In its prime, the Schoenhaus, a grand old Arts & Crafts landmark outside Philadelphia, showcased artistry from the finest regional craftspeople of the day (folks who garnered nationwide acclaim), boasting Enfield and Moravian Pottery art tiles, Samuel Yellin hinges, and a concrete fountain that was hand-poured by Henry Chapman Mercer’s brother. But the place was in bad shape when Geoff and Saundra Shepard found it. Masterfully expanded by architect William Lightfoot Price in 1904, and once the centerpiece of his Rose Valley Arts & Crafts enclave, the house had no fewer than 25 buckets on the second floor collecting the water that poured in each time it rained. “The roof hadn’t been maintained properly for generations, and the flashing had never been replaced,” says Geoff. “They had given up trying to stop the water coming in.”
The sizeable manor house and its assorted outbuildings, including a distinctive water tower, are situated on what was, until recently, the last 26 acres of undeveloped land in Rose Valley. When a prominent Philadelphia developer decided to purchase the property and create a housing community on the grounds, the Borough of Rose Valley sprang into action to protect the historic buildings, reaching an agreement that allowed for construction of higher-density townhouses in return for preserving 50 percent of the property as open space, and protecting existing buildings and notable trees. But the developer needed someone to restore the house.
“I’d lived in the area for 32 years, and I never knew the house existed, because you can’t see it from the road,” says Geoff. But Saundra, a real-estate agent, had visited the home decades before. “When I first saw it I thought, ‘If that house ever comes on the market, I want a shot at it,’ it left such an impression,” she says. And so the Shepards made an agreement with the developer to buy and restore the home—a handshake deal that wouldn’t include a bill of sale until rezoning for the housing development had been officially approved, a process that took nearly two years.
During that window of time, the Shepards visited the house often to assess its condition and begin mapping out their restoration work. “We’d look at the house and say, ‘Don’t worry—help is coming!’” Saundra recalls. It gave the couple time to think—and rethink—the approach they would take, and it also gave Geoff, an attorney by vocation, plenty of time to research the home’s rich architectural history.
The more he dug up, the more he and Saundra fell in love with the Arts & Crafts ideals that made the place so unique. They became determined to restore the house with one question in mind: “What would Will Price have done?” When the couple finally took possession of the property and connected with architect Peter Batchelor, Geoff had accumulated a binder full of material, including background on all of the craftspeople who’d touched the house, a number of old repair receipts, and correspondence between the home’s third owner and master metalworker Samuel Yellin during a 1920s expansion.
“Geoff was incredible; he’d done all this research,” Peter says. The goal from the outset was to shore up and restore the house, update the systems, and add a family room, garage, and a modern-amenities kitchen. Peter approached the new addition very carefully. “Will Price is a well-known architect, so I didn’t want to touch the old part of the building—I thought it would be disrespectful. And I didn’t want take his great old house and add a blemish onto it; I wanted it to match the original building,” he says. Peter designed a roof extension consistent with the lines of the existing house, and used similar massing, colors, finishes, window sizes, and scale to make the addition appear as though it’s been there for 100 years.
Decades of Damage
As is the case in many old houses, previous “updates” had done damage over the decades. Support beams had been cut to add a bathtub, a structural rafter had been pared down to install wiring, and water damage had decimated the I-beams in the crawlspace beneath the veranda. All told, there were five locations without proper structural support. Soon after work had begun, Geoff was touring the second floor with a structural engineer, who became fixated on an inches-wide gap between a support beam and the front wall of the building. “Geoff,” he said, “why isn’t this braced?”
Geoff explained that the problem had just been uncovered that day when workers had removed water-damaged plaster. “Tonight’s not too soon to brace it,” the engineer said—explaining that bracing needed to begin in the basement, continue on the first floor, then stretch to this spot before it would be adequate. It seemed the home’s front façade was in danger of falling away.
Riding herd on the structural repairs was a team of craftspeople led by David Carey of Bryant Phillips Construction. “The house was in pretty poor shape,” David says. “We had to shore it up from the basement all the way to the third-floor roof section. It involved structural engineering, shoring, bracing…and praying.”
Another area requiring intense work was the veranda, where water damage had destroyed support beams beneath the floor. “The veranda was very unsafe,” says David. “We used 90 yards of concrete to create a new slab for the bricks.” Those bricks are accented with Henry Chapman Mercer-designed tiles, from the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, to re-create the floor’s original appearance (minus a 1970s-era hot tub that was in place when the Shepards took possession).
Inside the house, fireplaces in the living room and parlor bore backs that had rotted away. “We re-bricked the backs of both fireplaces in a herringbone pattern, a mirror image of what had been there,” David says. Much of the original woodwork had been painted a gloss white; David’s team spent significant time removing it. “We stripped a lot of paint—we really didn’t know what the wood looked like until we cleaned it up. Now it’s just finished with a natural oil,” he says.
