Can you imagine sinking $350,000 into a house and knowing that those repairs were just scratching the home’s improvement and restoration surface?
“A lot of people can’t live in a house like this,” Margaret Choate said amid walls with lead paint chipping off; a dilapidated sunroom and needed roof repairs; buckling floor boards which warrant the addition of steel beams in the ceiling; and walls sprouting large cracks and baring wood beneath.
In fact, when the time came a decade ago for someone to be caretaker to the circa 1810 Penrose-Strawbridge house, located adjacent to Graeme Park on one side and the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base on the other, Mrs. Choate, 63, and her husband, Peter, 70, were the only ones left standing.
“We stood in line and everybody took a step back but Margaret and me,” Peter Choate said.
And what they stood in line for, quite simply, was to ensure that the 3-story Penrose-Strawbridge house - which sits on roughly 103 acres - would not be demolished.
“It needed to be saved,” Mrs. Choate said. “You would’ve lost all the history of the people who saved Graeme Park.”
The root of early Horsham preservation
The Choates credit previous homeowner, the late Margaret Strawbridge, with helping to preserve neighboring Graeme Park. In the late 1950s, Strawbridge donated 42 acres, including the Keith House, to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Of particular interest was the colonial era home, which had been lived in by Pennsylvania governor William Keith. The Keith House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours and events as part of
Prior to the Strawbridge ownership, Samuel Penrose and his family owned the 19th century house. According to Peter Choate, the well-off Penroses had lived in the Keith House while the newer house nearby was being built. And, like the Strawbridges after them, the Penrose family owned the 103 acres, along with what is today Graeme Park.
In 1996, the remaining 103 acres that the Strawbridge family had owned was conveyed to Horsham. Prior to her death, Mrs. Strawbridge had transferred the land to Natural Lands Trust. Once she died, Mike McGee, Horsham Township manager at the time, said Natural Lands Trust wanted someone else to take ownership of the property.
“We started a negotiation with them to have the property transferred to the township,” McGee said. “We the township were reluctant to commit to maintaining the property and restoring the property. We did commit to looking for a means by which the property could be restored and at least maintained.”
Enter Peter and Margaret Choate who had worked in computer technology and banking respectively. The Choates, who had their work cut out for them, made their restorative intentions official by forming the nonprofit Horsham Preservation and Historical Association in 1998.
Through the association that Horsham officials helped them to found, the Choates submitted a restoration proposal for the Penrose-Strawbridge house.
And from that, the Choates – through the Horsham Preservation and Historical Association - began a three-year lease with the township. For $1 a year, the Choates took the lead on seeking out restoration grants and overseeing various improvement projects.
Around the same time, McGee said the couple spearheaded the creation of a historical advisory commission and led the township in amending its zoning code.
"It's a domino thing," McGee said of the Choates' efforts. "The township is attempting to encourage people with older homes and structures to maintain them and restore them rather than demolish them."
As part of that work, the Choates also surveyed to determine how many historic properties exist in Horsham. According to an HPHA brochure, the township is home to more than 120 houses that are over 100 years old.
And while those other historical projects were a spinoff of the Penrose-Strawbridge preservation efforts, fundraising for and restoring the house had become the couple’s new full-time job. Their passion for the work shows in their knowledge of everything from reused wooden floorboards to handmade nails and the patterns made when those nails were pounded into wood some 200 years ago.
“I can talk for hours about it,” said Mr. Choate, HPHA executive director. “Not just the house and the site, but the history of Horsham.”
When the association’s three-year lease with the township ended, Horsham regrouped and looked at its options, again seeking proposals.
“They didn’t believe we could do it. They put the property up for bid,” Mr. Choate said. “We knew it was going to take $1 million to restore the property.”
The association that Margaret Choate founded – HPHA – submitted the lone proposal. And, in January 2004, HPHA signed a 25-year lease with Horsham.
The Choates spent the next seven months making the house livable before selling their home and moving in as caretakers.
“We were living in a nice house off of Norristown Road,” Peter Choate said of their historic home. “(We said) somebody’s got to live here. You can’t leave the house empty.”
With the Choates at the helm, all of the home’s 25 windows and 24 sets of shutters have been replaced and electrical rewiring - which came with a $38,000 price tag - has been carried out. First-time DUI offenders and youth offenders in need of community service have chipped in more than 2,000 volunteer hours per year, Mr. Choate said. Volunteers are put to work the first weekend of every month cutting grass, shoveling snow, and, in cases where skilled craftsmen are on hand, undertaking electrical and masonry work at the Penrose-Strawbridge house.
Obstacles to preserving the Penrose-Strawbridge house
What lies ahead for the township-owned Penrose-Strawbridge tract is hard to say in light of state budget cuts.
“This year, if we get money we’ll do a lot of work,” Peter Choate said. “If we don’t get money, we won’t do a lot of work.”
Ultimately, the Choates and the Horsham Preservation and Historical Association had hoped to restore the property well enough to open it up for tours and school visits, similar to Graeme Park and other state historic sites, although that is still several years away, Mr. Choate said.
But, as historic sites struggle to stay afloat in the midst of state funding cutbacks, Mr. Choate is less sure of the Penrose-Strawbridge future.
“Pennsbury Manor, Graeme Park – all the museums and historical places really don’t have a draw,” he said. “This building and this property will never pay its own way.”
Aside from the economics of restoring and maintaining a 200-year-old house, McGee said the property has other downsides, chief of which is its proximity to the air base and runway.
"The property is impacted by a plume, a contamination of jet fuel," McGee said of the underground contaminant. "Over the course of the last many years, the plume has retracted ... It's getting closer to the fence line."
Looking to the future
The Choates had committed to being caretakers for the first five years of the 25-year lease, which entered its seventh year in January. Both in their golden years, Mr. and Mrs. Choate said they don’t know how much longer they will take the lead.
Horsham Township Manager Bill Walker said he’s wondered the same thing.
“Who replaces you guys when you officially retire from this?” Walker said he’s asked the couple.
The Choates do not have a firm answer. But, until they officially retire, the couple is working to preserve a piece of Horsham history. And, in doing so, Mr. Choate said one thing seems to be keeping them from reaching that goal: Money.
“If somebody gave me a million dollars I’d have this house fixed in a year,” he said.
Walker said the township’s end goal has always been for the property to be preserved, but not be a “drain on our general fund.”
“What the future has in store, I don’t know,” Walker said.
Digging up the past
And while the future may be uncertain, a group of artifacts enthusiasts have been mining treasures from the land in hopes of grasping a better understanding of the past.
Ed Price of New Britain has been volunteering in ongoing archaeological digs on the Penrose-Property for about two years. He’s found redware – pieces of red clay pottery glazed on both sides and decorated by hand; pricier China from Europe and pipe stems common in the time frame when the Penroses owned the property.
“Penrose-Strawbridge is kind of like the high point for the things I’ve gotten in the way of China,” Price said. “Sometimes we pull out enough to actually reconstruct a piece.”
To uncover how people live nowadays, archaeologists would most likely need to venture to a landfill. But, back several hundreds of years ago, Price said it was common practice to throw trash – broken dishes, glassware and sometimes even jewelry – outside. Pathways, doorways, windows and outdoor privies, if they can be located, have all proven to be good digging spots, he said.
“There’s things in the ground. You can’t just throw dirt over it and say ‘that’s it.’ It’s all a mystery,” Price said. “You dig in a spot and you may or may not find anything.”
In the end, the 5x5 square can serve as a window into the life of people no longer able to share their stories.
“Some of this history is hard to come by,” Price said. “When you find things, they tend to help you understand the site, not just the artifacts, but the structure.”