Jacob and Kate Chalfin live in a farmhouse with a chic, modern riff. Its open, expansive floorplan is ideal for gathering with friends and relatives, while allowing them to keep an eye on two exuberant young children.
The home’s wide portals and strategic design make family life more accessible for Chalfin, a well-known rider in the steeplechase community and co-author of a recent book on life off the beaten path. He’s been in a wheelchair since 2010, when a fall during a race left him paralyzed from the chest down. “There’s no reason you can’t design an accessible house that doesn’t feel clinical,” he says. “I like the farmhouse look because it’s warm and welcoming and never looks dated—and I think we achieved that.”
Jacob grew up in Chester County in an old stone miller’s house, spending most of his time outdoors and in the saddle, showing horses, trail riding and foxhunting. In How to Hack Country Living: A Season-by-Season Pandemic (and Post-Pandemic) Survival Guide (Country Cousins Press, 156 pages), he writes of the joy he feels when his son, Angus, spots a fox running in the meadow. For the book, Jacob collaborated with cousin Jesse Liebman, a Princeton University-educated actor who relocated from New York City to rural Connecticut.
At the family home, a new deck off the back of the farmhouse offers views of a sparkling creek and frequent glimpses of deer and heron. A tributary of the Brandywine, Doe Run first attracted Chalfin to the site of the farmhouse 15 years ago. Back then, the 1960s ranch house—“with orange, sparkly Formica countertops”—was his bachelor pad. He and Kate briefly considered moving when they married in 2015. But the tranquil setting, a horseshoe toss outside the village of Springdell, kept them rooted to the spot. “We loved it here so much we couldn’t leave,” Kate says.
Kate was pregnant with Angus, now 3, during a massive renovation that would transform the modest rancher into a two-story farmhouse that’s aesthetically pleasing and wheelchair friendly. The couple incorporated design ideas from their travels to New England and Europe. “In Europe, there are lots of old buildings that have been made accessible without compromising the design,” says Jacob.
Enhancing Jacob’s flow of movement was key. But in the end, many of the home’s features benefit the whole family.
The seating area that adjoins the island in the kitchen was inspired by a trip to Spain, where the couple admired wooden furniture with butterfly-joint insets. Crafted from a slab of white oak salvaged from a bank barn, the top is set at table-height to accommodate a wheelchair. Chalfin chose a wall oven with French doors that open vertically so he can lift pans onto the oven rack when he cooks.
Before the renovation, the dining room on the north side of the house was dark, cramped and underutilized. Taking down the wall between the kitchen and dining room brightened the space. On special occasions, everyone gathers around a marble-topped table handed down from Chalfin’s grandmother.
Throughout the house, the vibe is rustic with clean lines. The floors are reclaimed red oak in a distressed finish that doesn’t show dings from kids’ toys or Fergie, the family’s border collie. In the mudroom, saddles are displayed, along with photographs of Jacob’s racing days. The foyer is more formal, with raised-panel millwork and a display of trophy plates and equine art. Jacob had the wood console table crafted at Springhouse Furnishings in Chadds Ford, and the arched vintage mirror above it is a family heirloom.
In the living room, custom-painted white cabinetry houses a TV, books and mementoes. The couple added a fireplace, trimming a pre-fabricated firebox with a classic white wood mantel. The hearth and fireplace surround are milky marble veined in gray. The hearth is flush with the floor. “It probably would’ve made sense to have a gas fireplace,” Jacob says. “But there’s nothing better than the crackle of a real fire, and I want to be able to add the wood myself.”
Enhancing Jacob’s flow of movement was key. But in the end, many of the home’s features benefit the whole family. On a winter day, the gently sloping ramp to the front porch is an easier route for carrying in groceries than traversing three icy steps. On the first floor, Jacob can roll his wheelchair directly into a large threshold-free shower. “An accessible shower is also great for washing dogs and dirty kids,” he says.
An elevator runs from the basement to the second floor, with its four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Installing the lift enabled the family to expand their living space upward. It also gave Chalfin access to the basement for the first time in years. “After I got hurt, I couldn’t go into the basement. If a circuit breaker needed flipping, Kate went down with her cellphone while I talked her through it,” he says. “Now I can go down there, flip a switch and take care of problems on my own,” he says.
During the renovations, the couple rented a nearby cottage. Jacob realized he had an affinity for design, plunging into lighting, tiles and paint colors. He and Kate headed to McGrory stone yard in Kennett Square to pick out slabs of granite and marble. Jacob worked closely with his contractor at Rocky Ridge Construction, a Coatesville barn builder, on value engineering, a process that evaluates materials and processes to determine the lowest cost. That informed his decision to install more expensive windows that include trim. Cheaper windows aren’t trimmed and require more labor. “The whole process was a pleasure for me. When it was over, I almost went into withdrawal,” recalls Jacob. “I didn’t have anything to call the builder about.”
On a typical day, Kate reads to Angus while his baby sister, Maisie, climbs into her father’s lap as he rolls out onto the deck. Instead of wooden slats or balusters, slender steel cables span the space below the railing. “As a wheelchair user, you can’t see the view because you’re sitting below the railing,” Chalfin says. “You need something you can see through.”
The only space that didn’t change was Jacob’s office, where he spent many hours in the evenings working on his book. For years, he’s posted inspirational storyboards at his desk reflecting his aspirations in life, including his success working in sales for a specialty composting company. Long before he met Kate, Jacob added pictures of family life, including a little girl riding a painted pony. There are images of healed spinal cord injuries depicted in brilliant flashes of light, reflecting his work as an advocate for curative treatments. “It’s amazing how much on my storyboards has come true,” he says.
“Growing up in the countryside is a wholesome experience for children; it certainly was for me. There wasn’t a day I didn’t come in for dinner covered in dirt, scratched up, exhausted and happy.”
“When you are lucky enough to cross paths with an “old timer,” stop and take a moment. Respect that these folks have to say, and your patience will be rewarded with a wealth of wisdom, a few great stories and perhaps some local history, too.”
“I personally enjoy drinking an afternoon cup of tea while looking out on my stream at the great blue herons who take turns regally stalking though the dark pools and shallow rapids searching for their dinner of fish.”
“Life in the country is certainly not clean, quiet or easy. Many things will happen that are maddening and frustrating. But through these challenges and experiences, you will learn more about yourself—and you will find that you become stronger, more grounded and more confident than you have ever been.”