The home’s new addition required even more creative problem-solving. The Shepards’ quest to blend it seamlessly with the original portions of the house was aided in large part by the loss of another Rose Valley home that Will Price had designed for a daughter of Charles Schoen, the railroad industrialist who hired Price to expand the Shepards’ house in 1904 (and for whom Schoenhaus was named). That home, abandoned for years, was irreparable, and vandals who knew of the architectural treasures within had removed prized components like Mercer tiles. “The owner was rightfully upset,” explains Geoff. “So he said, ‘Please help yourself to anything you want—I’d feel much better knowing where the stuff went.’” The Shepards were able to recycle window hardware, banisters, handrails, roof rafters, and, most important, flooring.
“Our team removed huge amounts of 100-year-old pine flooring,” Geoff says. “We salvaged flooring in 18′ and 24′ lengths,” David explains—a size unheard of today. Those boards are the centerpiece of the new kitchen, and their warm, rich patina instantly ages the room.
Other kitchen details evolved with the help of designer Lynne Rohlfing. “When I first met the Shepards, I could tell they were seriously committed to preserving this home, and also to using local craftspeople, just as Will Price had done,” Lynne says. She steered them toward opening up one doorway and closing another to improve the room’s flow. Working with cabinetmaker Roger Wright, she also helped fit—and sensitively hide—most of the modern appliances, and found a local glass expert to repair some original leaded glass and install it in new cabinet doors. They’re a nice compliment to the lavender-laced soapstone counters the Shepards fell in love with on a trip to Bucks County Soapstone.
In the adjacent dining room—a space defined by an ogee fireplace, geometric-pattered Enfield floor tiles, and iridescent blonde tiles on the window ledges that reflect a soft golden glow at sundown—several doors needed work as well. In one corner sat a Spanish monastery door dating to around 1590, added during the room’s 1920s expansion and boasting intricately carved panels—except at the top, where two panels had been replaced with glass to let more light into the room. Geoff wanted the door restored to its original appearance, and he found John Hutchinson of Rose Valley Restorations to do the job. “He made new panels to go in those empty spots,” says Geoff, “and they match exactly in carvings, tone, color, and wear. You could stare at the door for hours and never figure out where the new pieces are.”
At the other corner of the room, two radius-top doors flanking the ogee fireplace bore elaborate Samuel Yellin strap-work hinges, curved like the tendrils of a vine. The problem was, in order to facilitate easy movement through the main living spaces, the doors needed to be propped open, which would make them less visible. So Geoff and Saundra decided to move the doors into the mudroom adjacent to the garage, where they now sit side by side in clear view.
One of the Yellin doors was originally a swinging door, so it needed new working hinges (because of its heft, it had been pinned with vertical pivots on the top and bottom, per correspondence from Samuel Yellin). Bob Ball of Ball and Ball Hardware was able to trace the hinges from the other door and re-create them. But Geoff’s desire to move an interior pull from one of the Yellin doors onto the Spanish door proved problematic. “After taking them to the shop and examining them, Bob told me the ring handle and escutcheon were both signed Yellin pieces, and he couldn’t bring himself to weld them together as I’d requested,” Geoff says. So Bob carefully pinned them instead, a reversible solution. He also forged an iron base to accompany the custom-made dining room table, which was created from a single beam removed from a falling-down barn on the property.
Blending Old & New
Beside the mudroom, the new family room adds a prime living area. It’s flanked by a wall of windows made to match those in the original portions of the house through the addition of custom, glued-on muntins. (All of the original windows in the house were restored.)
In the room’s far corner sits a fireplace, and it, too, has a story to tell. Geoff and Saundra knew they wanted a Mercer-tile mantel, since so much of his work appeared elsewhere in the house, but weren’t sure which design to use. During his research, Geoff had uncovered that the house’s first owners had called the property Sunnyside, named after author Washington Irving’s house. Irving was extremely popular when the home was constructed, owing to the success of his stories The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.
When Geoff and Saundra spied a Rip Van Winkle-themed mantel surround at the Moravian Pottery and Tileworks, they instantly knew the perfect way to tie the old and the new parts of the house together. Today, most visitors think the fireplace was part of the original building—a point of pride for the couple, who left no stone unturned in their quest to sensitively restore the house, and who are grateful for all the help they had along the way.
“We were so fortunate to have worked with such wonderful, talented, creative people who seemed to love the house as much as we do,” says Saundra. “I think we were all striving to please Will Price.”Published in: Old-House Journal January/February 2010