Out of the New, Into the Old
Cracked plaster, peeling paint, and leaking pipes galore couldn't stop one family from swapping their convenience-filled suburban home for a colonial-era farmstead with room to roam
They say good things come to those who wait. But he who hesitates is lost. So when Cheri and Tony Sciscione discovered after four years of searching that the Pennsylvania farmhouse of their dreams had finally come onto the market, the couple wasted no time selling their comfort-and-convenience-filled 1990s home, snapping up the 11-acre property, and moving right into its 1730s house.
The 4,100-square-foot fieldswtone farmhouse that the Tony Sciscione (shown with goose) and his wife Cheri has fallen for was not everybody's idea of idyllic—or inhabitable. Granted, the place had a venerable history: Ravenroyd, as it is known, was once the house of John Parker, the Quaker who cofounded the nearby town of Chadds Ford, where Washington and his troops fought the ill-fated Battle of Brandywine in 1777.
Of more immediate interest, perhaps, to the couple's three preteen children, was the fact that the property possessed a fishing pond, though they'd have to bushwhack their way through heaped trash and fallen trees to reach it. It also had five bathrooms (none of which worked), as well as a barn, a corncrib, a springhouse, and an overgrown orchard, all of which would surely take years to revive. In the home restorer's vernacular, the place had endless "potential", if only the new owners could be patient enough for it to reveal itself—and Cheri (shown here in the garden) and Tony had not only fortitude but also a clear vision and a workable plan.
"It looked like a challenge," says Cheri, the project's general contractor—"the engine behind all of this," according to her husband—as well as head gardner and nurturer of the family's three children, pet boxer, three cats, and assortment of goats, geese, chickens, and guinea hens. She is also a master of understatement.
The truth was that time had taken its toll on the old place, which had remained in the Parker family for more than 175 years, then passed through a series of owners, finally ending up in the early 1960s in the hands of a couple who loved and restored the local landmark. With the help of a restoration architect, that couple worked to stabilize the dilapidated farmhouse and its outbuildings.
But that was 40 years earlier, and the 21st century had sneaked up with a fresh to-do list of repairs and priorities for the new owners to tackle. The Scisciones bought Ravenroyd in May 2001. They spent much of the following spring repairing and repainting the exterior shutters and trim. “I can't tell you how many people stop by to ask us what colors we've used,” says Cheri. Pratt and Lambert's Mink was selected for the sash, Gloaming for the shutters.
Using timber salvaged from a barn in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the 1960s owners designed an 18th-century-style addition that functioned as a family room and turned two small parlors outside the main hall into one better-flowing room with a central fireplace.
Some things left for the Scisciones to do were small: replacing the faded wallpaper that barely clung to the cracked plaster walls; fixing the gaping holes in the dining room and breakfast area ceilings; and refinishing the wide-plank floors that were concealed under layers of black stain.
Today, the dining room's reproduction tavern table and cherry sideboard, fan-back Windsors, a painted Pennsylvania German Bible box, and local redware pottery underscore Ravenroyd's sure sense of place.
Ten year old son Drew and Sushi the cat take a break on the dining room window seat; extra table linens are stowed neatly inside it.
From the dining room, one staircase heads upstairs; another (behind the closed door), down.
Gutting and replacing the kitchen shot to the top of the to-do list as soon as it was discovered that the leaking refrigerator had rotted the subfloor and the broken dishwasher could not be replaced without tearing out the surrounding cabinets.
The couple hired Michael Dougherty, of Craft-Way Kitchens, based in Wilmington, Delaware, whose crew lifted the room's vinyl flooring, leveled the surface, and installed new hardwood planks. The Scisciones wanted their new kitchen to keep its old-style charm while including up-to-date amenities, so they selected custom pine and cherry cabinets with a distressed finish, honed black-granite countertops, and a fireclay farmhouse sink. Adding a new mudroom/pantry/storage area at the back entrance, just outside the kitchen, made the most of the existing space without expanding the structure beyond its original framework.
Keeping true to the spirit of the pre-Revolutionary house, the Scisciones hired master carpenter Greg Flegal to repair the existing woodwork, wall paneling, and window shutters and re-create lost elements, such as rotted windowsills and missing moldings.
Here, bricks pave the floor of the breakfast room. The settle table and sack-back Windsors are 18th-century-style reproductions. In the corner, a Wardian case-a miniature indoor greenhouse capitalizes on the natural light the room's southeast-facing, double-hung windows supply.
While the owners took pains to keep the architecture and replacement hardware true to the original period, they didn't make the mistake of attempting to reconstruct colonial times. Instead, they married the old with the new, creating a warm, traditional style that blends historic details with personal touches acknowledging the structure's role as home to a modern family of five—hence the central air-conditioning, a wine cooler in the refurbished bar area, glass-enclosed showers, and custom-fitted drawers and shelves in the master bedroom closets
Two nonworking hearths, including this one in the parlor off the main hall, were converted to gas for ease.
Colonial-era mulberry Delft pictorial tiles, installed during the 1960s renovation, surround the renovated hearth with a true-to-period frame.
Perhaps the most unexpected change came outdoors, where the farmlike property inspired the Scisciones to clear, level, and seed the yard; dredge the spring-fed pond and stock it with trout; and undertake the planting of a series of raised vegetable and herb beds inspired by the ones at nearby Longwood Gardens. Tony modeled the handmade 600-picket fence after one he admired at Colonial Williamsburg.
The property's smallest outbuilding is for the birds.
The Scisciones' sole change to Ravenroyd's footprint was the addition of a butler's pantry/mudroom, which took the place of an open patio off the kitchen.
Six years after moving in, all the major restoration is done, but the house remains a work in progress. "You become a caretaker," Cheri says. "The house has been around for almost 300 years, and we're just passing through."