When Kate Brown moved to an old house in Haverford as a 4-year-old, she spent hours pushing the walnut panels in the center hall. The little girl hoped one would slide open to reveal a secret room.
Despite her persistence, she found no hidden passageway, but the house had other fascinations: a cozy window seat in the living room, servants' bells, back stairs, and a cage-elevator she could ride to the third floor where a former billiards room became a playroom for Kate and her older brother and sister.
Fast-forward 40 years to 2014, when Kate, her husband, Fraser, and two young sons were living near her old home. Her widowed mother, Anne Barnett, a real estate agent, called to say she planned to sell the house.
With little hesitation, Kate, 48, and Fraser, 50, bought the well-maintained house, which still had its charming, turn-of-the-20th-century features.
Kate, a kindergarten administrator at the Phebe Anna Thorne School of Bryn Mawr College, was practical, as well as sentimental, about her purchase. "It's a good idea to buy real estate agents' homes," she said, "because they take care of them." Anne had installed central air and made other improvements.
The Browns invited Anne to stay on and live with them. Anne and Fraser's mother, who were friends, were the matchmakers who set up Kate and Fraser, a radiologist, on a blind date in 2003. When the couple married the next year, the reception was in Anne's Haverford house.
The Browns converted the servants' quarters above the back stairs into a suite for Anne. She prefers to take the stairs, although the elevator has been kept in working order. The family uses it to transport heavy objects to the second and third floors. Each floor has three rooms and a bath.
Anne had replaced the old cast-iron stove with a Wolf range with red knobs, but the kitchen and adjacent laundry room needed remodeling. The Browns hired Nick Walker of Cottage Industries in Wayne to modernize the space while blending it with the style of the house. The original kitchen became a family room with a fireplace and window seat. Walnut-stained wainscoting and a built-in cabinet with glass doors were painted white to brighten the room. A blue sofa is piped in white.
The former laundry room became the new kitchen with molding over white cabinets duplicating the original woodwork. The three pendants from Home Depot hanging over the kitchen island resemble light fixtures from Thomas Edison's lab.
The Browns retained the walnut wainscoting and cabinetry in the butler's pantry and the walnut paneling in the center hall and staircase. The paneling in the dining room was painted cream years ago, and the trim in the living room was also off-white.
When Kate's brother, Ben, gave the built-in bookcases a fresh coat of paint, he carefully worked around a shelf where miniature British and Continental soldiers face each other just as they had in 1777 during the Battle of Princeton. The battlefield was set up by Ben and Kate's late father, Barney Barnett, a Princeton University graduate.
Crimson living room walls pick up the color over the fireplace in Anne's needlepoint of a medieval unicorn. On the opposite wall is a three-dimensional painting of birds perched on a berry tree by Dolan Geiman, which Kate purchased at UpHome in Malvern.
The whole family contributed furnishings. Red sofas and oriental rugs belong to Anne. A painted toy chest in the center hall was Kate's. The red cushioned, ornately carved settee in the hall was made by Fraser's great-great-grandfather. The dining room table and sideboard are Anne's. The chairs and tea set belonged to Barney's family.
Outside, there is a backyard trampoline and other play equipment for Kate and Fraser's sons, Samuel, 12, and Fraser, 9. They enjoy growing up in the house as much as Kate did.
When the Browns first moved into the home, Samuel's elementary schoolteacher expressed concern about an overactive imagination. It seems Samuel was telling classmates he had an elevator in his house.