Chester County Day celebrates 75 years

A gloomy weather forecast did not deter diehard fans of Chester County Day, the longest running house tour in the country, as it celebrated its 75th anniversary on Saturday, Oct. 3.

Like this West Chester Borough residence, most of the Chester County Day homes featured lovely fall decor.

Like this West Chester Borough residence, most of the Chester County Day homes featured a multitude of mums and lovely fall decor.

For many area residents, the annual ritual of stepping back in time and visiting grand homes steeped in history was not going to be sidelined by Mother Nature. Most participants brought rain gear, which wasn’t needed until about 3 p.m., and although many picnickers opted to enjoy their lunches inside, a few braved the winds and dampness, taking advantage of some of the scenic, al fresco venues.

Carol Collins said she and her husband Dennis, who live in Gwynedd Valley, are longtime attendees, going back 47 years. “It’s something we always do,” she said. “We really enjoy it.”

Held annually on the first Saturday of October, the popular fund-raiser for Chester County Hospital started in 1936. For most years since then – it wasn’t held during World War II – it has led visitors through ornate dining rooms, gourmet kitchens, brick archways, covered bridges, cottage gardens, and breathtaking vistas.

This year’s tour included 31 private and public properties, the majority of which were located in the Borough of West Chester. They ranged from a 1926 stucco residence with a distinctive clay tile roof and a 1992 addition to a 1750 home restored in the 1920s for novelist Joseph Hergesheimer, who reportedly held some lively parties there, attended by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker.

This 1906 borough residence first appeared on Chester County Day in 1938; since then, it has undergone extensive remodeling.

This 1906 borough residence first appeared on Chester County Day in 1938; since then, it has undergone extensive – and artistic – remodeling.

Outside the borough, participants were treated to an estate along Crum Creek on Goshen Road once owned by a prominent 18th-century clockmaker – who also made coffins during leaner economic times – and a charming 1743 farmhouse with unique collectibles, such as a set of copper pots once used for measuring rum. It adjoined the Radnor Hunt, which kicked off the Chester County festivities with the traditional foxhunt.

Chester County Day originated in 1936, when members of the Women’s Auxiliary to Chester County Hospital hosted “West Chester Day,” a house tour that allowed admittance to 22 homes for $1.

Richard and Julie May, whose 1870s red brick Victorian home was featured for the fifth time on Chester County Day, recalled moving into the neighborhood in 1978 and meeting Bernice Ball, one of the event’s co-founders.

Ball surveyed the Mays’ home, noted the presence of their two young children, and said she would give them three years before insisting that they participate, Richard May said. He said the experience has been rewarding and periodically provides incentive to complete the kind of projects that historic homes typically generate.

“It’s for a great cause, and it gets you to fix up the house,” Julie May added.

A block away from the Mays, Thomas Swift was equally enthusiastic about having more than 1,000 people traipse through his residence, built in 1850 by Simon Barnard, an Underground Railroad conductor. Swift said he moved into the rowhome in one of the borough’s oldest residential areas a year and a half ago.

Many of the borough row homes, such as this 1850 residence on East Washington Street, boast charming courtyards that aren't visible from the street.

Many borough row homes, such as this 1850 residence on East Washington Street, boast inviting, brick courtyards that aren't visible from the street.

During that time, he replaced the roof and made numerous cosmetic changes, improvements that he enjoyed sharing with the friendly Chester County Day crowds.

“I would definitely do it again in a heartbeat,” said Swift. “It’s a great organization and a very well-run tour.”

Louise Milewski, who co-chaired this year’s Chester County Day with Karen Weber, said the organizers got pretty worried earlier in the week when Hurricane Joaquin was included in the forecast. But even though the final numbers haven’t been calculated yet, preliminary indications were positive.

Milewski said the total visitors at many of the residences mirrored last year’s figures, and the audience for the foxhunt was definitely larger.

“It was absolutely a success,” she said. “We were very pleasantly surprised by the number of people who turned out … I didn’t expect to see any lines. I really admire the fortitude of people who stood in the rain waiting to get into some of the homes.”

Milewski said when she apologized to people for the weather, they shrugged and said it wasn’t her fault. “Based on the comments I kept hearing, people seemed to be having a good time,” she said.

Since Chester County Day’s inception, the tour has generated more than $4 million to support the hospital and its programs, Milewski said.

“It takes a lot of people to make this happen,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without the 400 to 500 volunteers, the homeowners, the sponsors ... Everyone’s willingness to jump in and help is just wonderful.”

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