by Laird and Svitlana Budzhak-Jones
We began our State College house search late in the spring of 2001. Our realtor had planned a day of viewing six houses, to gauge our flexibility on style, neighborhood and price. We were just supposed to be looking. We viewed an unappealing ranch in Park Forest, and a weird chalet across the parkway. With several stops remaining we arrived at a 1920s stone hybrid with a bright red slate roof, smack dab in the middle of “Frat Land”.
We had noticed the house passing by years before. Most people do. It had the charm of a fairy tale cottage surrounded by an enchanted garden. It had been on the market for a year, and the realtor was not encouraging. Getting out of the car we were nervous about all the surrounding fraternity houses, but school was out and they were quiet. Several nicely kept houses in the vicinity suggested that families did live in the neighborhood. A quick glance revealed old, peeling windows, leaning trellis columns, a door leading to nowhere, serious slate roof repairs, a stone fireplace in the back yard on the brink of collapse, and an overgrown yard with wild black raspberry jungle for a garden. A grape vine pathway led us from the garage to the house. We stepped inside and Laird started grumbling about knob and tube wiring, dead appliances… The interior paint colors were “special,” but we at least agreed we could change those. Then Svitlana saw the living room fireplace mantle – a wood and plaster Grecian Wedgewood design – and the search was over. Our debate was rather brief. We considered quieter choices, better economic ones too, but that fireplace…
The realtor was surprised. We closed in a month and had only the summer to get ready to move in. With a baby on the way, and very limited funds, we considered the most expedient options: Remove the slate, replace the windows, and bulldoze the yard. But as we started cleaning up, we noticed more and more positive features. There were two stories of great oak floors under all the 80s shag carpeting. And Moravian tile too. There were three unique fireplaces. The interior lines, arches, and angles really tied the whole layout together. The ventilation was great, when we succeeded in prying open a few windows. There were windows or doors with glass inserts in every outer wall of the house. They cast great light and were capable of creating drafts in any direction to air the whole house in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, the house did not have AC, and it did not need any. There were outside doors facing all 4 directions of the sun. Each door was unique. Our favorite was the split Dutch door with windows and an Old-World thumb latch on the west side of the house.
The red slate roof was a big part of the house. It was in desperate need of repair or replacement. We called around for estimates. One of the contractors suggested to sell the red slate scraps, which could probably pay for the entire new roof. It got us puzzled. We did some research and discovered that our roof was Vermont red slate. It was terribly expensive and typically used only for accents in gray slate roofs. We searched for another house with the red slate roof in the vicinity, from State College to Harrisburg, and found none alike. It appeared that we bought a house with a unique, if not actually rare roof. It really set the house apart. And it just wouldn’t be the same house with a fast and cheap overhaul.
Later that summer someone incognito shoved a few old notebooks through our mail slot in the front door. One of the first pages read: “…While State College Borough can boast of no really old house, it does contain a home with elements taken from three Early Pennsylvania dwellings: The Curtin House (1800-1812), the Diller House (about 1806), and the Heatherington House (1803-1804).” The notes had been compiled by Leonard Doggett, an earlier owner. They mentioned the architect, A. Lawrence Kocher, and listed the origin of a number of antique fixtures. We researched Kocher, a graduate of Stanford University, MIT and NYU, and the Head of the Department of Architecture at PSU, who left State College in 1926 to become the head of the McIntire School of Art and Architecture at the University of Virginia. Two years later he was selected by John D. Rockefeller as one of the advising architects for Colonial Williamsburg. Besides his passion for historical preservation, Kocher was also known as a modern architect co-authoring several innovative architectural projects with his partners Gerhard Ziegler, Albert Frey, and Bauhaus designer Walter Gropius. We purchased reprints of Kocher’s 14-part series on “Early Architecture of Pennsylvania” (New York, Architectural Record, 1920-1922). There we found our Wedgewood fireplace mantle. It was one of three fireplaces from the Diller House in Lancaster, which was built in 1805 from drawings by John Hill, a Philadelphia architect who designed the first State Capitol building in Harrisburg. The other two fireplaces were rescued by Kocher from the 1804 Hetherington house in Milton, PA. The North door, complete with its exterior stone door sills and the boot scraper, were from the Curtin house of Bellefonte, built between in 1800-1812 for Dr. Constans Curtin, where his relative Governor Andrew Curtin resided after retiring from Office. We also learned that the State College Graduate Nurses’ Study Club was founded in the living-room of our house, when it was owned by the Dean of School of Chemistry and Physics, Gerald L. Wendt.
Thereafter we altered our plans. We decided to focus on saving the house. We had to start with the roof first. We found the way to save the red slate roof… Then we added stairs and a little porch for the East door which led to nowhere since the time the house was built in 1921. We found souvenir Moravian tiles in the Philadelphia museum of art and used two of them in the newly added porch columns to match those tiles found elsewhere in the house. We tried to restore the garden, though we added a fence and lots of climbing roses around the perimeter. We restored the original stone fireplace in the back yard tucked under the centuries-old elm tree. Later, we restored most of the original windows with pulleys and weights. They should be good for another hundred years. We also restored the original window shutters with their tulip cutouts. Those tulip cutouts are also featured in the doors of our entry closet. We recently completed renovating the entryway and were able to incorporate new hand-made tiles with tulip designs in its wall. We capped both 40-foot chimneys, repointed them, and lined one of them which connected to a wood insert stone in our 1805 Wedgewood fireplace, where we spent most of our time in winter. The fireplace in the master bedroom was also restored. It features a wood mantle with no embellishments rescued from the demolished 1804 Hetherington house in Milton, PA. It is set in 1920-s Moravian tile. Our fireplace in the dining room is awaiting its turn for restoration. It was made from the chair rail from the same Milton house.
Electrical wiring has been a challenge. We have been slowly replacing our knob-and-tube wiring, preserving as much of the historic features as possible, including push button switch plates, floor receptacles, and the period electrical fixtures. We’ve spent many happy hours hunting those treasures on the internet…. For the last decade it’s been the interior one room at a time, as our finances and time allow us. This year it is the dining room.
We wish we had the original plan of the house to guide us. But we had no luck locating it anywhere. When we were restoring the upstairs bathroom, we borrowed a 1920-s catalogue of bathroom designs from a friend, and tried to come up with the period design and historic-like fixtures. We were lucky to find antique Art Nouveau tiles on e-bay. They were made in turn of the century England and shipped to us from a demolition in Uruguay. What a world! And we were able to save and restore the original hand-made floor tiles there.
We have been living in this never-ending project for the last 18 years. But we have to admit that we enjoy the challenges. It’s like living in the longest running home restoration reality show minus producer, director, and sponsorship money. There are still things to be restored… There is still much to do. And yet, sometimes we do dream of a chance to move out for a while and finish it all at once.
Laird and Svitlana Budzhak-Jones are the current owners of the Kocher House at 357 East Prospect Ave. in State College.