For about 20 years, Pete Dabback's cycling routes along the winding roads of northern Chester County had taken him past a nondescript ranch house set back from a road near Phoenixville.
He and his wife, Dore, were living in a small house in Spring City and looking for something larger. "One-nineteenth of an acre was kind of stifling," Dabback said.
So when the ranch house and the cottage out back went on the market in an estate sale in 1989, the Dabbacks, accompanied by low expectations and a Realtor, agreed to take a look. Dore Dabback, who grew up on a 100-acre dairy farm in East Vincent, had really liked the location.
Underwhelmed at first, Pete Dabback asked what was inside a door. "I think it's a walk-in-closet," the Realtor replied, pushing it open.
Instead, the open door revealed an 1863 one-room schoolhouse. The U-shaped rancher had been built around it in the early 1950s when the school was mothballed by the Owen J. Roberts School District.
"That's a big closet," said Dabback, who was transitioning at the time from bicycle repairman to schoolteacher and immediately saw the schoolhouse as a place to tutor students while he looked for a full-time position. "We were dumbstruck."
In the ensuing decades, the three-acre property has become an eclectic showplace featured on house tours and a venue for concerts, recitals and political events.
"We like to entertain," said Dabback, an impish, gray-haired man with a gift for tongue-in-cheek understatement, but he sees the schoolhouse as also being a "welcoming public space."
At the beginning, though, there was little entertainment and little income.
"I was learning to teach kids and to rehab at the same time at the age of 40," Dabback said. Struggling to qualify for a mortgage, the couple opened a snack shop at the Phoenixville YMCA to help raise the money.
The start was a massive cleanup, with a shovel the key tool. Floors were refinished, ceilings re-done. "It was rough," Dabback said. "There was a lot of sweat equity."
Dore Dabback, who had gone to school for fashion retailing, made curtains because the couple couldn't afford to buy them. (She is now administrator for a urological surgery practice.)
The pressed-board schoolhouse ceiling was torn out, exposing rough, mortised beams. The one-room cottage, now a guest house, was expanded from 300 to 700 square feet, with furnishings on a theme set by noted designer Wharton Esherick. About the only useful thing Dabback found in the cottage was a half-filled bottle of vodka in the unplugged refrigerator, he said.
Dabback has tried to redo the schoolhouse to combine modern touches with respect for its history, he said. A small wood stove sits in one corner and a 100-square-foot blackboard — unchanged from school days — has a new mural created every year by artist Patrick Murray Young of Phoenixville in chalk and dry pastels so it can be washed off. Photos of the previous murals adorn the walls.
A picture window was installed in the dining room to improve the view of the back of the property, including a mysterious passage through hedges that Dabback calls "the labyrinth."
Speakers are in every room, and the flooring is maple throughout.
But the key — and most recent — renovation is the kitchen, converted from what Dabback calls "a room with appliances" into a showpiece built by local contractor Rae Construction Co. of Chester Springs and the Condy & Wynn artisan design firm of Spring City.
They tore out walls, installed a removable countertop for different serving options, and added subway tiles on the walls and recycled glass countertops. The original kitchen had no counter space, and both Dabbacks like to cook.
With the kitchen complete, Dabback said, he can relax, enjoy his retirement, and admire both the work of the last couple of decades and an "amazing sense of the past."