Kennett Township taking small steps to preserve historic house
By Steven Hoffman
From where it stands on McFarlan Road in Kennett Township, the Isaac Allen House – a simple, two-story Colonial home with an historic stone core – is nearly invisible, hidden by climbing walls of vines and ferns that have turned the exterior of the home into a green waterfall of neglect.
Positioned just 12 feet from the edge of the road, cars and trucks careen by it throughout the day, and there is no notice or signage beside it that calls anyone to its attention or its historical connections. It’s mostly the local historians who are aware of its significance; they know that it was likely to have been built between 1713 and 1751, originally called the Cox Tenant House, and that it once stood in the path of the British Army on their way to the Battle of the Brandywine on Sept. 11, 1777.
Owned by the Giancola family in the 20th Century, the home was owned by Richard Giancola, whose family was a major mushroom producer in the area; by the turn of the new century, it became an office space, but in the last five years, it has remained unoccupied, and is now owned by Chatham Financial.
In 2016, Chatham Financial submitted a demolition permit application, but through a stipulation in the township's ordinances, the township's Historic Commission has the responsibility to review all demolition permits in the township, to see if there is historic significance to the houses listed for demolition.
Later that year, Sara Meadows, chairperson of the township's Historical Commission, was joined by historic preservation planner Bob Wise to conduct an architectural assessment of the house. The historic structures report, issued in Nov. 2016 by Wise and Seth Hinshaw of Cranbury, N.J.-based RGA, Inc., provided recommendations for the potential preservation – and future re-use – of the building. After an extensive look at every crevice of the home, the report concluded that while the house has suffered damage in the form of rot, insect penetration and extreme dampness, RGA concluded that the house is “worthy of preservation.”
“The house appears to be in good condition,” the report read. “Though unoccupied, it is sealed, secure, and its electricity is on. The building appears to be plumbed, indicating no significant settlement is occurring.”
In its recommendations, RGA presented several scenarios: to use the house “as is,” using existing historic and architectural data; rehab the building; restore the stone core only, returning its exterior to its original 18th-century appearance; stabilize the building so that it is properly ventilated and the property is maintained and secured; move the building; or, if demolition becomes the only option, consider maintaining the home's exterior stone walls as a stabilized ruin.
Despite its age, the house is not eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), due to considerable alterations that were made by a succession of owners who updated the house to meet the changing needs of the residents. While the efforts to restore the house back to its original condition could be done, there is still no assurance that the house would become eligible for NRHP distinction.
On Feb. 19, the Historic Commission invited Wise to the township's board of supervisors, in order to spell out a plan and provide various cost estimates for preserving the building. Stabilization of the house, he told the board, will be the easiest, quickest and least expensive option for the township to pursue.
“When we were there three years ago, the lights were on and the heat was on,” Wise said. “Now, the lights are off, the heat is off and the house is quite damp. One of the things that people do with historic houses that are not in use is stabilize them.
“What stabilization does is make sure the house is secure, that animals can't get inside, and that it's ventilated, so air can get through to take way some of that rot and moisture. It is also inspected, and the windows are secured.”
Wise estimated that the cost of stabilization of the Isaac Allen House as it is today would be $10,000. He also included additional estimates: it would cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to restore the house to its original stone exterior; it would cost between $6,000 and $10,000 to stabilize the stone exterior; and it would cost between $150,000 and $250,000 to restore the house in its entirety, which would include the installation of a new roof, historic windows, new hardware, doors and shutters; and the removal of stucco.
“Do you have to do all of that? No,” he said, referring to a complete rehabilitation. “Do you have to do it now? Certainly not. Can you do it incrementally over a period of the next 10, 15, 20 years? Absolutely. There's many different avenues if you want to take this building back at some point in time.
“I think it's got really good bones, and I think that if the township desired to undertake this as an historic building to save, it's a simple building to save.”
After Wise's presentation, the supervisors discussed possible ideas that could be done soon in order to kick off the efforts to bring the public's attention to the house, and lay the groundwork for more attention in the near future. Board chairman Dr. Richard Leff suggested that the easiest step to restore the building would be to clear away the overgrowth of greenery that envelops most of the house's exterior, in order to increase its visibility. Wise recommended that the township place a sign near the historic home that tells passers-by what the township is doing to restore it, as well as detail the home's historic significance.
While township manger Eden Ratliff told Wise that the township's 2020 budget does not have appropriate funding to begin the stabilization – or restoration – of the Isaac Allen House, he recommended that the lines of discussion open up between the township, its Historic Commission and Chatham Financial this year, in order to put the house on the township's list of projects.
While the possible restoration of the Isaac Allen House has been placed on the township's back burner this year, Meadows told the supervisors that preserving the Isaac Allen House will be, in many ways, also preserving the township's rich history.
“This is something that we feel we need to save now, so if in 20 years someone may want to restore it back to its original condition, it will be here,” Meadows said. “It's a tiny house, and it is important for us to understand that at one time, this was how people lived. It makes history more real to people.
“It's an important lesson.”