Haven: Taking a Revolutionary turn

The dining room. The 1930s furniture from Keith's grandparents, who had the home built, was a way, Janet says, "to keep their memory alive."
The dining room. The 1930s furniture from Keith's grandparents, who had the home built, was a way, Janet says, "to keep their memory alive."

HAVEN | Blue Bell split-level embraces the 1700s with colors, decor from a Pennsylvania of long ago.

Posted: August 11, 2014

Typically, those who acquire ancestral homes modernize them. Keith and Janet Childs did the reverse, aging his grandparents' mid-20th-century split-level back about 200 years.

Except for an attached garage, the Blue Bell house now resembles the historic mansions of Germantown, such as Cliveden, site of a Revolutionary War battle. Gen. Washington lost that fight, but he won the war and the hearts of his countrymen - including Keith Childs.

"George Washington is in every room in this house," Janet Childs says.

Images of Washington include a copy of Charles Willson Peale's portrait, a depiction of him presiding over the Constitutional Convention, a painting in the family room of Washington on horseback, and, behind the canopied bed in the master bedroom, one of him kneeling in prayer.

To enhance the Revolutionary War-era decor, the couple chose Williamsburg paints: white for walls, with soft gray or sage green trim in living areas, and rustic red for the kitchen. (A built-in spice rack was crafted by one of Keith's friends.)

Janet applied blue milk paint to a TV cabinet Keith made to resemble a Colonial cupboard. He also built a Colonial-style liquor cage, a storage cupboard for spirits with a pull-down grate that can be locked, and he carved the small stone sink next to it.

Keith, 52, a stone mason with his own business, bought the three-bedroom house from his mother, Charlotte, in 1991. She had inherited it from her parents, Max and Hilda Mordhorst, who had the stone home built in a new subdivision in 1955.

"I spent a lot of time here as a kid," he says.

While his mother still owned the house, Keith replaced the roof shingles with cedar shakes. Soon after he purchased the house, he built a corner fireplace in the family room and one above in the master bedroom. In the living room, he installed a Federal-style fireplace, carving morning glories in the Vermont marble surrounding it.

Several years later, he constructed the stone cottage adjacent to the house as a workshop and a place to park his dump truck.

In 2007, when Janet moved in, the living space was expanded to make room for a blended family of five: Janet and Keith, her son and daughter, and his daughter. To create a bedroom for Janet's teenage son, Keith bumped out the basement and lined the walls with stone. Later, he added a bathroom with a unique stone shower.

Above the addition, Keith built a garden shed with stone salvaged from a house being demolished in Chestnut Hill. (The stone for the Childs house originally came from a quarry there.)

A globe lamp and a 1930s dining room suite owned by Keith's grandparents are among the furnishings. "We wanted to keep their memory alive in the house, while making it our own," Janet says.

The couple is not averse to modern comforts. Two years ago, Keith installed radiant heat and a brick floor in the family room. In summer, a whole-house fan and a SpacePak air-conditioning system cool the house.

Janet, 49, a nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, met Keith when she hired him to make masonry repairs to the house she then owned. They married three years ago.

She has high praise for his skill. During power outages, she says, she cooks in the family room fireplace or in the beehive oven Keith built in the yard.

Recently, Keith and Janet laid out a vegetable garden enclosed by a picket fence. This summer, she grew tomatoes, beans, eggplant, bok choy, and other produce and planted tall purple alliums around the fence.

Her forthcoming projects for Keith include enlarging the master bedroom and bath. She also would like him to redo a project. Years ago, he painted a now-faded checkerboard pattern on the oak floor in the kitchen.

"Keith loves it and calls it patina," Janet says. "I hate it and call it worn."

Keith inherited talent for creative craftsmanship from his grandfather, an innovative tool-and-die maker who died in 1972.

One wonders what Max Mordhorst - who fabricated parts for the then-futuristic Univac computer - would think of his grandson's attraction to the 18th century.

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