Home : Quarterly Archives : Volume 22
Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
Source: October 1984 Volume 22 Number 4, Pages 147–151
A Furness Barn in Tredyffrin
Tredyffrin Township can claim a unique architectural treasure - the last remaining barn designed by the eminent Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. This barn was discovered to be of Furness design as part of the extensive survey work recently completed in conjunction with the Chester County Historic Sites Survey. In the survey, under the direction of the Chester County Historical Society and coordinated by the Environmental Management Center of the Brandywine Conservancy, more than two hundred historic buildings in Tredyffrin Township alone were documented and photographed!
Among them were three unusual discoveries. Two houses, "Hillcrest" and "Deepdale" in Strafford, were found to be of Furness design, as was - the biggest surprise and discovery of all - the Cassatt barn adjacent to the Lee-Bradford Quarters at Chesterbrook. Because the barn's future existence is now in question, relating its history is all the more important.
The Historic Sites Survey was like a game of discovery. Workers in the field relied not only on information provided by the owner of the property and the visible features of each building itself, but often equally valuable were written records, such as maps, diaries, and early photographs. In the case of the Cassatt barn, these also included an architectural check list and newspaper accounts,
James F. O'Gorman's exhaustive work, The Architecture of Frank Furness, provided invaluable clues, and was the initial inspiration to search for local buildings designed by Furness - some known and confirmed; others, as in the case of the Cassatt barn, heretofore not known. Included in the book was a highly interesting and important section, a "Checklist of the Architectural Projects of Frank Furness" by George E. Thomas and Hyman Myers, It is a record of the information known about Furness' commissions up to the time of the book's publication in 1973. The list gives specific information about 327 documented works of the architect and his firm, from about 1871, when the career of Furness was launched, until the early 1900's. (While the name and composition of his firm changed from time to time, he was its guiding genius.)
Many of these documented works have now been demolished. The aim of the field workers was to match specific existing buildings with those listed in the Checklist. The clue in this case was a reference to
"#214 Stable at 'Chesterbrook Farms'
("PRERBG" stands for the "Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide".)
A trip to the Free Library of Philadelphia was made, to search the listed reference in the microfilm collection. It read as follows: "... Furness, Evans & Co, ... have completed plans for a large, handsome stable to be erected at Chesterbrook Farms near Berwyn. Pa. It will be of stone, brick and frame, and replete with all the latest accommodations; cement floors, hardwood stalls, electric work, plumbing of the most approved system. Estimates are being made on the work,"
The description matched very well the barn now standing, together with the large adjacent portion that was demolished by the owner, owing to its weak structure, in 1982.
A second, confirming clue relative to the date, 1898, was found in various newspaper accounts in the Daily Local News in West Chester. On March 3, 1898 it was reported: "Twenty pure bred Guernsey cows, the stars of the herd which A. J. Cassatt has been breeding for 20 years past, perished last night in a fire on his stock farm, Chesterbrook, two miles from Berwyn Station and in Tredyffrin township. The barn in which the animals were kept was destroyed, and the farm stable adjoining was also destroyed." The fire obviously made it necessary for Cassatt to replace these two important outbuildings - and to whom but Frank Furness did he turn, as verified by the previous item in the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide of July 20, 1898!
A, J. Cassatt was the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and a prominent citizen on the Main Line. Both of his other homes, "Cheswold" in Haverford, and his residence at 2006 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, were also designed by Furness.
He had purchased Chesterbrook Farm in 1881 from David Havard; it had been in the Havard family for 250 consecutive years. In keeping with the style of the era, Cassatt established the farm as a "showcase" of livestock management and agricultural technology. Chesterbrook Farm was soon known not only as a prominent Chester County farm, but also had a reputation throughout Pennsylvania and as far away as England.
