Living an unexpected dream

George and Helen Sipala go through one of their photo albums with photos of their times with Andy Wyeth and friends.

Most people want to live a dream, their own special dream. Others, however, get to live a dream they didn’t know they had. Such is the case with George and Helen Sipala.

The Sipalas were the owners of Painters Folly on Route 1 next to the Brandywine Battlefield Park from 1974 until earlier this year when Chadds Ford Township bought the property. It’s an historic home, built in the 1850s and once used as a summer home by illustrator Howard Pyle, the teacher of N.C. Wyeth. But, the Wyeth connection to Painters Folly grew even stronger 15 years after the Sipalas moved in.

According to Helen Sipala, one morning in March of 1989, she and her husband saw "some man" by their swimming pool. He was painting. The man was Andrew Wyeth. A friendship developed and lasted 20 years until Wyeth died in January 2009.

Wyeth did paintings of the outside of the home, the inside and used the cupola as a vantage point for his "Widow’s Walk" painting that shows the Chadds Ford countryside. He also had the Sipalas pose for him in bed for a painting, "The Marriage Bed."

Helen Sipala shows an old photo of Betsy Wyeth with a mannequin Helen put on a dining room chair thinking Betsy would come to dinner.

"He was here almost every day," Helen Sipala said. "We even showed him where the key was, so he could let himself in.”

Wyeth had a habit of showing up early, so early that the couple would sometimes still be in bed asleep.

"He would come up close to the bed and just stare sometimes. One day I woke up to see him there, and I let out a scream and he laughed. He was such a prankster. But, we would get back at him," she said.

Sometimes they would put mannequins in the bed and cover them up. At other times, they would wait until they heard him and would reverse positions, so their feet were on the pillows and their heads were at the foot of the bed, all covered up. Wyeth enjoyed that, too, she said.

That wasn’t the only time Helen Sipala used a mannequin in response to the Wyeths.

Helen and George Sipala remain on the Painters Folly property, but not in the main house.

Andy Wyeth told her she should host a dinner, and then gave her the names of people to invite. It was heady company: Frolic Weymouth, Pierre du Pont and a few others of that financial footing. Helen Sipala — who grew up in a humble home in Embreeville — told the artist that they would never come if she did the invitations, but he told her to get the phone numbers from the Brandywine River Museum, call everyone and say it was Andy making the invitation.

But, Wyeth also told her that his wife Betsy would not come because she only went to a few homes. The night of the party, Helen said, everyone came except Betsy. But Helen was prepared. She had a dressed mannequin at the table where Betsy would have been sitting. As they sat down, there was a knock at the door, and there was Betsy Wyeth. Helen said Betsy loved seeing the mannequin.

It wasn’t all fun and games with the Wyeths, though. In the mid 1990s, the Sipalas were ready to sell the home because the upkeep was terribly expensive, and they felt that they couldn’t afford to keep it.

"We told Andy that we were going to have to sell, and he just stood there as if he had been shot. The next day he came back, asked what we needed. He paid for the improvements out of his own pocket," she said.

Those improvements were for a new roof, fresh paint, rewiring and new stucco, she said.

The last time the Sipalas saw their friend was just a week or so before he died. Helga Testorf was caring for him and he wanted to visit his old friends. So, even though he was on oxygen, Helga brought him to Painters Folly for the last time so he could spend time with Helen and George.

The Sipalas aren’t in the big house anymore, but they’re still on the property, living in the guest house out back. Helen said she’s always happy to share stories of their time with Andy Wyeth and how she and George lived a dream they didn’t even know they had.

 

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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