Mercer Hill Farm

Covertside

Jessica Fogle

01 December 2007

Ramsay and Susie

Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Fox Hounds has exerted a siren call to the Buchanan family for a long time. Ramsay Buchanan, VMD, a life-long foxhunter, was a member of the third veterinary class to go through the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in 1954. His future wife, Susie, worked for legendary rider Betty Byrd a little later in that decade. Though they settled in northern Chester County's Pickering Hunt country in order to be located nearer Ramsay's veterinary practice, they always kept an eye on Mr. Stewart's Cheshire Fox Hounds and the wonderful countryside that so reminded them of Susie's childhood home in Dorset, England.

When Ramsay retired in 1988, the couple was free to escape the encroaching sprawl and move to a little farm in the Unionville, Pennsylvania area. That location has served them well as a full-tilt hunting, eventing and driving-training facility. For many years, Ramsay served as an honorary whipper-in for Mrs. Hannum, now ex-MFH of Cheshire, and as field master during the cubhunting season. 

Richard and Cindy

In the meantime, Ramsay and Susie's younger son, Richard exhibited little talent or interest in the horse world past the age of ten. For him, it was architectural studies in Barcelona, Florence, and graduate school in Vancouver that captured his interests. In 1996, along with Peter Archer, AlA, Richard established Archer & Buchanan to design farms and homes along the eastern seaboard in historically sensitive ways.

Cindy Mason (now Cindy Buchanan, VMD) grew up with a passion for riding and animals. In a curious overlap of fates, Cindy's parents bought the house that Ramsay sold when he married Susie in 1963. Ramsay became their veterinarian and eventually Susie became an occasional riding instructor for Cindy. Having had a lifetime of the Masons pointed out by Ramsay at horse shows as the folks who bought his old place, Richard finally noticed their daughter!

It seemed to be a condition of dating Cindy that Richard would ride again. So it was right into foxhunting and polo for him if he was to get anywhere with her. Though he played polo with her for five years and achieved the inauspicious status of zero-goal (handicap) player, Richard's true-shared passion with Cindy is the hunting. With wedding bells in May of 1999, the young couple began looking for a home in Cheshire country just at the time his parents were thinking of reducing their horse operation. If a large enough piece could be found to allow separate facilities for the generations to coexist peacefully, it just might work. It was the potential, visible through tall grass, that drew them to Mercer Hill Farm. 

Mercer Hill Farm

Records and maps indicate that the land situated in the Buck and Doe Valley that has become Mercer Hill Farm was originally part of a five thousand acre land grant by William Penn to Arthur Cook. While it is unclear quite when, it is known that the Cooks had been buying land in Pennsylvania as early as 1684. On April 26, 1707, Arthur Cook's widow, Margaret, conveyed flfteen hundred acres, including this parcel, to Ezekiel Harlan in the first proper record of regional land transfers. The first two-bay section of the house was likely built in the period from 1750 to 1770, judging by architectural details of the clay. A stone house on the site is referred to in a will dated 1774 by Ezekiel's son, William Harlan. It appears that it may have succeeded an earlier log structure.

The next section of the house, dating from 1798 to 1800, is a larger block to the east that added three bays, much deeper front to back, creating an 'L.' This included a walk-in fireplace in the kitchen and cavernous attic framed as a barn loft. The third portion enclosed the open part of the 'L' to create a fourth room in the plan on the first and second floors and create the impression of a single almost square block of a house with a huge roof. With each addition being all stone and quite deep front to back, the interior has three walls twenty inches thick and ceilings less than eight feet high, so the effect is of bigness outside and surprising smallness inside. After a long and colorful history of sheriff's sales, seizures, and liens, the property was purchased by Townsend Mercer on August 24, 1898. It is for the Mercer family that the hillside covert has been known to the Masters of Mr. Stewarts Cheshire Fox Hounds as the Mercer covert. This and thousands of adjacent acres were bought by Mr. Lamont DuPont in 1932 as he worked to consolidate lands at the headwaters serving Wilmington and the DuPont Company downstream. In addition, DuPont was an avid breeder of prize-winning cattle and other livestock, which thrived marvelously in the rolling hills and lush grass of the Buck and Doe Run Valley.

