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My kinda house!
Posted on Fri, Jan. 30, 2004
A house with GOOD BONES
Don Lessem bought his Media home for its floor plan and vistas, not the decor.
His update reaches back to the primeval past.
By Diane Goldsmith
Inquirer Staff Writer
RON TARVER / Inquirer
Beware of dinosaur: Don Lessem and Valerie Jones with a T. rex head used in
Some folks' idea of living with history is buying a Colonial farmhouse and
dressing up the hearth with period cooking tools.
Don Lessem went the farmhouse route, too. But his home accessories are just a
bit older: 65-million-year-old dinosaur eggs and a stone coffee table filled
with marine fossils that predate even the dinos.
That he's into prehistory is apparent as you drive up the hill to his Media
home. Velociraptors perch by the entrance. Nearby are colorful Tyrannosaurus
rex heads. Both resemble the replicas you might find in a museum exhibition or
Which is not surprising, because Lessem started creating dino shows, such as
one that came to Wilmington's First USA Riverfront Arts Center a few years ago,
after serving as an adviser for Jurassic Park. The pieces on his porch were
made from molds for animatronics used in the film.
"These guys are on steroids," Lessem says cheerfully of his raptors. Leading
the way into his living room, he points to a cast of a real raptor skeleton -
more the size of a German shepherd than a man - posted by a chair. It's a
handsome room, where dinosaur and reptile skeletons, a hat rack made of caribou
antlers, and that striking coffee table set a tone of adventure.
"These are the things I admire," says Lessem, whose decorating approach taps
the art in nature.
The author of 25 books on dinosaurs, mostly for children, Lessem keeps kids
current with news in the field - sometimes going along on digs to be the first
to write about new finds, and possibly to finance excavations and buy the
rights to make molds and casts.
Which is how he happened to bring a cast of Giganotosaurus, believed to be the
biggest meat-eater - bigger than T. rex - to Philadelphia's Academy of Natural
Sciences in 1997. Lessem was living near Boston at the time.
Six months ago, he moved to Media to be near Valerie Jones, whom he met when
both were consultants for Disney's Animal Kingdom.
The property's vistas were appealing, and he liked the home's relatively open
floor plan, thanks to a 1950s addition. Its spaciousness was key to
accommodating Jones and her two children on weekends, and occasionally Lessem's
two grown daughters. And with Tyler Arboretum and Ridley Creek State Park
bordering the property, he felt buffered from development.
But the decor was off-putting. Very feminine and froufrou is how Jones
describes the purple walls and droopy lace in the living room and plastic
flowers twining up a kitchen wall.
With advice from Jones, his assistant Debbie Timblin, and younger daughter
Erica, 19, Lessem toned things down, brought in more light, refurbished the
hardwood floors hidden under carpeting, and generally let his passion for
natural history be his guide.
At Jones' suggestion, he did up the living room as an old-time explorers' club,
displaying the stuff of his adventures. Behind an armchair stands a mammoth
backbone cast from Argentinosaurus - at almost 125 feet believed to be the
largest plant-eater to walk the Earth.
"It took a month to dig up," Lessem recalls, adding that the real bone weighed
two tons. Alongside another chair is a far-smaller cast of Protoceratops, the
dinosaur discovered in 1922 by a team led by adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews,
the inspiration for Indiana Jones.
The room, now a warm coffee tone, is furnished with comfortable rolled-arm
seating from Raymour & Flanigan and period-evocative lighting from Home Depot.
It and the adjacent office are part of a mid-19th-century addition to the
Lurking amid houseplants in the office is a replica of Dilophosaurus, the
"spitter" from Jurassic Park. ("Inaccurate," Lessem says of the dinosaur's
portrayal in the movie. "Too small, no neck fan, and it didn't spit poison.")
Above the "spitter" are wonderful illustrations of scenes in the life of
Troodon, believed to be one of the smartest dinosaurs. Lessem is using them to
develop a dino novel for adults - an experimental form, he allows.
And on a bookshelf is a seeming interloper, a 19th-century Mongolian sword
given to Lessem for his work developing an exhibit on Genghis Khan. "Much
misunderstood," Lessem says of the conqueror, chatting up his civilized side.
In the large dining room - the ground-floor space of the original 1784
farmhouse - the table is set with fossil dishes that match the coffee table.
Both were purchased at a gem and mineral show. Art of geishas brightens the
In the powder room ("the world's smallest paleontology museum") hangs a replica
purchased online of a 150-million-year-old fossil.
"It's a bird. It's a dinosaur," reads Lessem's sign for archaeopteryx, believed
to be the first bird.
The dining room opens onto a large space that includes the kitchen, an informal
eating area, and the family room. Lessem transformed it "from fishing camp to a
more modern space," he says, showing photos of how it had been much darker and
Heavy curtains were removed from a wall of sliding glass doors. The dark-red
planked walls were painted a brighter celadon. The kitchen's busy orange walls
and dark cabinets were traded for an attractive white-and-black look that
involved some remodeling.
Upstairs, the master bath has undergone a similar transformation since Lessem
found it painted lime with green faux marble, statuary, and plastic flowers.
"Our kids have their own strange tastes - only different," he says of some of
their rooms. To get there, he must pass through a rough doorway "blasted"
through the original home's stone wall.
"Al Capone's vault," he jokes about the entrance, proceeding to Jones'
15-year-old son's bedroom. It's now a deep purple with glow-in-the-dark stars
and a 45-inch TV. Her 12-year-old daughter's room has remained, by choice,
Up another flight, and Lessem's younger daughter's room (she's a Georgetown
student) is now an offbeat green to cover bushy palms that had been painted on
the walls. His older daughter, an archaeologist who drops by between digs,
chose an electric cobalt for her ceiling, mustard-green for her walls.
The home and barn on 31/2 acres cost Lessem $790,000. He spent an additional
$75,000 to refurbish them, including furnishings. He leads the way to one final
must-see feature, crouching down in the basement, past tiny twinkling lights
and faux flowers that had been left there.
"This house was a stop on the Underground Railroad," Lessem says, revealing
space behind a wall in the basement that once was accessible by lifting boards
on the porch.
Very cool - in its own non-prehistoric way.