West Chester couple's house linked to George Washington

George Washington's furniture-maker slept here. But owners Tom Zadnik and Peggy Conway didn't know that when they bought the 1815 West Chester house. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
George Washington's furniture-maker slept here. But owners Tom Zadnik and Peggy Conway didn't know that when they bought the 1815 West Chester house. DAVID SWANSON / Staff
Posted: June 09, 2012

The year is 1815. John Aitken, a Scottish-born furniture-maker with a shop on Chestnut Street — whose clients include George Washington — is ready to retire. He shuts his store, buys land in Upper Oxford, Chester County, and starts planning his retirement home.

Fast-forward to an early fall day in 1997. Aitken's house is still standing, but its importance remains unknown — that is, until an impatient, tired-with-Route-202-traffic commuter from West Chester takes a new route home from work and spots the house, for sale, on his detour.

It would still take a few years for the story to unravel — for its new homeowner, Tom Zadnik, and his partner, Peggy Conway, to buy the 1883 atlases showing the house and barn, for Zadnik to retire so he'd have the time to do research, and so on.

Does the historical significance of this finding rank with the signing of the Declaration of Independence? No.

But don't discount it, said historian Rob Lukens, president of the Chester County Historical Society. Normally, people associate George Washington and Chester County with the Battle of the Brandywine and Valley Forge — not with George ordering 24 side chairs, two sideboards, and a secretary bookcase for the grand total of $547.20.

But "this shows another connection, the most familiar figure in America, a connection no one would have thought of," to a craftsman, Lukens said. "It's another story that we can all learn from."

Leslie Keno, senior vice president of Sotheby's and a familiar figure to all lovers of PBS's Antiques Roadshow, said that what made Aitken furniture particularly valuable was its provenance. "George sat, and it's documented. That makes it huge. It doesn't get much better than George Washington."

Zadnik had long been in love with U.S. history. A retired mechanical engineer who specialized in acoustics, Zadnik spent much time in places that helped shape this country's present: Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian.

On the day he saw the house, he was looking for a more leisurely way to do his usual commute between New Castle, Del., and West Chester. Experimenting with side roads, he found himself on Route 896 near Route 1. Spotting a For Sale sign, he noticed the house of Federal design, with an intact portico and mature trees; he had to stop. "My attraction was the architecture," he said. "I came up onto the portico and peeked in the window."

A peek or two was all he needed to decide to buy; nanoseconds have passed slower. After Conway gave her approval, they bought the house.

Two years later, they attended an antiques show where a dealer was selling atlases of Chester County from the 1800s. They bought those showing their parcel. And on that parcel, where their house stood, were a house and a barn in the same spots.

They framed the pages. The question of who built the house nudged at Zadnik. Every time he passed the framed map, "I kept looking at it. My curiosity got the better of me."

When he retired in 2006, Zadnik had the time to research the origins of his house. His "search was an easy one," said Clifford Parker, Chester County archivist. "The title was straightforward. It took a couple of weeks to find." After conducting a little more research, Zadnik discovered who Aitken was.

It was only recently that Lukens, of the Chester County Historical Society, learned about the house from a volunteer and friend of Zadnik, and wrote an April article about it in West Chester's Daily Local News. The discovery, Lukens said, shows that "serendipitous historical findings are still out there just waiting to be uncovered."

Since the Aitken house's construction, the 10 subsequent owners have treated it with the respect it deserves. The chestnut floors on the first floor still gleam and, at casual glance, seem unmarred; the same holds true for the pumpkin pine flooring upstairs. The walls and ceilings show no signs of buckling, as they often do in older homes. The original molding is still there.

Then there is the front door, with the original fanlight on top — and the original working key and lock. The key measures about four inches. The doorbell is in the middle of the door. There are no built-in pieces of furniture, but there are some remarkable mantels.

Zadnik and Conway have maintained an 18th-century decor: in the hallway, a Christian Eby grandfather clock, dated 1799. In the kitchen, a spinning wheel. "We traveled from New England to South Carolina, looking for pieces," Conway said.

Why was buying this furniture important? "It added to our lives, it added to the beauty of the house," she said. "It enriched us in the whole process."

In 1797, retiring President Washington thought that buying quality furniture was important, too, said Susan Schoelwer, the curator at Mount Vernon. Washington had just finished decorating his newest expansion, and part of the expansion included a reception area where he would receive visiting heads of state. (In 1798, 700 people slept at Mount Vernon during visits to see the retired president.)

Washington was "conscious" of the European heads of state's opinion of the newly minted Republic: "They thought America was a joke," Schoelwer said.

So, Washington — likely after consulting with his wife and others — decided on furniture that would be streamlined, austere, neoclassical. "We are no longer an aristocracy," Schoelwer said. "Buying neoclassical from Aitken is a statement on his part, [describing] a Republican ethos and vision of the future of America. It's very much a political statement."

Mount Vernon has one sideboard, the secretary bookcase, and 10 chairs made by Aitken ( click here to take a virtual tour of Mount Vernon ). (Whoever has the other pieces, she said, please ask them to call Mount Vernon.)

One of those solid mahogany chairs with the brass tacks resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art ( click here to view a photo of the chair ). Curator Alexandra Kirtley, who is planning an exhibition in two years on some of Aitken's work, explains why Washington sought out the Scottish émigré. "He was the best.?… Washington also probably liked his classic lines and restrained decorations."

When Aitken arrived in Philadelphia before 1783, the city was the place to be in the new country. The nation's capital, it was packed with artists and other talented people, as well as politicians of all stripes, Kirtley said, "so there was real elegance in coming to Philadelphia."

Already trained as a master cabinetmaker — what furniture-makers were called in those days — Aitken arrived with letters of introduction from his church and well-off members of Scottish society. "He finds immediate patronage, not only because he is talented, but because he is Scottish," said Kirtley. "They are fiercely loyal and independent." His shop on Chestnut Street is across from Independence Hall; Schoelwer speculates Aitken and Washington met after "someone put in a word."

Cabinetmakers, Kirtley said, began their apprenticeship at age 14 and remained apprentices for seven years. They worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. They didn't have vacations, she said. They kept their tools sharp. "Using chisels as often as they did, that is why they became as prolific as they did."

After the War of 1812 ended, Philadelphia fell into a recession. Washington, D.C., replaced Philadelphia as the capital. And, for cabinetmakers, business was changing from made-to-order, or "bespoke," to ready-made. Times were changing.

And so Aitken retired.

Conway and Zadnik have taken their roles as caretakers seriously. "The impact has been great," Zadnik said. "To have all this come together, we have had so much satisfaction."

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