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Transforming a mess into an arts and crafts delight

Geoff and Saundra Shepard live in a magnificent Arts and Crafts-style home in Rose Valley, a meticulous restoration that captured the cover of Old House Journal and garnered an award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia earlier this year.

The main entrance to the home of Geoff and Saundra Shepard. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )
The main entrance to the home of Geoff and Saundra Shepard. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )Read more

Geoff and Saundra Shepard live in a magnificent Arts and Crafts-style home in Rose Valley, a meticulous restoration that captured the cover of Old House Journal and garnered an award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia earlier this year.

Looking at the house now, with its elegant formal gardens (also restored) and picturesque terra cotta tile roof, it is hard to imagine what a sorry mess the place was when they bought it.

Upstairs, on the second floor of the long-vacant house, once part of the 400-acre Rose Valley Farm estate owned by industrialist Charles T. Schoen, there were two dozen buckets positioned to catch the rainwater that poured through the leaking roof. The first floor was covered with filthy pink wall-to-wall carpeting, the windows were a wreck, and, said Geoff Shepard, "the wallpaper was holding the place up."

That's no exaggeration. An engineer who examined the building just after the Shepards began work on it in 2007 found five locations lacking proper structural support and warned that the house's facade was in danger of falling off. "He said, 'That has to be braced, and today would not be too soon,' " recalled Shepard.

Today, the house is once again the showplace envisioned by artist, architect, and Arts and Crafts movement visionary William Lightfoot Price, who gave the place its distinctive aesthetic in a 1904 renovation.

Key to the recent project's success, say the Shepards, was their architect, Peter Batchelor, who designed an addition for a new kitchen and family room that looks as if it has always been part of the house. He found ways to seamlessly incorporate modern conveniences (walk-in closets, a master bath, a mudroom). They also laud the squads of carpenters and craftsmen who devised ways to replicate missing antique door panels, restore destroyed tile work, and reproduce bronze window hardware. But most of all, they credit their general contractor, David Carey, of Bryant Phillips Custom Restoration and Renovation in Devon, who supervised those workers.

"Sometimes I can't believe we did it," Saundra Shepard said of the restoration, which took nearly two years. "Without a good contractor, this really would not have been possible."

None of it would have happened at all if not for local builder Chip Vaughan, whose efforts to develop the last remaining 26 acres of Rose Valley Farm were what put the house into play. By then, the property, which had been bought by prominent Philadelphia lawyer Maurice Saul in 1921, had passed into the hands of the Saul estate. As part of a deal to get approval from Rose Valley Borough to build 43 carriage houses, Vaughan was required to keep 50 percent of the land as open space and to preserve the existing buildings, which included the main house, the "studio" (built to look like an English hunting lodge by Schoen, inventor of the steel boxcar, who used it as an office), and a stone water tower straight out of a fairy tale.

Saundra Shepard, a real estate agent, had seen the property years earlier and never forgotten it. When the couple learned that Vaughan was looking for a buyer for the buildings, they stepped forward.

As the subdivision process dragged on, though, closing was delayed two years. "That turned out to be a real advantage," said Geoff Shepard, who worked as an attorney in Richard M. Nixon's White House (where the couple first met) and went on to serve as general counsel to a several insurance companies. Shepard used the time to do historical research on Rose Valley Farm, architect William Lightfoot Price, and the late-19th-century design movement known as Arts and Crafts, which embraced the handmade as a reaction to increasing industrialization. (The community of Rose Valley, in fact, was designed and developed by Price based on Arts and Crafts ideals.)

The couple, who have two grown sons, also used the waiting period to hone their plans for the property by talking to everyone they could about architectural restoration and by making frequent visits to the site, often accompanied by Carey and Evan Bryant, a partner in the Bryant Phillips firm. "Because of that, we were able to come up with a good game plan before we started," Carey said. "And once construction began, Geoff spent a solid 20 to 25 hours a week on the site. He knew what he wanted, he was patient, and he actually enjoyed the process, which isn't always the case. A lot of people just want it to be over. But he was willing to spend the time to do it right."

On a recent tag-team tour, Carey and Geoff Shepard beamed like a couple of proud parents as they showed a visitor through the rambling, three-story house, which features the work of some of the finest artisans of the era, including tile from Enfield Pottery and Tile Works and Henry Chapman Mercer's Moravian Tile Works, and door and window hardware crafted by master metalworker Samuel Yellin (added during a 1920s renovation).

Among the many challenges of the restoration: finding workers with the specialized skills to rebuild and replaster six unusual domed dormer windows. Carey's team also had the epic job of reglazing the 61 original windows in the main house (and 44 more in the studio, which became the Shepards' temporary home during the renovation). Then, there was the task of finding windows and doors for the new addition that precisely mimicked the striking arched muntins of the originals. "The window company had the idea to glue the muntins onto the glass, so they're energy-efficient," said Carey.

In the new sunroom, created by shoring up and enclosing a badly deteriorated open porch, they showed off a set of curvaceous concrete columns created by a talented mason to mimic the original set on another wall. "He even went down and got a couple of cups of black Ridley Creek sand to give it the right texture," said Shepard admiringly.

In the living room, Carey pointed out the massive fireplace whose water-damaged back was re-bricked in the same herringbone pattern designed by Price. Its carved soapstone mantel, created by John Maene (a well-known artist of the period whose work also graces Hearst Castle in California), was pitch-black until a good cleaning revealed its true, soft-gray color. Built-in wooden benches flanking the fireplace were stripped of thick layers of white paint to reveal hand-pegged, quartersawn oak. "There were a lot of surprises like that," said Carey.

Salvaged materials were vital to the restoration. By coincidence, a nearby house also designed by Price, but long abandoned and damaged by vandals, was slated for destruction. The owner let Carey's crew take out window hardware, banisters, and more. They also got a quantity of 100-year-old heart-pine flooring, which was used in the new addition. Wood from a tumbledown barn on the property was used to make a countertop in the laundry room and a 13-foot-long table for the dining room.

"Every decision we made we thought about what Will Price would want," said Shepard, for whom the house is clearly an obsession. "With a place like this, you kind of get carried away."