney says. “If someone asks me for decorating advice, I urge them to go with what makes them feel comfortable.”
GET THE LOOK
Give a traditional space a touch of the exotic. The Sweeneys made a bold statement in their kitchen with Crema Bordeaux, a type of granite with lively cranberry and gold swirls.
Repurpose furnishings to accommodate wide-scale entertaining. Rita Sweeney sets multiple tables for large sit-down dinners, including a table and chairs brought in from the patio.
Evaluate what you don’t like about a home and what is worth keeping. The Sweeneys retained the vibrant green and gold wall colors chosen by the previous owners.
Let it flow. The Sweeneys replaced wall-to-wall carpet with oak flooring to match an adjoining space, creating a cohesive, expansive span between the two.
(left) The Two Herons, (right) Aborigena III
Pieces of Life
Rita Montori’s mosaics brighten homes while conveying her life’s experiences.
Mosaics have beautified homes since ancient times. For Rita Montori, the craft is as spiritual as it is aesthetic. “I hope it’s the same for others as it is for me,” she says. “When I buy original art, I feel the soul of the artist.”
Montori’s pieces include decorative and functional dishes, frames and tables. But her mosaic renditions of molas, textile works created by the Kuna tribe of Panama, hold the most meaning. Designs vary, but all display waves of color that “represent nature, abstract themes and rituals,” Montori says. “Molas are special.” Prices range from $500 to $1,200.
Mosaics can brighten entryways, bathrooms and kitchens. Molas are superb choices for living rooms and other places where friends gather. The pieces are great conversation pieces because Montori’s life experiences show so strongly in her work.
The native of Ferrara, Italy, moved to Wilmington last year. She has lived in
Look for Montori’s pieces at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington or by appointment. Contact her at www.musaicum.com or 290-2194. —Maria Hess
Out of the Pantry
When looking at food, a variety of colors and textures present themselves. By simply changing their containers and locations, pantry items become decorative elements. Spices are perfect—and aromatic—choices. They are easily transferred from supermarket bottles into something beautiful. Check out Kitchen Kapers (Concord Mall, 3626 Concord Pike, Wilmington, 478-4405; Concord Plaza, 4737 Concord Pike, No. 360, Wilmington, 478-5540) for a variety of decorative racks, including one in gleaming chrome that spins like a Ferris wheel.
Nothing says “hot meals” like a string of dried chilis dangling from a decorative hook. Pastas beg to be shown off, especially those from gourmet shops like McCabe’s Gourmet Market (York Beach Mall, Ocean Highway, South Bethany, 539-8550) or Bon Appétit (Talleyville Shopping Center, 3629C Silverside Road, Wilmington, 478-4344). Spinach and tomato add color to shapely pastas such as conchiglie and rotini. Scour antiques stores for transparent storage vessels such as classic apothecary jars.
Don’t forget dry goods such as brown rice, arborio rice and beans. Their shapes, sizes and textures can make them the starting points for dazzling centerpieces and place settings. Vinegars and oils can be easily infused with whole herbs and stored in decorative bottles, which make a great decorative—and flavorful—addition to any countertop.
Not in DIY mode? Some florists, like Wild Thyme (5725 Kennett Pike,