A Villanova couple breathes new life into a 19th-century treasure.
On the end of a quiet lane in Villanova sits an architectural gem—a stately 1860s Victorian Gothic home with a granite façade surrounded by a perfectly manicured lush landscape. Although the exterior exudes its original character, much has been done to the 20-room interior to accommodate a modern family of five.
Almost 150 years ago, oil tycoon George F. Curwen, II enlisted Philadelphia’s Edwin F. Durang to design his home, which he named Walnut Hill. A noted architect who specialized in ecclesiastical design, Durang was the man behind many of the Philadelphia area’s Catholic churches and facilities, including the Main Line’s St. Thomas of Villanova Church and Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion. Durang only designed a few residential homes, including his own in Overbrook, during his storied career.
Four generations of the Curwen family remained at Walnut Hill before it was passed on to others. The current owners purchased the home 11 years ago, drawn to its history and unique features such as the spacious first-floor rooms with 13-foot ceilings; original handcrafted woodwork; and a third floor with extra bedrooms for guests. It took them almost seven years to restore the house to its original glory. Over the years, Walnut Hill had suffered from serious neglect, and it lacked curb appeal.
“When we first saw it, the first thing we thought was 1313 Mockingbird Lane,” says the homeowner, referring to The Munsters’ spooky TV abode. “My friends couldn’t believe I was moving in here with my 2-year-old son.”
The roof leaked and the ceiling was collapsing, and it became apparent that more than just minor repairs were an order. “We knew all along that we could make it into something special,” says the owner.
She and her husband spent all their free time renovating Walnut Hill room by room. The first year proved to be the biggest challenge. That winter, the entire heating system had to be replaced, and the connection between the radiators and the pipes burst, causing major water damage. “There were many tears that first year,” says the owner.
The manse also required layout adjustments, as homes in the 1860s were designed to accommodate a different lifestyle. The first floor had two large parlors for entertaining, a compact kitchen and a small dining room. “I had to figure out a way to rearrange the house to make it fit my family,” the owner says.
The minute she saw the rear parlor and its the trio of tall bay windows, she knew she wanted the space for the kitchen (pictured above). “I instantly imagined putting a table and chairs right in front of the bay windows,” she says.
(In the 1800s, homes had front and rear parlors. The butler would seat guests in the front parlor just off the main entrance while those in the house were notified of their arrival. Guests were then invited to join their hosts in the rear parlor.)
At first, not everyone believed this was the best plan for the space. “It easily was the nicest room in the house, and everyone thought that I was crazy for wanting to turn it into the kitchen,” she says. “But now everyone loves it.”
Two existing display cabinets flanking the bay windows inspired the new kitchen design. “I realized we couldn’t reproduce those cabinets, and I wouldn’t have wanted to,” says the owner. “I wanted to take those similar design elements and recreate them in the space.”
Cherry wood cabinetry by Wood Mode was used to match the originals. The room’s expansive size allowed for two separate granite-topped islands—one with a sink, the other with a cook top—as well as cookbook and wine storage on the opposite side. Refinished long-plank pine floors bring a rustic elegance, and an abundance of natural light from the bay windows and two sets of doors leading to the side porch warms the space.
“I love the kitchen,” the owner says. “I spend a lot of time in here, and I can stand at the island and watch my kids playing in the yard.”
AT THE new and improved Walnut Hill, towering 11-foot walnut pocket doors separate the kitchen from the original front parlor, which is now the dining room.
A room off the kitchen was turned into a family room, where the owners and their three children watch television and play games. A fireplace has a unique mantle made of slate painted to look like deep green marble. “Even in the 1800s, they had faux techniques,” says the owner.
An oversized French antique armoire with a mirrored door commands a corner of the family room. The original kitchen—inconveniently located in a room behind the main staircase (pictured above)—was put to better use as a home office for the family. A gorgeous crystal chandelier in the foyer is a source of pride for the owner, who put it together herself. “The pieces came in hundreds of boxes,” she says. “And I spent 14 hours on a 13-foot ladder putting it together. Every day I see it—and it was worth the effort.”
Amazingly enough, Walnut Hill had only one bathroom with a shower—located next to the master bedroom on the second floor. So the owners closed it off from the hall and made it an en-suite “hers” bath-room. In addition to the shower, they installed a claw-foot tub.
Throughout the house, the old windows were replaced with double-paned updates, though the original interior
walnut shutters—that fold into the wall when not in use—were retained. “The [original] wavy glass had a unique look, but it provided no insulation, so it was freezing in the cold months,” the
Two bedrooms were combined to make the master suite, allowing for the addition of a “his” bathroom and a lounging area. Walls were built to accommodate two deep closets. The furniture in the master suite and much of the rest of the house was bought at auction houses in Southern New Jersey. “I had a lot of rooms to buy for, and the auction houses had a great selection of what I wanted,” says the owner.
While many of the pieces weren’t
purchased in sets, a consistency is evident in their traditional design and dark woods. “It’s a Victorian house, but I love traditional,” the owner says.
On the exterior, a charming wood porch alongside the house was restored to its original condition. Multiple seating areas make it a favorite retreat for the family during the spring and summer months. An in-ground pool was added behind the home, and curb appeal was vastly improved thanks to quaint paths leading to the house and a circular entrance drive with fountain.
After years of hard work, the Villanova couple
recently received the ultimate compliment. “My niece, who lives in New York, called to ask me if she could have her wedding and reception at my house,” says the owner, who played host to more than 125 guests this past spring.
So much for Mockingbird Lane.
Kitchen: Wall & Walsh (Wood-Mode Custom Cabinetry), 8320 West Chester Pike, Upper Darby; (610) 789-8530, woodmode.com
Windows: Bi-Glass of Pennsylvania Lancaster, (800) 729-0742, bi-glass.com
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