Although building styles continued in the Georgian mode until as late as 1850, the new aristocracy turned to pattern books and to architects for the expression of their growing prosperity. Such was the case with Alexander J. Cassatt, who engaged his friend Frank Furness to design even as utilitarian and simple a structure as this barn. Thus, even though it lacks the earmarks of high style of the dwellings of the era, this building, which is closer to the vernacular, nevertheless has both historical and architectural significance. Frank Furness is recognized as Philadelphia's - and possibly the nation's - leading exponent of the idiosyncratic High Gothic Revival Style that flourished in the late nineteenth century. The barn's style is specifically Shingle Style.
The massive three-story banked barn measures approximately 45 feet by 100 feet. Its foundation is of grey, coursed stone. It is of frame construction, seven bays wide, and is sheathed in wood shingles. In the front there are three large hipped dormers, with two identical dormers in the rear. There are six windows on the front and rear, three on each end, and paned windows in the gables. The walls are subtlely flared, A small stone building is attached to the side, and features a corbelled brick chimney. (A new asphalt roof was put on the building by the Fox Companies in 1982.)
Adjacent to the barn is a small, one-story auxiliary building, also of Furness design. This was the two-room office of Chesterbrook Farm's manager, and is built of coursed grey stone. Small cross gables, supported by decorative, curving wooden brackets, painted a bright blue and rust, give the effect of dormer windows in the roof. The office measures 20 feet by 4-2 feet.
The buildings are presently owned by the Fox Companies of Bala Cynwyd. Their condition is good and their integrity excellent. The present use of the barn is for the storage of building materials of the Company.
A Pennsylvania Historic Resource Survey Form for the structure has been submitted to the office of Historic Preservation, a part of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, in Harrisburg. Both the barn and farm managers office have been deemed eligible for nomination to the National Register, owing to their architectural and historical significance, Furness design, and that they are among the last remaining outbuildings of the important nineteenth century Chesterbrook Farm.
A recent examination of the buildings was made by Hyman Myers, one of the co-authors of the Checklist and a recognized expert on the architecture of Frank Fumess, He pointed out that, to his knowledge, this is the last known barn of Furness design. He also confirmed that Furness was also the architect of the farm manager's office.
Groups that have indicated interest in working toward the preservation of these outbuildings include The National Trust, The Preservation Fund of Pennsylvania, the Historic Preservation Officer of Chester County, the Tredyffrin Township Board of Historical and Architectural Review, and the Fox Companies.
Among the suggested uses that have been proposed by Hyman Myers are use as housing units, a series of hand ball or racquet ball courts, a club house or community facility, or a combination of these recreational uses. Myers, who is the Advisor for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to The National Trust for Historic Preservation, has also recommended that a short feasibility study be made, to see if these re-use ideas have merit economically, structurally, and dimensionally.
About 200 feet from the Cassatt barn and farm manager's office is located the Lee-Bradford Quarters, the farm house used as the headquarters of these two generals during the encampment at Valley Forge. (It has been listed on the National Register, with one acre of ground, since 1972.) The present plans of the Fox Companies include the restoration of the Lee-Bradford Quarters as part of a private recreation facility, a swimming and tennis club, to be built on the tract. The old farm house will serve as an office and support facility for the club. (The recommendation of the Historical and Architectural Review Board that the Township Supervisors authorize the repair and renovation of the structure was approved on August 13, 1984.)
Unfortunately, no such use or preservation of the barn and farm manager's office is presently contemplated. However, the H.A.R.B. of the township does have reservations about the demolition of these buildings until the suggested feasibility study is made. In the meantime, the Fox Companies have agreed to leave the barn and office intact for an indefinite period, for investigation of possible uses to tie them in with the recreational use of the site.
Designed by Frank Furness, they are unique architectural treasures for Tredyffrin Township.
Author's note: Readers are urged to write letters to the editors of local and city newspapers and to groups concerned with historic preservation, to support the preservation of both the Cassatt barn and the farm manager's office.
Page last updated: 2009-07-29 at 14:31 EST