County Lines Magazine: New Life for the Jacob House
“Crow’s Nest, a 640-acre farm given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by John T. Dorrance, the late chairman of Campbell Soup Co., is on the market,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in July 1990. Dorrance purchased the farm in 1959 and used it as a weekend hunting retreat. When he died earlier that year, Crow’s Nest became the property of the museum, which had no interest in owning a farm in rural Chester County.
Fortunately, a local family stepped up to purchase most of the farm, saving it from subdivision and development. The donors helped Natural Lands Trust, one of the region’s oldest and largest conservation organizations, buy a 79-acre parcel. More parcels have been added over the years.
A visit to Crow’s Nest Preserve is a picture postcard of the best of Chester County: rolling woodlands, meadows and farm fields stretch for miles along French Creek. Just beyond the Preserve’s 620 acres is French Creek State Park, Pennsylvania State Game Land, and Hopewell National Historic Site—all part of an area known as the Hopewell Big Woods, the last large, unbroken forest left in the area and an important natural resource.
The natural beauty is complemented by picturesque farmhouses and barns, evidence of colonists who farmed Chester County’s fertile soil. Natural Lands Trust recently completed renovating such a farmhouse at Crow’s Nest Preserve—a six-year process of bringing the house into the 21st century while honoring its historical charm.
Practicality Plus Aesthetics
The house was designed as a Federal-style stone building with a center hall and an “ell.” A date stone above the front door bears the initials “HS+ ES” (Henry and Elizabeth Swinehart, owners from 1809 to 1883) and the date 1817. Known as the Jacob House—for the family that lived there in the mid- 20th century—it’s one of seven Colonial buildings at Crow’s Nest Preserve and the fifth to be fully renovated.
“We haven’t built a building yet,” said Preserve Manager Dan Barringer. Instead, staff renovate existing barns and farmhouses to serve as employee housing, offices, and educational facilities.
When Natural Lands Trust acquired the Jacob House, the farmhouse was “just this side of derelict,” said Bob Johnson, director of building stewardship. But the organization viewed the building as an important part of local cultural history. “We didn’t acquire the land to save the building, but we did save the building to service the land,” said Johnson.
They also approached the project with pragmatism; the farmhouse needed to support the organization’s conservation mission by serving as housing for staff, and the renovation had to follow Natural Lands Trust’s environmentally friendly ethos.
To that end, the crew of staff members stripped the interior walls down to the stone and furred them out to allow for two layers of R15 insulation, though you wouldn’t know it from the artful re-plastering. Thermal-pane window sashes were installed to further improve the house’s R-value. Crew leader Steve Holmberg replaced all the wiring and fixtures; the home now boasts energy-efficient LED and fluorescent lighting.
The crew worked to retain as many original features as was practical. Some original flooring was salvaged; rotted boards were replaced with those milled from trees felled by Mother Nature on the Preserve. Master Carpenter Scott DiBernadinis recreated period-accurate interior woodwork when the original was missing or damaged. A man of many talents, DiBernadinis also rebuilt the house’s chimneys. All four fireplaces are now fully functional, including the kitchen’s walk-in fireplace. Outside, the team stripped the unsightly plaster, revealing beautiful, original stonework, which they repointed.
The formerly dank, cramped basement gained two feet of headroom when the crew dug it out and carried the dirt outside, one wheelbarrow load at a time. Next, they poured a new concrete floor, which set the stage for state-of-the-art systems such as the geothermal unit for heating and cooling.
While practicality was a top priority, the team didn’t ignore aesthetics. Staff member Luke DiBernadinis (and Scott’s son) hand-crafted much of the house’s iron hardware, including strap hinges, latches and the walk-in fireplace’s bake oven door. He even learned to work with tin so he could fabricate the replica sconces that light many rooms.
Old Home, New Family
Though originally a single-family home, during its history the building had been a multi-family residence, leading to a dual-residence design during renovations. The larger portion is now the Preserve Manager’s residence, while a smaller apartment houses an intern. “Natural Lands Trust has a long history of housing its preserve managers on the properties they care for,” said Molly Morrison, Natural Lands Trust’s president. “We’re excited to continue that tradition with the Jacob House.”
For Preserve Manager Dan Barringer—whose family moved into the Jacob House—the renovation of this historical property is another example of the kind of recycling that goes on at Crow’s Nest Preserve. “We’re extremely mindful of our footprint and ways to shrink it. We surface our hiking trails with wood chips from downed trees, harvest seeds from our meadows to plant on other preserves, and employ goats and cattle as invasive weed control,” said Barringer. “The Jacob House project was a smart way to adapt and reuse the building, while preserving a piece of Crow’s Nest’s past.”
Dan is enthusiastic about his new home and about sharing its history with his six-year-old son, Owen. For now, though, he has boxes to unpack.
For more “before and after” photos, visit Natural Lands Trust’s Facebook page. The Jacob House is a private residence and is not open to the public.