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LaVera and Tim Sullivan in their apartment at Willow Valley Communities in Willow Street on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.

Most people find downsizing a daunting process. But not LaVera Leonard Sullivan. A whirlwind of energy and charm, she moved herself and husband Tim from their family home in Alexandria, Virginia, to an apartment in Lancaster’s Willow Valley Communities without any angst at all.

“She did it all. She always does. It was her hallmark at work,” Tim says, noting that LaVera started a Washington, D.C., public affairs firm that grew to 35 employees and handled such major projects as Headstart and the National Job Corps. Here, LaVera tries to stop him, but he won’t have it. “I like to brag about her,” he says, smiling hugely. “She’s amazing.”

“I was actually a bit of an obstacle in the moving-on process,” Tim says. “Working in the Department of Labor, I became a huge fan of D.C. sports teams and didn’t want to give up my seasons tickets to my favorite teams. I was also attached to my exercise room in the basement, and I wouldn’t part with my recliner.”

The Sullivans compromised. Tim commuted to games and stayed overnight in D.C. He took advantage of Willow Valley’s world-class exercise facilities and moved the recliner to his man cave in their new apartment, he says.

“Except, of course, with the pandemic there have been no games and our exercise room has been closed.”

Making the move

“Moving here was an easy decision,” LaVera says. “My mother — who’s also named LaVera — has been a Willow Valley resident for years. In fact, she has an apartment right down the hall from us. So coming here was a natural decision. And since my mom’s apartment has the same layout as ours, it wasn’t difficult to visualize what furniture should go where.”

For help, she looked to Lancaster designer David Lyall, who emailed her 25 questions before the move to discover information such as her priorities for the new place.

“When I visited his studio in Lancaster, he had a whole wall of photos and swatches. I was told to go over them and create three piles: one for the things I liked best, the next for those I found so-so, and the third for those I didn’t like,” she says. “In the end we had an excellent picture of the kind of home I wanted. And then, when I started shopping for furniture, he would gently steer me in the right direction.”

A new look

To her surprise, LaVera found that she wanted a complete change from the formal, traditional interiors of the Alexandria home. So everything went up for auction.

She exchanged all that formality of her former home for a contemporary, relaxed look. “I wanted something airy, comfortable and calming,” she says. “It isn’t quite a coastal look, but close.”

She got her look with walls painted warm taupes and greiges and one sage green feature wall in the master bedroom. The living room invites cozy get-togethers with a curvy white leather sofa and a giant TV screen. But LaVera’s favorite piece is her gift wrapping center.

Yes, a gift wrapping center.

LaVera laughs as she tells of Lyall’s surprise when this was one of the priorities she listed during their initial communications.

“I had such a center in the basement of our former house,” she says. “It was a standing desk with all sorts of storage, and I also had a TV there. Now I have such a center here. I love it.”

It’s a bar-height peninsula, granite-topped and obviously a great bar counter, but LaVera proudly opens drawers underneath it, each one packed neatly with ribbons, wrapping paper, shipping supplies and more. On the wall behind the peninsula is a custom-built storage unit designed to hold bar paraphernalia and household necessities. “Storage is so important when you downsize,” she says.

A round table from Lyall’s studio seats six in the dining room, where LaVera points to a spectacular contemporary chandelier. “I found it in a catalog,” she says. One of the apartment’s two bedrooms became Tim’s man cave, where his famous recliner has pride of place. Accessories include pillows in the blues that help along the coastal vibe that LaVera wanted plus vivid contemporary paintings from Lancaster’s Gallery Row. There’s also a book that LaVera put together as a surprise birthday gift for Tim. It depicts scenes from an around-the-world trip it had taken her six months too research and plan.

“A fantastic trip,” Tim says. “So many adventures. Cooking lessons in Vietnam, petting lions and breakfasting with zebras in Zimbabwe.”

Tips for seniors

LaVera’s desire to depart from dark, formal rooms is not unusual, according to Lyall. “I have an overwhelming number of clients, who tell me that the older they get, the younger their outlook on design becomes,” he says. “One client shared that she spent her other life acquiring formal furniture and antiques and creating a lifestyle she thought was expected of her. Then, at 65, she had an epiphany. All she ever wanted was a relaxed, casual home. So together we sold the Chippendale sofas and antiques and she now lives among clean, classic mid-century furnishings. To her this means a much more authentic and meaningful way of life.”

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