Farmhouse is plenty comfy

Emily looks at a book in the book nook. The Kiewels use a great room added in 1980 as a play space for their grandchildren.
Emily looks at a book in the book nook. The Kiewels use a great room added in 1980 as a play space for their grandchildren.

Diane and Rick Kiewel stepped from tract housing way back to 1796.

Posted: September 17, 2012

This tale, about Diane and Rick Kiewel of Marple Township, is as much about their very old house as it is about two divorcees starting over and the importance of la famiglia.

This house has allowed Diane to be even closer to her tight-knit Italian family, and it has let her help her daughter with her growing family. The former tenant farmhouse, part of which was built in 1796, also has taught Rick a thing or two about himself.

Our story starts in December 1995. Rick, currently director of finance for Mellon Certified Restoration in Yeadon, was not quite divorced, but was ready for a new relationship.

He wrote in a Christmas card to friends, "If you know a nice girl. . . ."

His friends did. "They set up a blind date at the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia," Rick says.

In June 1998, Rick, now 58, and Diane, now 55, married.

With four children between them - three in college - the newlyweds bought a house in Delaware, where Rick was then living.

It was a "Stepford community," Diane says, every home the same save the address. She hated the place so much she didn't change a thing. Not the foil wallpaper in the bathroom, not the mauve blinds in the kitchen.

Three years in that center-hall Colonial was enough. Because they were both from the Upper Darby area - Diane's family still lived nearby - they decided to look there.

It was a decision that pleased Diane and her family to no end. "My mother," she says, "likes all her chicks in a row."

Searching in the area, they found a for-sale sign for the farmhouse. They did a walk-through.

Rick's reaction? No way.

"It was too small, too old." He was not willing to "dump the money into it" for modern upgrades, such as new windows and air conditioning.

"I thought I liked newer. It seemed too confining to me," he says. Their Delaware house was 2,800 square feet; the farmhouse, 2,200.

Diane, of course, had other thoughts. Her sister was around the corner, her parents not far away. She liked older houses. And upstairs, right near the Jack and Jill bathroom and its two entrances, was a little nook with bookshelves. She envisioned a tiny chair with a grandchild parked in it.

And, she had an ace in the hole: If necessary, she felt she could persuade Rick to buy the house.

But that didn't happen right away, and the ace stayed up her sleeve. The couple continued looking, even bidding on another house, a split-level.

"It was so ugly," Diane says.

"She wasn't feeling it," Rick says.

His subconscious started nudging him: Should they see if the farmhouse was still available, he asked Diane. No doubt, she smiled sweetly. Of course, she said.

They went back just in time. Another couple wanted the house, but the owners awarded the Kiewels the bid.

Eleven years later, and Rick has done exactly what he said he wouldn't. The house has all new windows; it has air conditioning. (Because there was a gravity-fed wood stove in the basement, existing ductwork handled the cooling. And the house has two heat pumps.)

In an 1850 addition are the kitchen and TV room. The former is a narrow galley design with knotty-pine paneling the previous owners had painted. Updates by the Kiewels include hickory cabinets, a travertine floor, and rust-colored, veined granite countertops. The kitchen table was custom-made by a woman who crafts furniture with pine reclaimed from barns; they also commissioned a desk and a bench.

The last addition to the house was made in 1980: a great room with large windows that look out onto the rest of the nearly one-acre property. An enormous sycamore consumes the view of one of the windows.

This room has a different feel from the others; there are no sharp edges anywhere. The reason: This is where the couple's infant twin grandsons and 2½-year-old granddaughter, Emily, come to play. Diane retired from her position as an administrative assistant at the University of Pennsylvania so her daughter, the children's mother, could continue working as a nurse.

Of course, it's Emily who occupies the book nook.

Old houses have interesting stories, and the Kiewels' farmhouse is no different.

There's the moving-day story, in which an owl, trying to save its owlet that had flown into the chimney, was perched in the master bedroom. The mother was safely removed, but the owlet died. After that, Rick sealed the chimney.

And, of course, there's a ghost, who smokes a cigar. Two or three times a year, generally in winter, they smell it, Diane says.

Of the house he once rejected, Rick now has this to say:

"I have grown to love it. I don't know if I could ever sell it."

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