Restoring Squire Cheyney's estate, with an eye to authenticity

John Murphy was in his doctor's office one late-November day in 2013, reading a newspaper "from cover to cover" to pass the time till his appointment.

Murphy, a history buff interested in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, came across an application to participate in an auction for the Squire Cheyney Estate in Thornbury Township, Delaware County.

In 1777, Thomas Cheyney, a Thornbury farmer, rode on horseback through the British lines and dodged musket balls to alert Gen. George Washington that the Redcoats were about to outflank his army at Brandywine Creek. Though the Americans were routed that day and the British occupied Philadelphia, historians have dubbed Cheyney the "Paul Revere of the Brandywine."

On visiting Squire Cheyney's property with a potential partner before the December auction, Murphy found the back door wide open.

"I recall saying, 'This will take some doing,' " said Murphy, an estimator for a construction company, observing that "the roof was in the basement and every floor needed to be jacked up."

The windows "were boarded up," said his wife, Vicki, the construction company's controller, and the boards had to be removed before the true condition of the house, which had been vacant since 2006, was visible.

The estate had been part of Orleans Homebuilders' Preserve at Squire Cheyney, a development of single-family homes ranging from $633,990 to $710,990, but it and the buildings on it were returned to the township, John Murphy said. They are now part of Thornbury's 52-acre Squire Cheyney Park.

After successfully bidding $80,000 for the house and its 11.9 acres, the Murphys faced the task of, in John's words, putting "the old bones back where they needed to be."

"The beam pockets were filled with the proper beams and the columns replaced with 8-by 8-inch oak," he said. Once they had enough headroom - "still rather low," John said - they dug out the basement, which then "offered a vision of how the mechanicals would fit."

The main house was built in 1797 - the Murphys found a barely legible board with the words "Thos. Cheyney, 1797, my home," scratched on it - though neighbors and the Thornbury Historical Society maintain that the year was 1748, he said.

Two additions were made, in 1815 and 1850, Vicki Murphy said.

An addition the Murphys completed in 18 months pushed the total square footage to about 4,600, John Murphy said.

"We bought it to save it, not to live in it," John said of the estate, which is on the market for $2.199 million.

Re-roofing was the most expensive part of the job, with upgrading the utilities a close second, he said: "It had bare-bones electrical service and just one working toilet."

Restoration, including work on the barn, was done in partnership with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which guaranteed that "it was accurate and authentic," John Murphy said.

"We wanted a garage at the front of the property, and the alliance said that everything had to be subservient to the original house," he said.

The better effect was to have a side-loaded garage - from the front, it looks like a large shed - and while "it is a much better look, it cost more money for a longer driveway," John Murphy said.

For architect Brett Hand of Downingtown, "it was a great project, especially being able to mold something that we could keep as authentic and original as possible while making the interior space flow and work with the way we live nowadays."

"It was a positive, collaborative project," Hand said.

For contractor Jack MacCord of HDI Associates, of Blue Bell, "on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 the best, the house we found was a 9 or 10."

"We were able to salvage as much of the original as we could," MacCord said, adding that the project succeeded because of "patience and skill."

aheavens@phillynews.com
215-854-2472
@alheavens

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