As they drove up the steep, rutted driveway through a tunnel of overgrown shrubbery, Dick and Diane Gies had no illusions that the old house at the top of the hill would be in good condition. And it wasn”t.
The 19th-century brick farmhouse in East Marlborough Township had suffered from years of neglect when the Gieses saw the six-acre property for sale in 1999. A bat greeted them as they toured the bedrooms. The barn was in ruins.
Still, there was something about the house that resonated with them.
“The house had good bones,” says Diane. “Proportion is everything. It’s something that can’t be fixed.”
“Structurally the house was sound, but badly beaten,” adds Dick.
The couple needed a house. They had just returned to Chester County from Canada where Dick had been on a job assignment. Their children were off at college. This was a project they were ready to take on.
Today, their home exemplifies gracious Chester County living at its best. The house has been restored with historical integrity. A recent John Milner-designed addition provides the amenities for a modern lifestyle. The front porch overlooks a verdant landscape that one visitor described as reminiscent of a Monet painting.
Getting to this point took vision, hard work, and expertise. The Gieses first worked with Wesley Sessa of Eighteenth-Century Restorations to get the house into livable condition. Six months later they moved in with construction projects ongoing around them.
“We set some principles,” says Dick. “We wanted to lose as little of the original character of the house within some economic reason. Anything that was fundamental to preserving the house had to be done first.”
Part of the appeal of the house was its history. Job Peirce, great-grandson of the builder of the Peirce-du Pont house at nearby Longwood Gardens, built the stately brick home around 1830. He and his wife, Abigail, ran a large dairying operation on their several-hundred-acre property.
Designed for the owner and his parents, the Quaker-built house has double front doors that led to separate living quarters. The unusual oversized doors that provided access and privacy between the two sides have survived in good condition, remarkably. The floors, woodwork, and nine-over-six-pane windows are also original.
“When you walk in the front door, you walk into 1830,” says Dick, who builds period furniture. “There’s almost nothing that isn’t precisely as you would have seen it then. I think that’s pretty neat.”
Until the mid-1950s, the house had no running water or electricity. Seven fireplaces provided heat. In 1955 Jacques and Nancy du Pont bought the house. They put in water, electricity, and radiant heat in the ceilings while resisting the 1950s trend towards all-out modernization.
With an eye to preserving the house for years to come, the Gieses added air conditioning, put on a new roof, and had the entire brick exterior painstakingly repointed. An addition on the back of the house that had collapsed was removed. The kitchen was remodeled down to the studs and now features hand-crafted cherry cabinets and an island with a honed granite top.
The tall-ceilinged front parlor and dining room proved to be the perfect setting for the reproduction furniture Dick Gies has been building for years. From the dining table—a copy of the one in John Adams” Quincy home—to a tall case West Chester clock, the hand-crafted pieces look as if they were made for this home.
What the house did not have was a room large enough in which the whole family could gather together and relax. Adding a room didn’t seem possible: the land in back sloped off and they wanted nothing to detract from the lines of the house.
“We had lived in the house for five years and tried in our own minds to figure out how it could be done,” says Diane.
When they consulted John Milner Architects about remodeling the laundry area, they discussed the family room dilemma. Milner agreed it was a challenge and went to work.
“The minute we saw the plan, we thought: It’s perfect,” says Diane.
Not only did they get a spacious family room on the back of the house but an expanded guest room and bath upstairs, plus a potting shed on the ground level. Unionville builder Chuck Ginty built the addition that features bull-nose windows and a punch-design on the fireplace to harmonize with the rest of the house.
What makes the house truly special is its secluded hilltop setting. The Gieses, both avid gardeners, have transformed the overgrown property into a peaceful bucolic sanctuary. They inherited many beautiful old trees, giant hollies, and interesting specimen plantings. New are a number of perennial gardens, a creekside garden, a fruit orchard, an herb and vegetable growing area, flowering trees and shrubs, and borders for the banks of the driveway.
When a friend pointed to the barn ruins as the perfect spot for a woodshop, Dick designed a barn within the footprint of the original steep bank barn. He found an Amish barn builder to build his dream workshop.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Dick says good-naturedly. “We’re not rookies anymore.”