Print designer Renee Shortell and mixed media artist EJ Herczyk had lived in Philadelphia for 18 years, but by 2015 were itching to move to the country. In addition to their hope for privacy, quiet, and a freestanding house, both Shortell’s and Herczyk’s work requires large-format printers that need lots of breathing room.
“We wanted that live-work space, but out in the middle of nowhere, in between [New York and Philadelphia],” says Herczyk.
The couple had been casually looking for nearly two years when inspiration struck. After they installed a show of Herczyk’s work in New York’s Hudson Valley in January 2017, a snap snowstorm forced them off their regular route back to Philadelphia. The exit they chose took them across the Delaware River into Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and the rural area’s natural beauty struck them so much that when they got home, they immediately started looking for something in that area, even though it was farther north than they had initially been considering.
“The first house I look[ed] up [was] this one,” says Herczyk. “There weren’t a lot of pictures, but the pictures that they did list were very intriguing—and also the history of the house was really interesting.”
When they arrived to see the house, it was a complete wreck—“two minutes from being abandoned,” jokes Shortell—but it had all the elements they were looking for, it abutted preserved land, and it sat on an acre of property.
Beyond the couple’s vision for the home, they were also intrigued by its history. The main house was likely originally built in the 1800s, and then acquired in the middle of the 20th century by John Graham, who was design director for NBC in the ’60s. (Graham designed the network’s famous peacock logo.)
“You’re looking at his vision of what he wanted, as far as the renovations go, throughout the house,” says Herczyk, explaining that Graham added a structure to the back of the original house, and was ahead of the trend on reclaimed materials. “Whatever they pulled out of the house back then, he used [it] if he could.”
The couple suspects the bricks used on the kitchen floor were pulled from the house’s original rear facade, and Shortell notes that while the floors in the older section of the house are original, the joists in the basement are new. (Graham used the old as beams in the kitchen.)
“[Graham’s renovation was] really sensitive, interesting, and thoughtful,” adds Shortell.
Though their realtor, with whom they’d worked before and whom they consider a close family friend, advised them to walk away for various reasons, Shortell and Herczyk decided to move forward with the purchase. They’ve been grateful that Graham was so in tune with quality materials and construction even in the ’60s. Extracting an old oil tank on the property, which could have easily meant leaks and remediation, didn’t lead to any issues. “We’re constantly thanking him,” says Shortell.
The couple tried to preserve the details Graham built into the home while putting their own spin on things. Graham had, for example, moved the front door to the side of the house, which provided a very contemporary main floor for them to work with, as there was no formal foyer. He also recessed the entryway, which cleverly catches leaves as people enter and exit.
Though these elements were ingenious, other parts of the home were in serious need of an update.
Take, for example, the floors in the addition, which houses a family room and master bedroom. Previously, they were covered in a high-performance indoor-outdoor carpet and linoleum tiles over plywood. Here, the couple laid pickled knotty pine floors for a more modern look, and to visually distinguish them from the original floors throughout the main house. They also completely renovated the master bathroom, painted the addition black, and replaced its windows. The kitchen is still a work in progress, with progress being made piece by piece.
That’s because, Shortell explains, “we’re doing most of the work ourselves.”
Graham was also a painter, and originally turned the small barn on the property into a painting studio. It had fallen into disrepair, much like the rest of the house. But despite having to add lighting infrastructure and insulation, run new water lines, and install a new HVAC system, Shortell and Herczyk felt lucky that there were already insulated windows and a poured concrete slab beneath worn tile floors. “We had to do a lot of work on the barn, but it wasn’t like it was mule stalls,” says Shortell.
Beyond the absolutely necessary renovations, which are still underway, the home wasn’t quite perfect.
“We didn’t have a bathroom on the first floor [in Philadelphia],” Shortell explains. “We don’t here either. The [living room] stairs are challenging; I don’t know how well we’d age into those stairs. They feel like climbing a ladder.” Their Philadelphia home, an 1816 Victorian, had soaring 14-foot-high ceilings; the home in Bucks County, Herczyk says, has much more of a cottage feel. Even though the square footage is about the same, there are lower ceilings and little wall space for monumental paintings from the couple’s former home.
The weather also dictates their lives in a way that they hadn’t experienced before living in cities. “The weather is intense!” exclaims Herczyk. “It is just such a part of our daily existence: watching, paying attention. It’s [like] getting used to like shaking hands with nature.”
Thankfully, nature’s not the only thing to keeping them company. Shortell and Herczyk have been delighted by the community they’ve found and by which they’ve been embraced, and the home, with its thoughtful, open layout, has been ideal for family time and building upon those social connections and family time. “We thought we would feel really isolated,” says Shortell. “And that just hasn’t been the case.”