With the advent of modern water systems satisfying the needs of the DuPont Company and his farming interests waning with age, Mr. DuPont, in 1946, announced to Plunkett Stewart, MFH of the Cheshire Fox Hounds, that he was planning to sell his land holdings. Fortunately, John B. Hannum had been stationed in Texas during his military service, and his wife (Stewart's stepdaughter, Nancy P. S. Hannum) had become friendly with the Kleberg family there, owners of the famous King Ranch. According to Mrs. Hannum, upon her suggestion, the King Ranch acquired the entire tract under the business title of Buck and Doe Valley Farms Company for the pricey sum of forty dollars per acre.

For nearly forty years, the King Ranch sent their Santa Gertrudis cattle from Texas to finish fattening on the lush grass before shipping on to slaughter in New York. During this era, Mrs. John B. Hannum started her fifty-three year tenure as MFH, and hunting over the wide open lands continued unfettered. During the King Ranch era, Helenitta Alexander, Mr. Kleberg's daughter, took an active interest in this and other tenant houses. Mrs. Alexander did the substantial work to bring the house into the twentieth century, with modern wiring, plumbing, and heating for the comfort of their tenants.

When highway expansion around Virginia caused the demolition of her grandparents' home, reputed to be a residence of Robert E. Lee, she brought salvaged flooring, hardware and millwork to the house. While it seems that some of the doors may be original, most of the hardware, mantles and floors appear to be from that Virginia home of Robert E. Lee. She added a garage in the style of the day with a quite flat roof and cinderblock walls, but also a new porch with ornate wrought iron pillars she found in a local builder's yard.

Between the time of the King Ranch purchase and the 1980s, the world changed substantially outside the environs of the Buck and Doe Valley Farms and the neighboring holdings of the Hannums and other large land owning families. Beef prices fell, and development pressures mounted. When the King Ranch declared their intention to pull out of Pennsylvania, again Mrs. Hannum was there with solutions to protect her beloved hunting country. In 1984, with developers at the gates with cash in hand and the Disney Company considering the land as a viable northeastern location for a theme park to rival Disney World, the King Ranch allowed time for Mrs. Hannum, George (Frolic) Weymouth, and others to create the Brandywine Conservancy. This is an offshoot of the Brandywine River Museum, founded by Weymouth. The organization gathered a group of concerned foxhunters and land preservationists to established Buck and Doe Associates as a limited partnership to purchase the land, place easements upon it, and sell it on to the original Limited partners. The total of several thousand acres were subdivided primarily into hundred acre parcels, with a limit of one house per thirty-three acres and further tax incentives for even fewer house sites in the future.

From this arrangement, 100.3 acres of land emerged that roughly approximated the former boundaries of the previous generations. Including the old house it was conveyed with three "allowable residential locations." It passed from the original limited partner to a bright young couple developing their three-clay-eventing operation. Tragically, the young wife was critically injured in a fall and passed away after months in a coma. The husband, overcome by the loss, left the farm in the hands of tenants. Against this sad backdrop, the farm had languished in a state of increasing dereliction for a year before Cindy saw that it was on the market and insisted that Richard look at it.

From Tenant House to Home

Richard recognized at once that the house, though in rough shape, was a fundamentally sound and interesting structure (although his father-in-law definitely gave him the "you want my daughter to live in this?" look during their first walk-through of the property). There was no front door or hall to speak of, the garage's flat roof leaked, the fences were overgrown, and not a stick of landscaping or gardening had been done in years. The barn was nothing more than a stone retaining wall shell of the fanner enormous bank barn with a dank cattle loafing shed to the west.

On the other hand, there were a hundred acres in Cheshire country, a fundamentally sound eighteenth century farmhouse, thousands of feet of recent fencing behind the weeds, a recent outdoor ring with footing extremely well-designed for drainage, and acres of mature turf in the pastures. Thrilled by the potential to create a home of their own within this wild setting, Richard and Cindy set about making converts of their respective sets of parents and create a partnership of the three couple to get it done. On July 1, 1999, the farm was purchased. Work began immediately to reorganize the old house and loafing shed for Richard and Cindy, while Richard designed a new house and barn for his parents, Ramsay and Susie, in preparation for their move from their old farm nearby. Cindy's parents elected to stay in their comfortably modern home in the Radnor Hunt country.

