Starting Out [Small]

Elegant South Bethany vacation home was once an 894-square-foot rancher

By Lynn R. Parks | Photographs by Carolyn Watson
From the July 2018 issue

When John and Susan O’Brien bought their South Bethany vacation home in 1997, it comprised just 894 square feet. A one-story ranch house with three bedrooms and one bath, it was not really what they had in mind.

They and their three sons had just returned to the Wilmington area after living for a time in the United Kingdom. “We came down here with great plans to buy a four-bedroom house, something pretty nice,” Susan says. The couple’s agent said he had a cute little house he could show them in South Bethany, a place backing up to one of the canals that flow through town. They agreed to take a look, but without much hope. “It was too small,” Susan recalls.

She quickly changed her mind, though: “We left the house and had driven a few blocks away, and I said, ‘Can you turn the car around?’” She wanted another look.

“It was so much less than we had expected to pay,” Susan notes. “I told John that if we bought this, he would have enough money left over to buy a boat.”

Five years later, in 2002, they expanded the house, making it two stories and adding a garage. And just a couple of years ago, they did a second renovation project, combining two bedrooms into one, adding 1½ bathrooms and slightly increasing the building’s footprint. That second renovation also changed the look of the exterior. Instead of a flat facade, with nothing to break the plane other than a small overhang above the front door, the house now has a couple of jut-outs where the master bedroom is and over the front door. A second-story guest room got a new, small balcony overlooking the front yard. The backyard was redone to add a stone-tile patio; and decks and a screened porch in the back were rebuilt.

The home is now 2,700 square feet, with an additional 1,000 square feet of porch and deck space. Susan and John spend the spring and summer months in South Bethany. In the fall and winter, they live in Frisco, Colo., a skiing community about 50 miles west of Denver.

The architect for the more recent renovation was Greg Hastings with Hastings Associates in Ocean View. The contractor was Miken Builders, based in Millville, and the landscape architect was Bryan LeCompte with Yard Designs in Salisbury, Md. “Bryan really transformed the backyard into a beautiful place,” Susan says.

Susan was her own interior designer. Walls are painted near-white throughout the house and furniture in the great room and living room is the color of linen. Accents are in shades of blue, primarily navy. Few paintings hang on the walls, surfaces are uncluttered and other than on one window in the master bedroom, there are no curtains. Window treatments consist of light-filtering, pull-down shades.

There are two reasons behind this decorating scheme. First of all, it’s the style Susan prefers. “I think of it as beach elegance,” she says. “I really like soft, muted colors and organic textures. It’s very calm here, and that’s what I wanted to accomplish.”

And second, John has impaired vision. The rooms are intentionally bright because “I am nearly incapacitated in low-light situations,” he explains. “I need every bit of light I can get.”

High contrast — navy blue pillows against a linen-colored sofa, for example — also makes it easier for John to see his way around the house.

The O’Brien home will be among the houses featured in this summer’s Beach & Bay Cottage Tour, sponsored by the Friends of the South Coastal Library. Susan says she and John readily agreed when asked if they would open their home to the public.

“I’ve been going on the house tours for years and I know that they are a great way for people to get ideas for decorating their own homes,” she says. “This house is just another house on the canal. But I think it shows that if you put a little bit of thought into what you’re doing, you can create something that feels like your own million-dollar beach house.”

In the tour homes she visited, Susan noted several interiors that had predominately light colors and mixed textures, just like she preferred. “That gave me the confidence to really pursue what I wanted to do,” she says.

When John and Susan told their three sons, all adults now, that they were planning to renovate the family’s beach home, the boys were a bit reluctant. “They really didn’t want us to do it,” Susan notes.

But in their planning, the couple worked hard to maintain the basics of the home — to keep it similar to what their sons were used to. And when the project was completed, and the boys got to visit, they were pleased.
“They love it here,” Susan says. During that first trip back, after she had shown them around, “they said to me, ‘Mom, you nailed it.’”


Take the Tours

The Beach & Bay Cottage Tour will take place Wednesday and Thursday, July 25-26, in the Bethany Beach area. Homes on the tour will be open each day from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $30 and one ticket is good for both days. However, each ticket holder can visit a house only once. For additional information, or to order tickets, go to For details, email or call 537-5828.

Also this month, the Rehoboth Art League’s 69th annual Cottage Tour of Art takes place July 10-11 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. Tickets are $35. For additional details, call the art league at 227-8408 or visit


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