Pure and Simple

Period Homes

Lynne Lavelle

01 November 2009

In 2006, the future of a 26-acre 18th century Chester County, PA, farmstead hung in the balance. Comprised of four historic structures – a carriage house, a springhouse, a large bank barn and a stone Colonial house – the property had not been significantly renovated since the 1930s, when renowned local architect Walter Durham worked on the Colonial house. Since then, the buildings had become obscured by thoughtless tacked on additions, and neglected to such a degree that the spring-fed pond the house overlooks was barely visible.

While West Chester, PA-based Archer & Buchanan was finishing up a renovation project at the adjacent property, rumors began to circulate that the farmstead may be sold for a dense subdevelopment. As a result, the clients decided to extend their property by purchasing the farmstead and restoring and renovating it for use by future generations. “They did not have a specific use for the farmstead,” says Peter C. Archer, partner in charge. “But through the years of working with them on their main house, they had developed a great trust and confidence in our firm and turned the entire project over to us, with a realistic but modest budget to restore the property and the buildings to a level that could be maintained.”

The first order of business, before the buildings could be properly assessed, was to clear away decades of overgrown foliage, debris and even an old refrigerator. What remained was a true diamond in the rough: The original three-story Pennsylvania stone farmhouse, which dates from the 1720s, had a large fireplace on each floor; the land was punctuated with remarkably well preserved stone walls; and spring water flowed through a series of small ponds to a larger pond below. “It had so many wonderful attributes that had been covered over by foliage and neglect,” says Archer. The firm immediately removed all post-Durham shed additions to the main house and added two gabled dormers at the front and a long shed dormer at the rear. As the house was only one room deep, creating a full third floor was preferable to expanding outwards. “We decided to utilize the existing footprint and not add onto it at all,” says Archer. “It was not a primary residence, and we were working thoughtfully but within modest means and in keeping with the history, precedents and proportions of traditional Pennsylvania farmhouses.”

Though it did not drastically alter the configuration of the rooms, the firm made their functions considerably more user-friendly. The basement level kitchen is now a den/meeting room and laundry room, and leads to the south terrace, while the first floor houses a new kitchen, as well living and dining spaces. The second floor contains two bedrooms and two bathrooms and the new third floor dormers accommodate an additional bedroom and bathroom. “We didn’t move many walls and we tried to work within the main frame of the structure,” says Archer. Working with Winnie King and Laurie Shipley of Exton, PA-based Environments H.C., the firm kept the interior décor simple and low-key. Again, there was much to work with – the floors had been replaced during the last major addition project and were in great shape, and a beautiful wood end wall in the living room was left in place and restored. “We also restored the fireplaces and some original hardware on the fireplaces and on the two main doors,” says Archer. “But we didn’t add a whole lot of additional detail because we wanted to keep it very subtle and simple, as the farmer would have done in the early days.” Before all new electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems were added, the firm took the basement structure “down to the bone.”

Years of water damage had rotted the wood flooring and compromised the framing. However, it wasn’t all bad news, according to Archer. “A portion of the lower level was covered in a brick floor,” he says. “Once we cleaned it up, it was in great shape. In the areas that were wood on top of dirt, we replaced the floor structure and at the same time dug crawl space underneath to separate the wood from the earth and prevent future issues.” Though the initial intention was to restore the original windows, the firm decided after much research that they were beyond repair and ultimately, not original to the house. After investigating custom window options, Archer decided on manufactured windows by Pella, with custom sizes for each opening. Replacement was fairly straightforward in the original stone section, where the original sizes were retained. However, the firm took the opportunity to make the wood section appear more uniform by replacing a large modern picture window in the center with a doublehung window in proportion with the house.

In addition to the house, the firm also worked on the farmstead’s outbuilding structures. Of the three, the springhouse was in the worst state of disrepair. (“The whole thing was rotting away,” says Archer.) Before the firm could redirect the spring, the floor and roof structure had to be rebuilt. “We brought back the water,” says Archer. “It flows at about 15-20 water gallons a minute, so there is a nice, constant flow of water that runs from the spring house down to the main house.” After being divided with plywood panels and used as a shop, the refurbished ca. 1820 horse barn is back to its original incarnation – the owners lease the stalls and it is a valuable component of the farm. And the carriage house, which dates from the same time period, is now a garage; the firm replaced portions of the timber roof, re-pointed the stone walls and installed new carriage doors. 

Working with Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects of Wayne, PA, Archer & Buchanan repaired and restored the hardscaping and landscaping. New walking and horse trails provide a 600-yard walkable shortcut from the clients’ main residence to the farmstead, as opposed to a half-mile drive on the main road. “The land steps down from the barn in several tiers,” says Archer. “After we removed piles of debris, stones, fallen trees etc. – ‘grubbing the site’ as we call it – we blended everything to create a very natural look.The vision was a ‘gentleman’s farm.’” While the clients had no specific plan for the farmstead, it is in almost constant use today and will likely house in-laws in the future. “The clients have a big family, with lots of brothers, sisters, grandchildren and nephews,” says Archer. “So this is the place everybody goes for birthday parties and holiday gatherings.”

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