Hillandale Farm Provides an Oasis for Empty Nesters
One Wilmington-based couple renovated the house to create a modern, idyllic country setting.
When a real estate listing for a historic home in Chadds Ford caught his eye, Greg Williams didn’t waste time. The next day he drove out from Wilmington at lunchtime to take a look.
“The house was nice—I couldn’t go in it—but the property just amazed me,” Williams says. “The views were spectacular.”
The vacant stone-and-stucco farmhouse sat far above the road on a rolling 15-acre property. “The other thing that impressed me was the amount of stonework—not just on the house, but there were stone walls everywhere,” he says.
Shortly thereafter, Greg and his wife, Susie, came back with an agent to see the house known as Hillandale Farm. The original 18th-century farmhouse had had several additions, one designed by celebrated architect Brognard Okie in 1921. Distinctive trim and moldings, built-in bookshelves and cabinets, hand-wrought hardware, a seamless blending of old with newer spaces—all the hallmarks of the Okie style combined to give the house wonderful character. And though the kitchen and bathrooms were dated, the house had been well maintained over the years.
The house also had a unique historical feature: A control panel hidden in a cabinet in the dining room operated the first hydroelectric mill in the area. In the 1920s, a rural farm with electricity was a rarity, but the owners at the time were said to be related to Thomas Edison. When the mill was deeded to Pennsbury Township, the vintage controls that regulated the speed of the water wheel remained in the home.
This was the house Greg had been looking for since his youngest child left for college. He wanted privacy and a country setting. Susie grew up near Old New Castle, and she loves houses with a history. Even so, Susie wasn’t as enthusiastic as her husband. “It seemed too much,” she says. “A big property, a lot of work to be done.”
Her reaction was understandable. For the past 20 years, the couple had lived in suburban Wilmington on a third-acre lot—and the sellers were offering the surrounding 55 acres of undeveloped land as a separate option. “To us, the concept of 15 acres was immense, and we really weren’t looking for anything more,” Greg says.
But after a little convincing, Susie came around. In 2011, the couple bought the farmhouse property, which included a large bank barn, a guest cottage, a pool, two garages and a springhouse. They also bought the additional 55 acres. “I was shaking in my boots,” Susie admits.
The Williamses packed up and headed for the country—only about 20 minutes from Wilmington. While the house was being renovated, they lived in the guest cottage.
For nearly eight months, the two worked with West Chester architect Richard Buchanan and Wilmington-based Bancroft Construction to bring the house up to 21st-century standards. They installed air conditioning, along with new plumbing, heating and electrical systems. The Ludowici clay tile roof was completely refurbished. All the bathrooms and the kitchen were remodeled.
The 1950s-era galley kitchen was a design challenge Buchanan resolved by removing a wall that connected it to a small sitting room that was likely the main entrance at some point. This provided space for a breakfast area next to a lovely old plaster fireplace that still contained its original crane and bread oven.
Buchanan bumped out the kitchen at the other end, adding 10 more feet, plus a mudroom. A wall of windows above the farmhouse sink provides light and an expansive view. Counters are marble and soapstone, with an island in the middle for extra work space.
To add a vibrant note to the kitchen, Susie commissioned Chester County artist Kelly McConnell Cox to paint a mural of their barnyard portraying the black-and-white cows that once resided there. “I thought it would be fun since this used to be a dairy farm,” she says.
The rest of the downstairs rooms were well suited to the couple’s lifestyle. Susie chose soft grayish-green paint against neutral walls to highlight the eye-catching architectural trim. The oldest part of the house has a 1780s-era corner fireplace and an original entrance door less than six feet in height.
The gracious 24-foot dining room is perfect for family dinners with the couple’s three grown children. “We didn’t want a huge home,” says Greg, “This is kind of an intimate house, yet there’s plenty of room for kids when they visit.”
A 1921 Okie addition to the back of the house, the family room has a beamed ceiling and three doors to the outside. One leads to a stone terrace with a low, white picket fence that overlooks the rolling landscape and stream below. Another door leads through a passageway to a glass-enclosed stone porch with a fireplace. Just beyond is a walled garden.
Above the family room is a huge master bedroom, which Buchanan deemed too big. The Williamses were skeptical, but when they saw the large walk-in closet he planned to carve out, they gave him the go-ahead. The staircases were redesigned for easier access to the five bedrooms on the second floor and the large room on the third.
With her interest in antiques, Susie has enjoyed creating inviting room settings using a mix of family treasures and the furniture they already had. She spent nearly a year browsing in antique stores for just the right pieces to complement each room. “I come from a family that likes primitive antiques,” she says.
The property that initially seemed so daunting has become an integral part of the couple’s life. In June 2014, they hosted their older son’s wedding in the stone courtyard of the barn. Two rows of black walnut trees served as the aisle. “The wedding dinner was in the barnyard,” Susie says. “It was just beautiful, with a full moon.”
For Greg, the property serves as the perfect antidote to the demands of his Wilmington law practice. Most mornings, he gets up early to do a chore or two outside before leaving for work. “When I go out in the fields, it’s a true getaway,” he says. “I feel like I have a little piece of the weekend on the weekday.”
Like most people who buy old houses, the Williamses under-estimated the cost of restoration and the work involved. But they are quite happy with the outcome. “It’s been hard, but it’s been an energizing experience,” says Greg. “I feel like we’ve started an exciting new chapter in our lives.”