Keeping their Colonial looking as good as old

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The stone bridge, possibly designed by a well-known historic preservationist, was recently rebuilt by the McLaughlins.

Bernie and Sheila McLaughlin have strove for years to restore and preserve the fine features of their Colonial home in Chester County.

Bernie taught himself to repair the shutters and windows, "learning by trial and error," Sheila says. He painted the shutters a Benjamin Moore custom-blend rust red and stenciled the hall in a colonial pineapple motif.

To furnish the Exton house, Sheila found lamps with stenciled shades, high-backed chairs, an antique pie chest with pierced-tin panels, and a set of Christmas wreath-pattern plates from each of the 13 colonies. Brass sconces and cast-iron and brass fireplace andirons came from Ball & Ball Antique Hardware, which had made similar andirons for a restoration of Independence Hall.

The couple refinished oak floors and last year replaced the roof with cedar shakes like the ones originally used.

Given the structure's appearance, original might have meant 1736. Instead, the house was built 200 years later, in 1936. Though it's not historic, the two-story dwelling has historic significance: It was built for John Grist Brainerd, an engineer who was the project director for Eniac, one of the first electronic computers.

Brainerd is believed to have commissioned architect R. Brognard Okie to design the house. Okie was famous for popularizing early American domestic architecture, especially Southeastern Pennsylvania's fieldstone farmhouses.

The architect, who died in 1945, spent his career building Colonial Revival residences and re-creating and restoring historic buildings. In the 1930s, he reconstructed Pennsbury Manor, William Penn's estate on the Delaware, and restored the home of Betsy Ross in Old City.

Sheila often visits those venerable homes with groups she leads as a professional tour guide.

She also visited Okie homes in Chester County, and the McLaughlins' Realtor said their house was an Okie.

Though she can't confirm he designed the house, it has all of his hallmarks: bead-and-batten cabinets with handwrought iron clasps; wide-plank flooring; a prominent chimney. The house is built far back from the road on high ground beyond a stone-bridged creek. Okie admired "the natural way" colonial farmhouses fit the ground.

Owning this home has sometimes been a challenge. In 1986, the couple, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, purchased it because Bernie was working nearby, in King of Prussia. They planned a family room and powder room addition that would blend with the rest of the house.

Then, in 1988, Bernie began working in New Jersey. Despite his long commute, "we couldn't afford to move," Sheila recalls. "We had just started the addition, there was a pile of rocks from the hole in the ground. I said we would have to stay a couple of years before we could sell."

Bernie still works in New Jersey, as operations director for a business supplies and equipment company. Despite its inconvenient location, he is committed to the house, doing the painting, repairs, and landscaping himself.

For years, Sheila says, she "put up with" the kitchen, which had been remodeled in the 1970s with "ugly" laminated cabinets.

In 2008, she got central air-conditioning and a new kitchen with cherry cabinets, a farm sink, and gooseneck faucets. The wall oven and fridge are black instead of stainless steel, to be more in keeping with a country style. But the new kitchen retained the old footprint.

"We didn't want to change the character of the house by removing a wall," Sheila says. For the same reason, the couple have not altered the size of two small bathrooms on the second floor.

Initially, the house had three bedrooms. Now, it has four - the McLaughlins made two rooms out of one. The symmetry was undisturbed because the space had four windows and two closets.

The new room was used as a play area for the couple's son, Bernie, now 31, and daughter, Nora, now 28. Then for several years, it was used by Sheila's mother, Catherine Dorgan, who died in 2013. Some china and a silver set from her native Ireland are displayed downstairs.

Recently, the McLaughlins rebuilt the stone bridge over the creek on the property and replaced the garage door. The hardware is from Ball & Ball.

With an old house, there will always be work to do, they say, but it's worth their effort.