This Couple Restored an Early 20th Century Greenville Home to its Former Glory
Built in 1919, but eventually neglected, they saved it from the wrecking ball.
In late 1985, Christopher and Susan Casscells found themselves between a rock and a hard place.
An orthopaedic surgeon, Chris was finishing his residency at Yale University. The young couple had two children—a toddler and an infant—and needed a home in northern New Castle County, Del., where Chris would soon be joining the medical practice his father founded in 1949.
They were about to settle on a home in suburban Hockessin, Del., where housing developments were springing up like mushrooms after a thunderstorm. But before they signed on the dotted line, Chris spied a “For Sale” sign outside a huge stone house in Greenville, Del. “A developer had planned to knock down the house and build new homes on the property,” Chris recalls. “But the house is so massive and the stone is so dense, it was too expensive to demolish.”
The Casscells moved in on a bitterly cold New Year’s Day in 1986. Ravaged by weather and neglect, the home—built in 1919 and expanded in 1927— had been vacant for several years. Still, it retained vestiges of grace and glamour.
It was a rocky start for the family. “We ran out of fuel oil that day,” Chris recalls.
But it didn’t take long for them to warm up to the old stone house. In winter, their nesting place is the second floor library, with its crackling fireplace and stately wood paneling made from pine and stained to look like mahogany. “Every time someone in our extended family is recouping from an illness, they rest in the library in the big leather wing chair,” Susan says. “We call it the ‘recovery chair’ because it’s so cozy and comforting.”
After the addition of a third child, Susan’s mother came to live at the house to help with the kids. She took up residence in a pleasant suite on the third floor and ended up sewing curtains for most of the home’s 96 windows.
Eventually, the couple replaced all of the windows, one of many projects they accomplished with the help of craftsman Cliff Cook. “He’s a perfectionist and understands the house completely,” Susan says.
While Chris tended to his patients’ health, he also worked to heal the house, setting up an extensive workshop on the property. “I can reproduce a piece of molding that looks original to the house, which allows us to maintain the integrity of the design,” he says.
Their renovations reinforced just how strong Brandywine granite is. Rich in iron and magnesium, the stone is technically gneiss, a type of metamorphic rock formed by high temperatures and pressure acting on formations of igneous or sedimentary rocks. Three times weightier than fieldstone, Brandywine granite was used to construct gunpowder-making structures at nearby Hagley. When the Casscells made a small expansion to a bathroom, workers had to remove three tons of stone.
To further maintain the house’s history, the couple has furnished its more than 6,000 square feet with a blend of family pieces and vintage furnishings from area resale shops. “Chris and I have a similar aesthetic, and we both appreciate things that have some history to them,” says Susan. “Once you accept that nothing is ever perfect, you can see that it is perfect.”
In the dining room, a mahogany table pulls out to seat 12. Susan discovered it at the Delaware Furniture Exchange in Newark. She’s paired it with a buffet handed down by her husband’s grandmother and two corner cupboards that were a wedding gift from her father. The Chippendale-style chairs came from the old Twice Nice store in Centreville. A dozen “Flower of the Month” botanical prints were found in the bottom drawer of the buffet. All are framed and hanging elsewhere in the home.
Susan takes pleasure in a fine table setting. “I always use place cards, even for family dinners,” she says.
She began collecting Lenox china in the iconic Autumn pattern soon after they moved into the house. Her array of Waterford crystal in the Lismore pattern mixes new glassware with older pieces discovered at resale shops. A gift from her mother-in-law, the silver flatware has a Gorham’s Chantilly pattern.
Maintaining a sense of age and timelessness was also important in the kitchen upgrade, so there’s nothing too sleek. Rather, there’s lots of science and precision in the space, right down to the pullout bar drawer meticulously measured to accommodate the height of its liquor bottles.
Made in 1760 and acquired by Susan’s father around 1940, the English tall case clock in the foyer was once examined by Smithsonian Institution restorationists looking for rare examples of 18th-century clocks with their original workings.
The systems of the house have received a total upgrade, with high-velocity air conditioning and seven-zone heating. A standing metal-seam roof replaced the Vermont slate roof. As for the Brandywine granite, it’s been repointed by masons who matched the original mortar, made out of sand dredged from the Delaware River in 1918.
Outside, the Casscells often traverse the 1.8-acre grounds in a golf cart. They entertain family and friends on an expansive stone patio covered by an awning. The kids are grown and don’t play basketball and tennis much, so the courts have been repurposed as additional parking. Chris tends a vegetable garden, where he frequently discovers more remnants of Brandywine granite in the soil.
The Casscells enjoy a true sense of peace and privacy within their sylvan enclave, where owls hunt in the mist and finches have nested for four generations.
“It is a magical place to live,” Susan says.