A Washington, D.C., family relishes the simple pleasures of Christmas in the Pocono Mountains.
Written by Amy Elbert
Photography by John Bessler
Produced by Eileen A. Deymier
As soon as school is dismissed for the holidays, Brandon Winfrey and Shazalynn Cavin-Winfrey pack their car, corral the kids and the family dog, and head north from their Washington, D.C., home to the peaceful Pocono Mountains. The SUV’s festive cargo—wrapped packages, bags of groceries (most likely some gourmet cheeses and a prime rib), and treats like Grandma Cissy’s toffee—is bound for a weeklong celebration at the family’s century-old home in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Brandon and Shazalynn were visiting friends a few years ago in Buck Hill Falls when they spotted an abandoned house with shingle siding and a crow’s-nest attic. The 1905 house was one of many solid and simple cottages built by Philadelphia Quakers at the turn of the 20th century as part of a summer community.
“It had been uninhabited for 10 years, so it was completely falling apart,” Shazalynn says. “Carpenter ants had destroyed the lower level; they were eating the house from the bottom up.” But she and Brandon were charmed nonetheless.
They aren’t Quakers, but they could certainly relate to the original owner’s need for a quiet retreat. “We were so enchanted by the feeling here. Life is so relaxed and simple and so different from life in D.C., which is a real pressure cooker,” says Shazalynn, an interior designer and mother of Grace, 12, and Cavin Reed, 10.
Despite its condition, the house was loaded with charm—original heart-pine walls, floors and ceilings, stone fireplaces, wooden doorknobs, claw-foot tubs, and corner sinks in the bedrooms. “That’s why we fell in love with it,” Shazalynn says. “Especially Brandon. He really loved it.” Retaining those old-fashioned elements and cabin-like feel was the primary goal of the couple as they worked with a contractor long-distance over a period of 18 months.
The house is particularly well suited to cozy Christmas celebrations centered on family and food. “I love to cook and spend a lot of time in that kitchen,” says Shazalynn, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. The aromas of beef tenderloin and Yorkshire pudding mix with the fragrance of a freshly cut blue spruce Christmas tree. Mugs of hot chocolate and mulled cider (with a shot of rum for the adults) are sipped in front of the living room’s massive stone fireplace, decked with greens, poinsettias, and paperwhites.
“It was important to us and to the family we bought the house from that we didn’t ‘demoralize’—for lack of a better word—the structure,” Shazalynn says. “Too often, people go into an old house and put in marble countertops or something. This house was built in 1905, and this is what it wanted to be—simple and honest.”
The cedar shakes, many of which had to be replaced, were stained a lichen green in keeping with the wooded setting. Original rustic beamed-and-coffered ceilings were left exposed and unpainted.
In the new kitchen, buffalo-check curtains in chocolate and cream serve as “doors” for lower cabinets, and silver birch logs support shelves above the butcherblock countertops.
While Brandon and Shazalynn agreed on retaining the house’s rugged charms, they parted ways on how true to the original they had to be. “My husband is a purist. If he had his way, we would have kept all the wood walls dark,” Shazalynn says. “But the ceilings were already stained wood, and I needed more light. An entirely brown house is not exactly exciting.” They compromised, painting the beadboard walls in the dining room and kitchen and leaving the wood walls natural in the living room and some bedrooms. Kitchen and dining room ceilings were enclosed and painted as well, so ceiling light fixtures and fans could be installed.
With the house containing about 5,000 square feet, there was no need for an addition, but rooms were reconfigured. The lower-level kitchen and dining area (down to a dirt floor, thanks to the carpenter ants) was converted into a light-filled and comfortable family room with a new slate floor. The house is built into a slope, and the lower level has large windows (all new but designed to look original) that connect it to the outdoors.
The kitchen and dining room were moved to the main level in a space that had been two bedrooms linked by a closet. Upstairs, two more bedrooms were combined to create a master suite with a sleeping area and an adjoining sitting room with a fireplace.
Shazalynn furnished the home with antiques and straightforward upholstered pieces in neutral hues drawn from the environment. “This project was really driven by the clarity of the original structure,” Shazalynn says. “It was a conscious decision to make sure everything in the house was very crisp and clean-lined. Oversized slipcovered sofas, for example, would have diminished the architecture of the house.”
In the living room, a pair of buff-colored sofas face a square coffee table made of reclaimed wood, a favorite place for the family board games. A woods-inspired palette of lichen green, bark, and ivory tones runs throughout the house, with hints of blue in the bedrooms. “I really tried to integrate the outside into the interiors. As you get to the upper levels, there is more pale blue, the color of the sky, and the family room on the lower level has more greens, like the plantings outside,” Shazalynn explains.
Pillows and accessories, such as Shazalynn’s collections—old needlepoint samplers, quilts, Majolica, and Delft plates—add carefully measured color accents. “My husband didn’t want too much color in the house, ” Shazalynn says. “So instead I have pattern.”
Red makes an appearance during the holidays when Shazalynn replaces neutral lampshades with rosy-colored ones, and red patterned pillows add doses of Christmas cheer.
In the dining room, under a twig “branchelier” adorned with shimmering snowflakes, holiday dinners are both casual and festive. White birch-log side chairs with leather seats and host chairs covered in a fabric patterned with a woodland motif add to the room’s rustic feel.
The Winfreys often invite their Buck Hill Falls neighbors to help celebrate Christmas Eve. After dinner, each person fills out a card describing something they are grateful for. The cards are placed in a bowl, and the fun commences as the cards are drawn and everyone tries to match people with their notes of gratitude.
The original Quaker builders would most likely be grateful that such a joyful exercise occurs under their humble roof.
Interior designer: Shazalynn Cavin-Winfrey, SCW Interiors, 228 S. Washington St., Suite B20, Alexandria, VA 22314; 703/549-2449, scwinteriors.com.
Round table by window: Crate & Barrel, 800/996-9960, crateandbarrel.com.
Chairs at table (custom): SCW Interiors, 703/549-2449, scwinteriors.com.
Chair fabric (“Astrid”/Raison #9654B-S0822): Stroheim, 800/763-0524, stroheim.com.
Roman shades (“Lore”): Robert Allen, 800/333-3777, robertallendesign.com.
Fan: Hunter, 888/830-136, hunterfan.com.
Sofas (custom): SCW Interiors, 703/549-2449, scwinteriors.com.
Sofa fabric (discontinued): Robert Allen, 800/333-3777, robertallendesign.com.
Drapery (“Contessa”/Multi Turquoise, Orange, Olive #HC1270T-01, by Home Couture): Quadrille, 212/753-2995, quadrillefabrics.com.
Area rug (“Sun Sisal”/Sunlight): Sisal Rugs Direct, 888/613-1335, sisalrugs.com.
Paint (“Navajo White” #OC-95): Benjamin Moore & Co., 888/236-6667, benjaminmoore.com.