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Haven: A 'home that's hard to leave'

HAVEN | Collingswood house was built in 1907 by a man later famed as a Miami hotelier.

The kitchen of Michael and Jean Brennan's Collingswood house.
The kitchen of Michael and Jean Brennan's Collingswood house.Read more

Certain homes, like certain people, have an instant presence, a distinctiveness that's easier felt than explained.

And on a Collingswood street that faces the town's expansive Knight Park, set on a rise, stands such a house.

It was built in 1907 by Newton Baker Taylor Roney, who would later establish a legacy as a developer in Miami Beach with his Roney Plaza Hotel on Collins Avenue, a glamour destination early in the 20th century.

The home Roney built in Collingswood, originally in the Victorian style, has gone on to become a haven for former Collingswood Mayor Michael Brennan and his wife, Jean, who treasure its legacy of longtime owners.

"Before we bought the house in 1982," explains Jean, "both of the families who lived here before us stayed for at least 20 years. It's the kind of home that's hard to leave."

And no wonder. The look of dignity - but of the sort that's unfussy and friendly - is a hallmark of the three-story home with a magnificent front stairway, inlaid wood floors, and a flow of rooms that makes for easy living.

Yes, older homes do require some TLC, and this one has gotten it, especially after a daunting period in the 1930s, when there was a turnover of owners that led to disrepair.

"We always loved this house, and when it was up for sale, we knew the moment we stepped inside that we'd like to live here," remembers Michael, a lawyer who served as Collingswood mayor from 1973 to 1993.

The Brennans were then living just around the corner and had long admired the white house with the columns that has exchanged its Victorian exterior for a Georgian look. When they bought it, they resolved that they'd keep the tradition of staying put in this three-story Collingswood classic.

At Christmastime, the Brennan home takes on a holiday mood, but without flash or excess. It was on several home tours, including a Christmas tour several years ago to benefit Camden's Our Lady of Lourdes hospital.

The family-themed Christmas tree goes up early in the living room, a handsome space with fireplace, traditional furniture, and a mellow glow.

The tree itself is a reminder of Christmases past, with ornaments that date back to the preschool years of their now-adult son and daughter, both of whom continue to live in Collingswood.

Jean's nonagenarian mother lives just around the corner, and has a long tradition of creating family Christmas stockings and other beautifully knitted accessories.

Around holiday time, the family gathers in the Brennan dining room, with its deep-green walls and traditional moldings, and where the early-20th-century Van Sciver Co. dining room furniture that once belonged to Mike's parents now is the touchstone to more memories.

Command central for holiday cooking is the dream kitchen that the Brennans created several years ago, with Jean doing most of the design and space planning.

This also is a woman who refinished the now-beautiful banisters that had been antiqued before Jean and Mike bought the house. "My wife is definitely the force behind any and all home projects," Mike says. "She's just much, much better at those things than I am."

At this time of year, the staircase, with its graceful landings, is adorned with the small pillows that Jean has painstakingly decorated with holiday-themed cross-stitching.

Mike's hands-down favorite space is the den/family room, which stretches across the back of the house. A lodgelike atmosphere features a full bar; rugged fireplace; comfy, kickback furniture; and Mike's adored elderly recliner.

The room also is lined with books, a nod to Jean's years-long involvement with the Collingswood Book Festival, now an major event each fall that draws thousands of visitors to Collingswood.

There's another very special room in the Brennan house. A former sun porch has been transformed into a special playroom for the Brennans' grandchildren, Sean Wiltsy, 4, and Quinn Wiltsy, 18 months.

On a recent afternoon, they arrived and took over the space, diving into the room's abundant toys. They paused long enough to examine and help trim a miniature tree with grandma.

This is a home in which antique samplers, four-poster beds, and rich wood floors suggest a past that lives in the Brennan present.

"This house already is rich with memories," says Jean, and Mike clearly agrees. He suggests that some of the best ones are actually being created now, with grandchildren adding their laughter and spirit to the Collingswood home's long history.

"And at Christmas," says this grandfather, "I realize that the best of times is now."