There were four architectural problems to be solved by the resident principal of Archer & Buchanan:

  • Build a new house for Ramsay and Susie that would serve them now as able-bodied horsemen, and to enjoy in later years.
  • Build a new barn for Susie's carriage driving, teaching and training work and for Ramsay's hunters.
  • Create a satisfactory stable for Cindy and Richard's hunters and her polo ponies within the loafing shed.
  • Update the house to suit the needs of a young couple hoping to start a family.

For his parents, Richard designed an 1,800 sf cottage with everything available on one floor; an open plan between the sitting room, dining room, and the kitchen; and a sunny front hall separating the master suite from the public areas. The house, though fully designed and detailed by Archer & Buchanan, was built in a factory by a modular home fabricator in Delaware and shipped in three pieces. Mrs. Sestriech, proprietress of the local corner market at the time in Unionville, remarked when she saw the completed house, "My, Ramsay, but doesn't your house look so much better than when it went by the store!" The ruins of the old bank barn were a tantalizing puzzle for the architect. How to best utilize the old footprint but not recreate the depth and darkness of the original bank barn? In addition, could his wife and his mother operate out of essentially the same barn and remain on speaking terms?

The solution was to build a smaller but historically sensitive barn for Susie and Ramsay, overlapping the old barn ruin, oriented to the north toward their house, and protected by the hillside. There are six stalls opening both to the aisle and the exterior, a wash stall, a tack room, aisle and box-room. The key was setting this stable up at the original bam loft level rather than the stable yard level below. This was made possible by the existence of a seventy-two foot wide access grade on the uphill side of the ruins. The stalls were built on that area, and the balance of the barn aisle and tack room extend out as a second floor over the stable yard level below. Above all that is an upper loft for hay storage with drops to each stall.

Conversely, Cindy's barn was an existing loafing shed on the lower stable yard level facing south and east, dominated by six awkwardly placed timber columns, almost no light and widely varying floor elevation throughout. Conrad Somers, also a member of a local three-generation foxhunting family, did the renovation to create eleven stalls, tack room with brood mare overlook, and double wash stall. It became clear why that was the location of the original cattle shed. There was an abundant spring- fed water supply running summer and winter, drought or flood, right beneath the floor and occasionally across it, contributing to the headwaters of Doe Run Creek! However, the wisdom of the early builders is clear in the sheltered placement of the barn - low in the valley with southeasterly orientation and easy water access. Cindy's barn has a direct line of sight to the old house, perpendicular to the line of sight homeward enjoyed by Susie's barn.

As a result mother-in-law and daughter-in-law can happily share one building quite independently, with merely the manure pit in common. Both father and son can look longingly from their respective kitchens directly into their wives' barns, especially around dinnertime. The fourth challenge was of the most personal interest to Richard: restoring and updating the old house. The first gesture upon arrival to the farm was the relocation of the kitchen to the south of the house in the former dining room to take best advantage of the light, view and sight line into the barn across the little valley. A decommissioned gothic altar base is the kitchen island; a comer fireplace and built-in corner cupboard from Virginia make it the center of the house. The flat-roofed garage received a second floor studio addition. There is now a wood roof again and a front door to the north, entering a hall with mahogany paneling, matching original materials in the older part of the house.

Richard gave up a precious garage bay in favor of creating a real mudroom. The multiplication of coats, boots and gear overwhelmed the house, so an antique French wardrobe and a rough English pine kitchen cupboard were worked into 'cope and pattern' paneling and a tiled floor. Using the existing pitch of the garage floor, the tile is sloped to a floor drain. A janitor's faucet above the drain fills dog bowls directly without carrying or fear of spills. Cleanup behind puppies is with a hose. A big copper sink was fashioned from left over copper sheeting, and overhead cabinets for clog supplies contain antique leaded glass windows. The happiest developments have been their daughters, Audrey (six) and Maggie (four). These two have become devoted foxhunters wearing local hand-me-downs. So keen is young Maggie that this fall she asks daily, "Is this a foxhunting day or a school day?" School days generally bring on tearful protests. Both are off the lead line now and enjoying the company of the big field of little children that seems to have suddenly appeared in Cheshire.

Overall, Richard's plan created a triangle of buildings on the property designed to minimize the impact on the larger landscape by not interfering with hunting the Mercer covert and not detracting from the established view sheds. There are many more projects to undertake, but for now this chapter in the long life of Mercer Hill Farm seems to be pretty well established with three generations of avid foxhunters living happily together in a carefully designed setting that draws in its rich past and is prepared for the future.

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