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WC History: The Oldest House in West Chester

Dower HouseMay 28, 2015 | Malcolm Johnstone

West Chester, PA -- In 1681, King Charles II of England signed the Charter of Pennsylvania that granted William Penn a province in the New World, creating Pennsylvania. It was named after William Penn's father, Admiral Sir William Penn. Almost immediately land was parceled and sold for about 10-cents an acre in modern money. That same year, a Quaker sect from northern Wales purchase 40,000 acres in what became called the Welsh Tract. But it wasn't until after 1700 that European settlers made it to the western border of the Welsh Tract in the area now known as West Chester.

Dower House
Secondary sources have long held that the Dower House was the oldest continually inhabited house in West Chester, presumed to have been built in 1712 at what is now Goshen Road and High Street. But according to Jane E. Dorchester, architectural historian and historic preservation consultant, primary sources have recently revealed that about 1715 John and Mary Wall actually built a log house there. Sometime between 1767 and 1791, what is now the Dower House was built for or by Thomas Hoopes. While many consider it the oldest, that distinction probably goes to the Newlin-Parke House on North New Street.

Whatever the case, the fascinating story of the Dower House preservation by the early 20th century architect Brognard Okie is told in the following excerpt from The Brandywine, an Intimate Portrait by W. Barksdale Maynard:

"All these early Chester County houses are nationally important for their deep history and their craftsmanlike excellence. Architect [John] Milner lives in the Abiah Taylor House he restored and has described the power these old dwellings have exerted in creating a modern tradition of neocolonial design -- the past directly shaping the present in this Brandywine region of such heightened historical susceptibility:

The early vernacular architecture of southeastern Pennsylvania has had a profound influence on my own work for the past three decades. The treasures of this region afford almost limitless inspiration for the restoration of historic buildings as well as for the design of new building in the context of an exceptional landscape. The more I work on these remarkable structures, the more I feel a connection with the craftsmen who created them, and the more I am inspired to carry on the tradition.

"Milner greatly admires the architect Brognard Okie, a staunch anti-modernist of the early twentieth century who restored the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia and re-created William Penn's mansion on the Delaware River, in addition to developing a charming style of country house based on early colonial examples. 'He responded to the spirit of colonial woodwork,' Milner notes, 'but applied his own personal style.' Okie remodeled the Dower House outside West Chester* for novelist Joseph Hergesheimer, an exercise that says much about the dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist culture of the valley. For Hergesheimer, the Dower House (1712) had 'the air of the past, of an early Quaker pastoral, had remained like the tranquil scents of a simple garden.' In Okie he found a man of 'fanatical Honesty' who, even more than the novelist, 'lived almost wholly in an immaterial world, not of words but regretted old Pennsylvania houses' long since demolished.

"Together Hergesheimer and Okie tackled the restoration. Okie insisted on using solid oak beams for the door frames, joined with oak pins: 'That was the old way of doing it. That, then, would be our way.' (Thus they 'repudiated the use of screws in the Dower House' as excessively modern.) They begin a search for venerable lanterns, cupboards, latches, box locks, and 'the smallest brass knobs imaginable,' along with hinges of H, L, and clover shape. Old wood came from barns, stone was cut from abandoned quarries, huge boxwoods were trucked in from homesteads in the region. Local antique expert Francis Brinton helped; Hergesheimer said the meeting between Brinton and Okie 'was very affecting--two men lost in their singleness of allegiance to the past of Pennsylvania.'

Dower House"Not that the Dower House restoration was wholly authentic; windows were enlarged and a sleeping porch added. But the final results deeply impressed the nostalgic Hergesheimer, who brooded on the ancientness of the place: when in 1712 'the pins were thrust home above the latches, the doors, the house, was fastened upon a forest hardly broken by the settlement' of Penn. 'Slipping into the night it was absorbed in a silence that, emphasized by the wind in the trees, the nocturnal animals, reached across the continent from ocean to ocean. . . . It's impossible now to conceive of such a silence, such a deep resonant hush. How soon it vanished!'

"Surely the Dower House--still standing proud today at 100 Goshen Road, West Chester--and its various peers make Chester County, all in all, just about the best-preserved colonial landscape in the nation."

*The Dower House is, in fact, just inside West Chester Borough. Coincidentally, its County tax map number is 01-01-01, identifying it as the "First Parcel."

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The Brandywine, an Intimate Portrait
by W. Barksdale Maynard
University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2014
Pages 35-37

The Brandywine, An Intimate Portrait

Another book of interest is:
Stone Houses: Traditional Homes of R. Brognard Okie 2013
by James B. Garrison
Published by Rizzoli, 224 pages

Stone Houses

Books available at Chester County Historical Society. Your purchase and CCHS membership supports the preservation of Chester County history.

This article re-edited. First published February 22, 2015

Introductory information from West Chester to 1865: That Elegant & Notorious Place by Douglas R Harper, 1999


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