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Modernizing an 18th Century Farmhouse


It doesn’t happen often. But when a custom home- building project is completed before deadline, it’s the sweet spot for both the builder and client. Ted Trethewey, who specializes in historic restoration, had this feel-good experience recently when his crew renovated an 18th-century farmhouse while breaking ground on a new home for the owner a short distance away. 

“It’s rare,” says Trethewey, president of E.C. Trethewey Building Contractors of Downingtown. “But when you have the combination of an experienced superintendent, a decisive client and good drawings from the architect, it can be done.” 

Trethewey’s company had done work on the historic farmhouse in Willistown Township over the years. Its owner now wanted a home suited to her active lifestyle that could be adapted to her needs in the years to come. Leaving the farmhouse was made easier by the fact that her daughter’s family would be moving into it. A separate parcel was carved out on the farm’s property, within sight of the old house, for Mom. 

After bringing up a family in a rambling farmhouse, Trethewey’s client was ready to scale down to a single story. She worked with Richard Buchanan of Archer and Buchanan Architects in West Chester to realize her vision. 

“I had a good idea of what I wanted: a traditional-style home with beautiful stone that would fit well into the area,” she says. “As far as the interior, I wanted to have an open concept, but I wanted it to feel cozy at the same time.” 

Buchanan designed a great room with tall ceilings and a walk-up bar. It opens to an expansive covered porch with plenty of room for entertaining. The large kitchen has a good-sized dining area, plus a fireplace. Off the great room is a study and master suite.

“Downstairs, I wanted a large playroom for my grandchildren and lots of storage,” says the owner. 

The natural slope of the lot allowed for a walkout basement with plenty of natural light. A cedar-chip path leads from the farmhouse right to the playroom entrance. 

The study's green paint helps bring the outside in.

The study’s green paint helps bring the outside in.

This was a radical change for someone used to the ambiance of a historic home. “There’s something to be said about the charm of an old farmhouse,” the client says. “Fortunately, E.C. Trethewey was able to carry that same feel into the design of my new home.”

Trethewey has been steeped in historic restoration for 30 years, and his crew infused this project with the same craftsmanship and attention to detail. The coffered ceiling in the great room, fireplace mantels, library shelving and cabinets were all custom built. “There’s a lot of beautiful carpentry,” he says.

Carved horses’ heads on the timber-framed front entrance reflect the equestrian interests of the owner and her family. “It carries a lot of those older-style built-in details that are reflective of older homes,” Trethewey says. 

Custom building entails a daunting number of decisions by the client, and it can be hard to come to grips with the choices. “When the client is decisive, you can have all the materials you need ready for your craftsmen,” says Trethewey. “You are not designing on the spot or not knowing exactly what you want to do. It just makes all the difference in the world.”

Besides client involvement, architectural drawings are key to a positive experience. “That’s where Richard [Buchanan] does a nice job of providing us with the proper details,” says Trethewey. 

Buchanan—whose firm is known for its historically inspired designs—has a longtime interest in convincing his clients to build the right-sized house, with an eye to their future needs. Fortunately, this particular client was of the same mindset. “She said, ‘I don’t need a square inch that I’m not going to use,’ Buchanan says. “So we just kept editing the project.” 

To add flexibility, Buchanan designed two upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms with separate heating systems for guests or live-in help, if need be.

The patio adds plenty of entertaining space.

The patio adds plenty of entertaining space.

Elsewhere, the custom staircase adds architectural interest to the great room. 

The setting and exterior design of the home were also well thought out. “The house has its own sense of arrival and approach. You drive up in a separate lane,” Buchanan explains. “It’s a nice balance between a proper adult retreat  and having the opportunity for her grandkids to spontaneously appear.” 

To offset the distinctive Pennsylvania fieldstone, the exterior has raised pointing. A slate roof, corbelled brick chimneys, and a timber-framed entry inspired by Main Line train stations create a timeless Chester County look. 

“I love the private setting of my home,” says the owner. “It’s tucked back into the woods behind my old house and sits high on a hill. Although it’s new, it looks like it has been here for years.” 

Trethewey says that years of taking apart old houses and understanding how they were put together have shaped his team’s approach to building—and historic restoration, in particular. Most of their work is renovations and “sympathetic additions” to historic or older homes. “We can do a seamless job. When it’s done, people tell us they don’t know where we started or ended,” he says. 

Seeing clients move into their dream house is what makes building so rewarding for his team. “They become very close to our clients,” says Trethewey. We are all very passionate about what we do.”