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Retired teacher has become the custodian of 18th-century houses and a piece of Pennsylvania history

Renovating Harford Hall fills Tony Morinelli's every day. “In a sense, it’s a rebirth for me. It is the embodiment of everything I love: history, art, buildings, architecture, nature, and gardens.”

Former Shipley School humanities teacher Tony Morinelli is spending his retirement renovating Harford Hall, a mill and residence from the 18th century in Haverford Township. He's standing outside of the well house.
Former Shipley School humanities teacher Tony Morinelli is spending his retirement renovating Harford Hall, a mill and residence from the 18th century in Haverford Township. He's standing outside of the well house.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Growing up in Havertown, Tony Morinelli and his friends often played near an abandoned 18th-century mill owner’s home on a bluff high above.

“We played along Karakung Creek, which had once powered long-shuttered grist, saw, and cotton milIs,” Morinelli recalled. ”It was a great place for kids’ games. The old ruins were still there. Hide and seek, cops and robbers.”

But the granite structure above made little impression on him: “I just remember seeing a beat-up old house.”

He had no idea that the house would one day blend seamlessly with his life.

Fast forward more than a half-century.

Drive or walk along Mill Road near Karakung Creek (as Cobbs Creek is called there), look up any day of the week, and you’re likely to see a slight, graying man of 71 walking in and out of the house. Some days he is accompanied by historic-renovation contractors.

This is now the life of Tony Morinelli, after an academic career capped by 35 years as a humanities teacher and theater director at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr.

“It has filled my every day,” he said. “In a sense, it’s a rebirth for me. It is the embodiment of everything I love: history, art, buildings, architecture, nature, and gardens.”

An accomplished artist and playwright who holds a doctorate in medieval history, Morinelli had occasionally thought of becoming an archaeologist. So when he retired in 2018, “I took what I had in my retirement account and jumped into this money pit.”

He bought the house from Wells Fargo Bank, left his home in Ardmore, and moved in, spending the first winter in two rooms of the house, warmed by only a space heater and fireplace.

Since then, he has made an apartment for himself there and converted another section into an Airbnb to supplement his Social Security checks.

And he has started a GoFundMe campaign to enable him to restore the original 1698 wing, which he hopes to eventually turn into a free museum.

History of Harford Hall

The Harford Hall project — Morinelli named it that because Harford is the Welsh name for the original settlement — comprises four buildings.

According to his research, the oldest wing dates to about 1698 and is a classic example of old Penn Quaker Welsh homes.

He says additions were added about 1730 and 1740. The 1740 addition has a large parlor. Such a room indicated the growing prosperity of the mill owners. The end of the 19th century saw Harford Hall’s descent into decay, a sign of the obsolescence of water-powered mills.

There is also a well house. Made of stone, it was built about the 1950s to replace an older wooden structure of which little is known. The well is 30 feet deep and is cut from the natural rock on one side and laid stone on the other.

The three connected buildings are built on a foundation of logs under the pine and oak flooring and have no basements. Walls are about two feet thick, enabling the original structures to survive.

The 1698 house is protected by the township’s historic preservation ordinance, and the Haverford Historical Society refers to it as “the Leedom-Dickinson Mansion” after two of its 19th-century owners, who had nothing to do with its construction.

Using original deeds, Morinelli traced the house’s ancestry back to the first U.S. Census of 1790, and a mill owner named — fittingly enough — Jonathan Miller. But before that, the historic trail fades into vague records of a sale dating to 1698 suggesting that one Rowland Powal was the original owner.

The main house is called a “bank house” because it is built into the steep stone bank known locally as “Star Rock” but historically as “Haverford Mountain.” It is the highest point in the area and standing at the top, you can see Philadelphia to the east.

Local preservationists say Morinelli’s project is highly unusual, something that would normally be a group effort.

Kathleen Abplanalp, director of preservation at the Lower Merion Conservancy, has cited the Main Line as unusual in that houses from the 18th through the 21st centuries often exist side by side. Harford Hall, for example, is surrounded by smaller middle-class residences.

“Not only has he brought new life to the house,” said Greg Prichard, historic preservation planner in neighboring Lower Merion Township, “he has documented every step of his restoration project and given the community an example to aspire to.”

Outdoors first, then indoors

Morinelli’s first task, after making the top floor of the additions marginally livable for himself, was to clear brush on the bluff. It was so thick that it had made the whole project uninsurable.

He terraced it and turned it into a garden for vegetables and native perennials in addition to an exercise area for his three small rescue dogs of indeterminate historical ancestry.

A local volunteer program, Haverford Township Rain Gardens, provided free plantings of native perennials in the front of the house.

Morinelli had the rotting roof replaced and working plumbing and heating installed.

But this step was far more complicated than it would have been in a house with no historic significance.

“Sometime around 1860,” Morinelli said, “a red tin roof was laid over the cedar roof. The tin roof, invented in 1829, was certainly a modern renovation.

“Which roofing material best reflected the history of the house? In this case, I opted for cedar even though a case could be made for tin.”

Inside, his work focused on separating artifacts of historical value from more recent detritus left by earlier occupants.

The house was put together with mortise and tenon beam construction and hand-cut nails. Some of the beams have the original bark on them.

Using small scrapings that reveal the original colors, Morinelli has been painting the houses and doing minor plastering, leaving the heavier lifting to professional restorers from the Bryn Mawr-based firm Michael D’Onofrio Historical Restoration.

“I can do cosmetic work,” he said. “Put it that way. I’m working room by room.”

An expensive undertaking

As daunting a challenge as renovating Harford Hall is physically, it is no less challenging financially. While the two wings of the house where he lives now are all but complete, the original 1698 house awaits professional restoration.

Morinelli has raised about $1,800 of what he thinks will end up as a $15,000 project to restore the original house for historical education and the experience of the community.

This includes $1,000 each for six windows in the original Colonial nine-pane over nine-pane style; opening up the fireplace and lining it to bring it up to code; refinishing the floors and ceilings; and plastering and whitewashing.

Needless to say, he is receptive to offers of volunteer help.

When completed, the 1698 wing will be open to the public as a living example of Pennsylvania’s first Welsh Quaker homes.

It should be added that Morinelli doesn’t like to refer to himself as the owner of the property, although technically he is that.

“As in the Quaker tradition of stewardship, I am the present custodian,” he said. “The house belongs to our collective history.”

And as for a projected end date for the project:

“I don’t even think about it. Someone early on told me, ‘Don’t tell the house what to do. Let the house tell you what to do.’”