Skip to content
Real Estate
Link copied to clipboard

Diamond house in the rough overlooked no more

Kathleen and Bill Penney's home isn't that old. Built in 1949 near West Chester, it's a mere adolescent, considering some of its neighbors.

Kathleen Penney stands in front of her newly renovated home in West Chester. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
Kathleen Penney stands in front of her newly renovated home in West Chester. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)Read more

Kathleen and Bill Penney's home isn't that old. Built in 1949 near West Chester, it's a mere adolescent, considering some of its neighbors.

But this house, a Colonial Revival, feels older, with hand-picked stone on its exterior walls, Dutch doors throughout, random-width red oak flooring, built-in cabinets and hutches, and deep-set windowsills.

To complete the picture: A winding, tree-lined, 450-foot drive ends on top of six gorgeous acres, which abut 39 acres owned by East Bradford Township and designated an open-space preserve.

Which makes one wonder: Why did this house - built by engineer Leslie Schramm, whose company made the equipment that helped save those Chilean miners last year - sit vacant for five years, until the Penneys took possession in April 2010?

Kathleen, 42, an interior designer, hasn't figured it out yet. She relates how they came to dwell up on the hill:

She and Bill and their two elementary-school-age children had been living in West Chester in "new construction." And while the new was getting old, they didn't want to endure the pain of moving unless they found a house that was special.

As she searched the Web one August day in 2009 with a friend who was seriously interested in moving, Kathleen saw the Schramm house.

"I just saw the front. It looked vacant," she says.

She had an appointment nearby that day, so she thought she'd take a look. It was 5:30 in the afternoon. "I saw everything," she says, then asked herself: "What am I missing? Why has nobody bought this house?"

She had found her pain point, but would her insurance-agent husband feel the same? She called him and explained the situation.

Says Bill, 44: "I said, 'Are you kidding? It's been vacant five years. The taxes must be unbelievable.'

"I was pessimistic," he says, describing himself as a realist with a small toolbox and a 20-inch, push-from-behind John Deere lawn mower. His wife, though - she's a visionary who never had a bad idea about design or a house, he says.

So he went to see the place on the hill. Rehabilitating it, he saw, would take quite a bit of money, but it would be a value-added expense: The property was only a mile from downtown West Chester, and "from a business perspective, this is truly an amazing property," Bill says.

To get the rehab done - connecting to public water, boosting the electrical service, moving load-bearing walls, adding HVAC systems, gutting the kitchen and baths - the couple decided Kathleen would close her business and assume the role of general contractor. She had "GC'd" a project once before, but not on this scale, she says.

"I was extremely comfortable with it," Bill says. "She was calmer than I was. I don't like dealing with confrontation - we are polar opposites. But for her, it was just another challenge."

A challenge that had its moments, of course. When a backhoe cut through the house's electric power, for example. Or when Kathleen had to get a new range because the range hood and exhaust system (already installed) didn't have the proper clearance and therefore didn't meet code after the chimney had already been installed per specification. She especially liked that.

But, Kathleen says, she loved acting as general contractor. She had spreadsheets and timelines and learned a lot, especially about what's required for a home's mechanical aspects. She developed good working relationships with the workmen.

"It was fun," she says.

But not always. Some treated her like she didn't know what she was talking about, primarily when she was collecting bids. So she ignored them and got more bids. She got seven estimates for the heat/ventilation/air-conditioning systems before accepting the final bid.

The work came in on budget, Bill says, "something very hard to do with a project of that size."

A lot more needs to be done, Kathleen says.

Not that is apparent to a visitor's eye. After driving up to the house and peering into the garage, it's obvious what the inside will look like. Everything is just so: The croquet set is hung up, as are the children's bicycle helmets. No dead leaves lurk in the corners.

Kathleen says she has honored Les Schramm's vision for the house, which she calls ahead of its time.

The interior is not overly decorated. The built-in cabinetry is readily visible. The vista from a bow window overlooking the open-space preserve is not blocked.

Windows are everywhere. In the kitchen, there are granite countertops; the island is made of alderwood. In the corner is a booth; under the seats, she added drawer space.

Kathleen may not know why their house stood empty for so long, but her husband does.

"No one had the vision that my wife had," Bill says. "It was somewhat overwhelming, the amount of work needed to be done.

"People don't want old. Charm isn't as important as square footage."

Is your house a Haven?

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