by John and Sandra Wyngaard
We are lucky enough to own a gem of a house in the Highlands that is filled with history. It is built of stone mined from local quarries and trussed with hand-hewn timbers reclaimed from coal mines west of here. Its wide-board oak flooring, complete with pegs and butterfly joints, was harvested locally. It also contains design elements that reflect the best of the era in which it was built. We recently acquired a copy of Country Houses written by the famous architect Frank J. Forster and published in 1931. While our Norman Farmhouse —as Forster calls its style— was designed by the local architects Kapp and Kennedy, much of the inspiration for its elegant use of space and natural materials can be found in this volume.
Our knowledge of the historical significance of our house has imposed constraints on our renovation projects. Locating materials and honoring the integrity of its design and construction has been a challenge. But its restoration has also sent us on adventures that have given us a new appreciation for our house and the craftsmen who built it.
Our renovation journey began when we purchased our house at 300 East Hamilton Avenue in 1991. Built in 1936 by John Henszey, whose family owned and subdivided most of the lots in the Highlands, our house had undergone several additions over the years. Updating and repairing a leaking screened-in porch and a sagging dormer added in the 1950s became our first priorities.
We decided to remove the porch and replace it with a larger master bedroom. A major challenge was locating more vintage Ludowici Celadon clay roof tiles to match the existing roof tiles. Ruth Henszey, wife of John’s brother, Bill, early on paid us a visit and pointed out that the roof tiles on our house originally cost twice as much as the rest of the house so we knew they were rare and costly. Luckily, we noticed that a small building with the same tiled roof across from the Pizza Hut on South Atherton was being torn down. We quickly made a deal with the wreckers, paying $1 a piece for its roof tiles. A trip to Reclaimed Roofs in Hockessin, Delaware, a company whose storage lot is stacked with thick slate and clay tiles recovered from mansions in the Philadelphia and Wilmington areas, netted us the remaining tiles we needed.
Luck was also on our side when we met Mr. Barry Smith, a slate roofer from Union City. Somehow his crew suspended themselves over our addition and perfectly flashed the roof with copper and installed the tiles without breaking any. The foreman of this same crew also carefully cut and replaced the clay tiles on our dovecote whose turreted roof had been heavily damaged when a tree fell on it.
Another one of our many adventures involved the flooring tiles in our kitchen. We consulted with Mr. Swank, whose father had originally installed them. These grungy brown tiles, coated with multiple layers of dirt and wax, were so ugly that we initially asked Mr. Swank to remove them. He became adamant, pointing out to us that they were original Moravian tiles from the Mercer Tileworks in Doylestown, the same tiles that adorn the main floor of the State Capitol in Harrisburg. After he took us to the basement to show us that the tiles had been installed in concrete poured between the flooring joists, we relented and began cleaning them using multiple applications of paint remover. As we worked, we discovered that the small hexagonal tiles were a beautiful terra cotta red. When we later remodeled the kitchen, we visited the Moravian Tile and Pottery Works in Doylestown, now operated by Bucks County Parks and Recreation, and they custom made more flooring tile for us to fill in areas around our new cabinets. When we visited the Mercer Museum and Fonthill Castle nearby, we saw many of the same figural tiles that are installed in our bathrooms and carriage house.
Working with seasoned, accomplished craftsmen like Mr. Smith and Mr. Swank has given us a new appreciation of the traditional building arts. Mr. Robin Hillard, a local plumber, is another good example. Our house has a colorful retro bathroom with an original one-piece Case toilet. This toilet fits perfectly into a tiled niche in our master bathroom, so preserving it became a priority. When it began leaking, we noticed we could purchase replacement parts for the tank on line. The box of more than twenty parts arrived, and Robin set to work replacing the fill valve of our Case, often referred to as the “Cadillac’” of its day. He worked through most of a day to refit our toilet, allowing us to preserve the original look of our bathroom.
Remaining true to the integrity of our house’s construction and design has required both time and patience, but we have been enriched by the craftsmen we have met and the local history we have learned. Our experiences have helped us to understand the unique “sense of place” that characterizes our Highlands neighborhood.
John and Sandra Wyngaard moved back to State College from Boulder, Colorado, in 1991. John joined PSU’S Meteorology Department, and Sandra returned to teaching English at State High, 25 years after her first stint there in the 60s. They enjoy growing azaleas and rhododendrons and roaming the farmers’ markets, especially in the Sinking Valley area east of Tyrone. Sandra can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.