History, character, ghosts

The Rooney family searched a long time for their 19th-century home. Their broker was a "saint."

Michael Rooney's room, again with Otis (who must think all the rooms are his). The renovations didn't dislodge him (Michael) from his space. (Sharon Gekoski / Staff Photographer)

By the time Linda and Mike Rooney first toured the 170-year-old Upper Dublin house in 2005, they had already seen about 50 properties. They were so grateful to find the place they would eventually buy, they were prepared to gift-wrap a halo and give it away on closing day.

"We looked for three years. It was a long time. . . . I felt bad for our Realtor," Linda Rooney, 47, said.

"She's a saint," added Mike Rooney, also 47. "We kept saying, 'Are you sure you want to show us more houses?' She said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' "

Back then, the couple lived in a Horsham development of new homes, each the same as the next. Itching to relocate to a dwelling with more character and history, the Rooneys and their three children settled into their old new house just 10 weeks after that first visit.

They had seen many a charmer, but most required an impractical amount of work to make them move-in ready. Not that the Rooneys are afraid of renovation: Mike is an engineer, and Linda is an interior designer.

The three-story Upper Dublin house, which sits on four acres, had a newly remodeled kitchen - a major draw for the family of five. But it lacked a spacious layout on the top floor. So Mike Rooney proceeded to tear down walls.

"When we moved in, the one big thing that we did was my husband, pretty much by himself, redid the whole third floor, because that's where our two older kids are," said Linda Rooney. "And it was three tiny, tiny little rooms. So he made it into two larger rooms."

Dedicated to preserving the soul of the space as he updated it, Mike added closets with plaster instead of drywall and refinished the hardwood floors. Original doors and molding were restored.

Mike Rooney said he found satisfaction in completing projects big and small. "This is the kind of house where you have to like to do stuff, because if you don't . . . I think you'd have a whole trail of contractors coming through."

Their son, Michael, 20, now a Notre Dame undergraduate, roughed it during the remodeling, staying upstairs even as his sister's space across the hall was being demolished and rebuilt. The color choice for his room? A bold red.

After consulting her mother on the design of her room, Molly Rooney, 17, selected a color scheme of sky blue and brown, creating a stenciled chocolate headboard from the plastered chimney architecture. On the desk, artist Lisa Cicalese-McMillen painted in Ukrainian the names of ballets. (Molly Rooney, a ballerina, hopes to study dance in college next year after graduating from Gwynedd-Mercy Academy High School.)

Linda Rooney describes the house as "Georgian architecture, with a little Victorian," though she notes that a 1967 family-room addition looks to have been inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Those two rooms offer views of the natural wonders beyond them: trees from Morris Arboretum planted years ago, and a steady stream of deer, gophers, groundhogs, opossums, and other wildlife.

(Unfortunately, each year these visitors devour the fruit from the Rooneys' 42 pear, persimmon, plum, and apple trees before it is ripe for picking. The result: only three apple pies in as many years.)

The house's layout, and its lack of a finished basement, means the family is tight-knit, Linda Rooney said.

"When we first moved here, and all of a sudden we're all sharing one TV and everything, I [thought], 'This stinks,' but it actually has turned out pretty good now," she said. "We all watch the same shows. . . . This house definitely makes you have to be with your family."

Sunshine pours through picture windows that wrap around the family room. Built-in Philippine mahogany benches, topped with sage cushions, follow the windows and make a perfect place for chatting, reading and, if you're Connor Rooney, 14, practicing the guitar.

"It just seems very comfortable. It's just very homey, I guess," said Connor, and eighth grader at St. Alphonsus School this year.

The Rooneys are contemplating their next projects. They have drawn plans to restore their barns - one was once a general store from which John Wanamaker purchased window shades on Aug. 11, 1900, according to the logbook they have.

With the property, the Rooneys have inherited more than just history: They have ghosts. Out-of-town guests say they have seen a man in britches walking through a wall, and Linda Rooney recalls constant activity when they first moved in.

"You'd hear it at night, when we were getting ready to go to bed. You would hear this 'swish, swish, swish' [of skirts rustling] coming down the hallway on the second floor," she said. "But . . . I never felt threatened. I think they just wanted to see who we were. Now, we hardly hear anything. I think they like us," she said, laughing.

Mike Rooney takes such things as a given for a property this old, where people were born and passed away.

"There was no hospital, so this was the entire circle of life," he said. "That's really what is different about this house . . . that it has so much history and has so much feeling and life for so many years. It's just different."


Is your house a haven?

Tell us about your haven by e-mail (and send some digital photographs) at properties@phillynews.com.

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