Chester County Day: Hills, thrills and chills

A home on East Marshall Street in West Chester showcases a backyard oasis on Chester County Day.

Uncommon items such as an antique dental chair, Emmy Awards, and an “Indian” door combined with near-perfect weather to entertain guests of the 77th Annual Chester County Day, the longest continuously running house tour in the country.

An antique car enhances the ambiance of this 1810 residence on Dorlan Mill Road in Downingtown.

This year’s popular fundraiser for Chester County Hospital — held annually on the first Saturday of October  — commemorated the institution’s 125th anniversary. Founded in 1892, the hospital has far exceeded its humble beginnings as a 10-bed dispensary in West Chester’s Marshall Square Park, a short distance from its current location.

In keeping with that milestone, the 2017 tour included a diverse sampling of homes in the Marshall Square area of West Chester Borough, enabling ticket-holders to park once and stroll through nearly a dozen residences. Another 14 homes in the northwest quadrant of the county required drives through scenic swaths of East Brandywine, Honey Brook, Wallace, East Nantmeal, West Nantmeal, and Warwick townships.

For Sam Stretton, a West Chester lawyer, the 2017 Chester County Day satisfied a longtime curiosity about one three-story residence in the 200 block of East Biddle Street. Built in 1836 as a boarding school for boys, it was later converted into a residence and surrounded by an imposing, ivy-covered brick wall.

“I’ve always been fascinated by that house and wondered about its history,” Stretton said.

According to local lore, a previous owner constructed the wall to ensure the safety of his children following the high-profile Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932.

A charming sitting area is one of several places to enjoy a Warwick Township home painstakingly built in 1978 as a Colonial reproduction.

“It more than met my expectations,” said Stretton of his tour through the home. “We’re so lucky to have this opportunity in such a wonderful town with so much rich history.”

His wife, Jean Stretton, a West Chester physician, quickly added that the opportunity could not occur without the generosity of the homeowners, a sentiment shared by the fundraiser’s organizers.

For seven hours, many owners of the host homes – those undaunted enough to stay on the premises – witnessed well over a thousand visitors’ traipsing through their living quarters. Some were even repeating the experience to highlight dramatic changes they had made since their previous showing.

John Ciglar and Patrick McCoy, who own a 1917 house on East Marshall Street with an enchanting garden and an extensive collection of original art, are veterans of the event. Ciglar couldn’t recall whether they had participated three or four times before. “It feels like four,” joked McCoy.

Ciglar said they enjoy the fact that sharing their home for a day can provide long-lasting help to others; plus, the deadlines motivate them to complete their renovation projects. Visitors to the home benefited from the pair’s support of another worthy cause: Children’s Beach House, a Delaware-based nonprofit that serves disa

One of the more popular stops was this estate on Warwick Furnace Road in Warwick Township, dating back to the 1700s.

dvantaged children.

“We bought most of the artwork at Plein Air Brandywine Valley,” Ciglar explained, referencing the nonprofit’s upcoming annual fundraiser at Winterthur.

Debbie Hess, one of Chester County Day’s co-chairs, said the auxiliary greatly appreciates area residents’ willingness to participate. She said this year’s Chester County Day, which opened with its traditional foxhunt, aspired to offer “something for everyone.”

In the past, only historic homes garnered the spotlight; however, in recent years, the tour has included modern residences that pay homage to history as well as some signature contemporary abodes.

“One of our goals is always to keep uncovering hidden gems, finding things to intrigue tour-goers and keeping the experience fresh,” said Hess.

Chester County Day has also expanded its ticket offerings, adding VIP status several years ago for those who doubled their donation. This year’s accompanying perks included a gourmet boxed lunch from Montesano Bros. Italian Market & Catering as well as access to an exquisitely-renovated 1859 Italianate-style residence on the west side of Marshall Square Park.

But experiencing a quirky diversity of views – as well as an occasional traffic jam – was open to all ticket-holders.

A platform offers a sweeping view of the pond surrounding a residence on Conestoga Road in East Nantmeal Township.

Among the offbeat sights was the forbidding-looking antique dental chair displayed in an 1810 Downingtown residence, appropriately owned by a dentist. It elicited a fair share of good-natured grimaces.

The so-called “Indian” door gracing a 1700-era Warwick Township residence featured a metal insert designed to thwart flaming arrows while three Emmys, ensconced atop a cabinet in a sleek 2007 East Brandywine home, fueled some intrigue. The volunteer docent said two of the statues came from the TV art and design work of one of the homeowners. When asked about the third one, she apologized: “I have no information about that one.”

In sharp contrast, some of the other stops provided an abundance of information, especially two that featured real-estate flyers. Lyons Run Farm, a 32-acre property in East Nantmeal Township, is selling for $4.3 million and includes a meticulously-restored residence with additions from the 18th to the 21st century; an inviting, restored springhouse; and a large pond.

Another option for prospective buyers: a 62-acre estate on Warwick Furnace Road in Warwick Township. With a $2.6 million price tag, it boasts a main house that dates back to the 1700s as well as a carriage house and barn.

Those coveting their neighbors’ houses but lacking such deep pockets periodically consoled themselves with inspirational ideas or information on accessories. One woman was delighted to learn that a lovely horticultural display in front of a West Chester residence featured a planter from Agway. “I will be going there,” she said.

Built in 1890. this stately Victorian on East Biddle Street is known as the John Craven mansion, named for the early 20th-century novelist who once lived there.

The Women’s Auxiliary to Chester County Hospital organizes Chester County Day, which has contributed $5 million to the hospital, the fastest growing medical facility in the region. Throughout the day, many of the hundreds of volunteers repeatedly thanked visitors for supporting the hospital. This year’s proceeds will fund expansions and renovations to the hospital’s Newborn Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Hess said numbers from the 2017 Chester County Day won’t be available for a couple of weeks; however, preliminary figures suggest that sales will exceed the typical attendance of 2,500.

“When the weather cooperates, that really helps bring people out,” said Hess.

Other vital components include the stable of volunteers and willing homeowners. “It really does take a village; it was an incredible team effort,” Hess said.

And because Chester County Day requires so much advance preparation – from selecting venues to preparing promotional materials – members of that team won’t have much time to savor this year’s success.

“We’re meeting next week to begin work on next year,” said Hess. “We need to talk about the feedback we got from tour-goers, what worked, and what didn’t while it’s still fresh in our memories.”

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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