There was just something about the white, saltbox-style house near the home of one of her daughter’s friends. Sarah Cornwell, a Doylestown native, found herself driving across town to look at it when she had the chance.
So when the house, which hadn’t been updated in more than 20 years, finally went on the market, she jumped.
“It was the ugly house on the block,” she said. “I had driven by for four years. Finally, I drove by and there was a for-sale sign.”
Cornwell, a social worker turned jewelry maker, was not new to renovation. She grew up in a 1786 farmhouse near Delaware Valley University and remembers her childhood home as a constant work in progress. Her father was a landscape designer and her mother was an avid gardener. There was always something being improved.
After she met her husband, Eric, in graduate school at Arizona State University, the couple renovated their first home, a 1,600-square-foot stucco-covered rancher in Scottsdale, Ariz. They went on to renovate a riverside vacation home with Cornwell’s parents in Milford, N.J. And for six years, they lived in and worked on an 1,800-square-foot ranch home in Doylestown that they loved but started to outgrow.
So 2½ years ago, they bought the 3,500-square-foot traditional New England-style saltbox, complete with a flat front, center chimney, and sloped back. Cornwell was attracted to the home’s clean classic lines and coastal vibe.
Her husband, who works in commercial real estate, wasn’t so sure about the project.
“He was overwhelmed but supportive,” Cornwell said. “He said, ‘What the heck are we getting into?’ Now he’s very happy. It’s a running joke that he’s very overwhelmed by my ideas.”
The couple started with gutting the first floor, removing a bathroom and laundry room, and taking down an interior wall between the kitchen and dining room. Their family of five lived in two upstairs bedrooms and a bathroom for several months.
The interior included a 1970s neon kitchen, Swiss chalet-style trim, and floral wallpaper as far as the eye could see.
“There was no light back here at all,” said Cornwell, standing in her new family room, which is now flooded with light. “It felt very dark and very low.”
On the first floor, they added double front doors to the foyer and shiplap to the front staircase to add a coastal feel. They chose not to add shutters or a front porch. “I wanted to keep with that traditional look,” she said.
They kept the formal living room, added an office, and essentially “cut off the back of the house,” opening up the family room and kitchen with large sliding doors and windows. Her favorite spot is looking out those doors into the yard.
“To be able to sit here and see everything outside makes me so happy,” she said. “Everybody’s always right here.”
The kitchen, like the rest of the house, is styled in modern farmhouse coastal chic decor. Cornwell, a mother of three who likes to entertain more than cook (“When I cook, no one eats it,”) said her favorite part of the kitchen is the black-and-cream geometric cement tile on the stove, which is punctuated with a black shiplap hood. They built a 14-foot island but saved an original, massive, eight-foot-long fireplace.
“I get smells from the old house sometimes,” she said.
The latest addition included a long hallway that runs the side of the house to a mudroom, bathroom, and a 300-square-foot studio space above the double garage.
“This is where I spend most of my time,” says Cornwell, amid carpentry done by her brother, a large gold mirror, and a decorative vinyl floor. She said she has always loved design.
“When I was [in Arizona], I’d go to the gem and mineral shows. I’d play around. I was always crafty,” she said. “I’d find myself distracted at work, thinking of colors. Once I had my oldest child, jewelry took over.”
Cornwell was almost sad to see the renovation end. “I loved it. I could talk design all day. Now I can focus on the gardens.”
Now that the pool is restored, she wants to create an entertaining area, plant more trees, and add brick and bluestone.
“The pool hadn’t been open in 20 years,” she said. “It was a full ecosystem. We had to take the frogs out.”
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