Preserving Land and History

Chester County Town & Country Living

Beth S. Buxbaum

01 April 2005

Georgeann and Mark Blaha see themselves as stewards of their historic Canon Hill Farm and preservers of its natural beauty. 

Surrounded by the serene beauty of their Chester County home, Georgeann and Mark Blaha awake to another day on Cannon Hill Farm. An early morning dew glistens under the sun's rays as geese skim across the pond's surface, sheep graze in the pasture and the cats and dogs scurry in playful activity. The land on which this homestead stands, in Birmingham Township, was part of the Brandywine Battlefield, hence the name Cannon Hill Farm.

According to accounts, the property was established in the early 1700s and was originally 40 acres. Records indicate that the house, a traditional colonial constructed of Chester County fieldstone, was built on the land around 1820, which is noted on the Cannon Hill Farm entrance sign. Although spotty, many accounts have emerged about the homestead's many occupants. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, the property was one of five Bennett houses, a well-known local Quaker family. At some point in the early 1900s, the property was owned by the Pennock family, local horticulturists and floral retailers. Stories have circulated that other owners have included individuals from the Dupont family, Brink's Home Security and the creator of Baretta, the TV series featuring Robert Blake. 

In the 1940s, an Admiral Kitchell, who was active in WWI, bought the homestead. It was at this point in the farm's history that additions and refurbishes were made. "Admiral Kitchell enlisted the services of a Winterthur architect for his restoration and additions," says Georgeann. She also adds that most of the landscaping was executed by Longwood Gardens landscape architects. On the left side of the house is the original structure, consisting of a tavern room, dining room, living room, entrance hall, kitchen and a second floor bedroom and bathroom. Kitchell added a den, butler's pantry, kitchen and powder room, as well as bedrooms on the second and third floor. He converted the smokehouse into a caretaker's cottage and added four ponds to the property, as well as much of the present landscaping. With Kitchell 's vision and embellishments, the property had a tranquil appeal. Accented with panoramic views from every window, the property's natural beauty was enhanced, inviting nature inside. Georgeann and Mark are amazed at the wild life that visits their homestead. "It's like a virtual wild life preserve," Mark adds.

If you had asked Georgeann and Mark 20 years ago what their lives would be like, they would have never dreamed it would be like this. In 1995, they bought the eight-acre Cannon Hill Farm. Eventually they purchased three adjacent acres and then were able, over time, to buy another nine acres that actually reversed the subdivision and saved the land from development. This was something that they were pleased to be able to accomplish since land preservation is a concern of theirs. Now they can rest easy that the landscape surrounding them will maintain its open expanse and natural serenity.

"We see ourselves as stewards, taking care of this historic land and property to maintain the land's pristine quality. Growing up in Chester County, both Georgeann and Mark developed a true appreciation for the area's natural beauty. Since they purchased Cannon Hill, they have felt a part of the landscape. Living and working at Cannon Hill Farm has given them the opportunity to experience and preserve this area's beauty.

Georgeann and Mark have raised three teenagers, maintained a 20-acre homestead, operated a gallery and produced their art. What makes it all manageable is their commitment to one another, their family, and the beauty that surrounds them. In addition to the land's pristine quality, the homestead had been beautifully maintained. Once settled into their new home, Georgeann and Mark changed a few structural elements to better meet their needs. Part of the entrance hallway was opened up when they removed a bathroom. In the first floor entrance they reconstructed a closet into a cozy powder room. Exterior renovations included converting the old cattle barn into Georgeann's studio. 

This is where she weaves and teaches classes on weaving. In 2000, they built another studio next to Georgeann's to be Mark's recording studio. Designed and constructed by Archer & Buchanan, this structure fits right into the landscape. Purchasing a new home was not originally their intention. "We were looking for a site to open a fiber arts, weaving and crafts school," Georgeann explains. After seeing several buildings that would fit the bill, they began to get nervous about the feasibility of these properties being the right venue for the school. Then Cannon Hill came on the market. Sitting on eight acres, with several outdoor structures, Georgeann and Mark started to rethink their plan. Taken by the land's beauty and open space, as well as the house's styling and stature, Georgeann and Mark decided to put in a bid. "What we realized was that we couldn't have a school, but we could each have our own studio and lots of land," Georgeann adds.

The homestead was just one of many unexpected life opportunities that Georgeann and Mark have shared. It was no accident that their lives have moved in this direction. Fate reunited them, defined Georgeann's calling and brought them to this homestead. All the pieces fell into place and have defined their lives together, which began in junior high. Georgeann grew up in Devon and Mark lived in Valley Forge. They were high school sweethearts who were united more than 20 years after attending high school. After high school Georgeann attended Arcadia University as an art history major. "In my senior year I had to fulfill my major and take one elective, so I selected weaving," Georgeann explains. She had a fabulous teacher and became enamored with weaving. Ultimately, Georgeann took a double major, in printmaking and fibers. Mark, who attended school in California, was a musician. During his rock and roll band years, playing drums and guitar, he lived and performed in several locations, including Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Twenty years later Mark moved back to this area and in 1992 attended a high school reunion. A mutual friend saw Mark and called Georgeann to let her know he was back in the area. Reunited after more than two decades, Georgeann and Mark were married. For a time they resided in a traditional colonial, also in Birmingham Township.

Pursuing their art and establishing their lives together, they have successfully found that delicate balance. As fate would have it, the pieces continued to fall into place in a very different way than they had imagined. With their new lives at Cannon Hill and the establishment of their studios, they added yet another piece to the elusive puzzle. Georgeann opened a galley in West Chester that is dedicated to fiber arts, woven pieces, quilts, baskets and sculptures. She also offers a series of workshops at her studio and the gallery. Occasionally she will bring in guest artists who are local, national and international to present workshops, as well. Mark works in his recording studio as a hobby, while maintaining the farm and helping Georgeann with the gallery.

At the gallery, Georgeann presents new shows every few weeks where she showcases artists from around the world, both established and emerging. With less time to create her own work, Georgeann still enjoys stealing a few hours to create one of her signature wall pieces. "I used to do more traditional tapestries, but have ventured out into more contemporary works," she adds. Her pieces are executed with all natural dyes and fibers. As a matter of fact, they raise and shear their own sheep and send the wool to a mill in Massachusetts where they are naturally dyed. These materials are all for sale in the gallery-fibers for weavers, spinners, knitters and crocheters.

"This has been a joint venture," Georgeann adds. "Running the gallery, working in our studios and taking care of the farm." Balancing everything has been a challenge, but together they have managed to maintain a healthy, workable pace. "Neither of us ever imagined being in a place like this. It's like a dream, and it seems a bit surreal." Anything but surreal, the natural beauty of this rustic country homestead has been a perfect venue to raise their children, pursue their artistry and enjoy the countryside.

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