The romance of owning an historic house is alive and well in this part of the country. Imagine living in a colonial-era home that looks out over a landscape through which George Washington rode with his troops. It’s a powerful draw; but first you need to determine if a centuries-old house is right for you and your family. We spoke to three homeowners who grappled with this question and learned a lot along the way.
Older Houses vs.Contemporary Lifestyles
Diana and Gary Shank of Berwyn spent a year looking at old houses, but no single house had all the features they wanted. “Some did not have basements, others were close to a busy road,” says Diana, the mother of four children.
Then they found a gracious old Georgian colonial with plenty of room and lots of potential. “We just loved everything about this house even though it needed some work,” Diana says. To their dismay, they lost the house in a bidding war. The couple then decided to build a new house. “I feel we got the best of both worlds because we have the look of the old house with today’s modern conveniences,” she says.
Despite the impressive inventory of historic properties in this area, finding the right house in the right location is a challenge. Jeff Dolan of Period Architecture in West Chester (www.periodarchitectureltd.com) says clients often ask the company to evaluate older houses to determine what’s needed for restoration. The usable space is often a sticking point.
“The older houses in this area tend to have smaller, chopped-up floor plans,” says Dolan, one of three partners in the firm. Apart from stately homes on the Main Line, most older homes do not have the large spaces that today’s families want—the gathering or great room, big master bedroom, and walk-in closets. Some clients opt to build an addition. Some decide to build a custom period home with a contemporary floor plan.
“We can design a new house that looks as if it were built 200 years ago,” Dolan says. “It’s a process of determining the correct design and materials to give it the historic feel and character that you see in older homes.”
The Shanks worked with architect Joe Mackin of Period Architecture to design a classic Chester County stone farmhouse. They bought a property in their current neighborhood, tore down the existing house, and served as general contractors for the project.
The 8,000-square-foot center-entry design has six bedrooms, five full baths, and four half-baths. The wide plank wood floors were reclaimed from an old barn. Mackin designed custom trim and moldings and even helped the couple choose handcrafted period hardware and light fixtures. The house has four fireplaces inside and one outside, and an energy-efficient underground geothermal heating system.
When a recent visitor mistook the house for a restoration, Diana Shank was amazed. “I think it worked!” she said.
The Cost of Being a Steward of History
When the Chadds Ford farmhouse known as General Howe’s Headquarters went on the market, Lou and Carolyn Wonderly didn’t hesitate. Active in local preservation circles, the couple had long admired the 18th-century stone house where the victorious British General stayed after the Battle of Brandywine.
“I loved the house, the ambiance, and the architecture,” Lou Wonderly says. The 3,000-square-foot house had two large sitting rooms, a walk-in fireplace in the kitchen, and sat on 17 rolling acres.
But the couple got more than they bargained for. As with all centuries-old structures, maintenance of the house was an ongoing challenge–both costly and time-consuming. While the house was solidly built, it needed a lot of work, including a new roof.
“When you buy an old house like that, you really have a trust to pass it on in as good a condition as you can to the next generation. My first premise is never to subdivide the property to pay for renovations,” Wonderly says.
A year and a half after they had moved in, they reluctantly put the house back on the market. They moved to a new house and had a builder renovate it to create a period look. “In retrospect, it was a great experience,” Wonderly says. “I found out I could not do everything under the sun. I was not a gifted plumber, electrician, and restorer of old homes.”
Jeff Dolan says clients often say they want an older house but not a lot of maintenance. “With an older house, you have to understand there’s going to be upkeep, a certain level of management that you’re going to have to do,” he says. Getting a professional to evaluate the property will give an unvarnished view of the condition and potential of the house.
Dolan says the cost of restoring an old house is actually less than designing and building the same home from scratch. “The foundations are there, the walls are there. Maybe you need new windows, a new roof, or new electrical, but the structural integrity of the house is intact,” he says.
The Right House at the Right Time
This small, 19th-century tenant house wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s perfect as far as John and Pat Steel are concerned. “As soon as we pulled in the driveway, we fell in love with the property. We call it our quirky little farmhouse, but it works for us and we love it,” says Pat.
Assessing one’s current and future needs is key to making the right house decision. The Steels waited until their four children were close to leaving for college before buying their first older home. “I don’t think an historic house was right for us until our children were older,” says Pat. “We were at the point where we had the time to devote if [the house] needed updating, repairs, or restoration.” When they moved to the Chadds Ford area in 2002, they looked only at older homes.
There’s a pretty pond on the two-acre property, plus a one-bedroom guest cottage. With three bedrooms and two and a half baths, the stone house feels much larger inside than it looks from the outside. The kitchen is cozy, but the couple worked with a designer to maximize usable space. Although there’s still a to-do list of projects, they find maintaining the house and yard quite manageable.
While they probably would not have considered this house when raising their children, the Steels regularly host family gatherings for as many as 17 people. Pat says their family thinks the house is special, too. “We have six grandchildren ages 11 and under, and they just love coming here. They love playing outside, playing hide and seek in the house; they love the multiple staircases,” she says.