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October 22, 2014
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Custodians of history; Living in a 200-year-old house

John and Dawn Harvey stand in front of the historic Wilmot House in Bethany, PA.
Photos by David B. Soete


“Have you noticed any ghosts?” seems like a fair question to put to the residents of a house that has spent 200 years providing shelter and comfort to a veritable pageant of generations. Eight years ago, John and Dawn Harvey fell in love with and purchased the historical Wilmot House, also known as the Solomon Moore House, on Old Wayne Street in Bethany, PA. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its fame as the birthplace of David Wilmot, author of the Wilmot Proviso, a document that is widely credited with being the forerunner of the 13th Amendment. (See: legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Wilmot+Proviso)

“John loves the history of this house,” Dawn explains. “I love the architecture, the way it feels connected to the past.”

The flagstone front steps; the fieldstone foundation; original handmade windows of Bethany Glass, tiny bubbles and waves observable in the windowpanes; and the stonework flowerbeds all conspire to create that connection to the past. Master carpenter John Gustin built the house in 1811 for Solomon Moore, who added a single-story addition for his store and the borough’s first post office. In 1814, Randall and Mary Wilmot bought the house from Moore and lived there for several years.

The dark red, wood-sided house, with its handsome, black shutters, sits on one acre of lawn, which expands into the back yard past a roofed porch and beds of flowering bulbs and perennials. Beyond the period-style garage/studio, erected by previous owner Alex Baker, the lawn gently rolls to the forest’s edge. The original stone (dug) well is still on the property, complete with roof, rope and bucket. The well covering was rebuilt to match pictures from the 1930s.

“Actually, this well came in very handy when we had the hurricane and had no power and, of course, no water,” said John.

As we round the house to enter the front door, the Harveys’ gray cat poses beneath a carved and painted wooden sign above an entrance to the cellar, the house’s original kitchen. “The Old Abolitionist” announces the sign, a pointed reference to its most famously honored, previous historical resident. Now dubbed “The Pub” by the Harveys, it currently serves as a meeting place for John’s book club.

The front entrance is a comfortable distance from the road and a short distance away from a hitching post—a tall, headstone-shaped rock with a metal ring attached. “It has been said,” offers Dawn, “that when the five daughters of a previous owner were growing up, you might see five horses tied to this ring at one time, all prospective suitors coming to visit.”

The dentil molding above the solid wood door is repeated throughout the interior. The doorbell is marked with an 1867 patent and is still in working condition. Glancing at the ascending staircase (one of two), we enter the first room on the right.

The Harveys’ dining room—the original family’s living room—features the fanciest molding in the house and a shallow, European-style red brick fireplace, framed by a colonial-style, carved mantel of gray painted wood. The floorboards in this room and others are the original tight-grained, wide planks of chestnut and basswood. Paintings and decorative plates adorn the painted walls. Above the wooden table hangs a pewter gray, metal chandelier with candle shaped electric bulbs.

Across the hallway, we step down a two-inch ramp into the pine-floored, one-story addition. The original door to Solomon Moore’s general store was sealed off years ago, and the room has become a comfortable living room. The original fireplace is now gas. Dawn comments, “In between seasons, we heat the house using only this stove and the stove in the kitchen.”

“These rooms are beautifully illumined by the natural afternoon light,” John says. “The people who lived here would have been conscious of retaining the day’s light as long as possible before they’d have to light their lamps in the evening.”

Adjoining the living room is John’s office, which opens through glass-paned doors onto the covered porch that had been millwright Mortimer E. Lavo’s workshop. The office was renovated from a bedroom and closet. Bookshelves line the walls. Photographs show the outside of the house virtually unchanged to this day.

A narrow staircase takes us to the loft area of the addition, housing a small spare room and larger guestroom. Before we leave the loft, John draws our attention to a child’s scrawled picture of George Washington. The image drawn on bare wall is framed by molding nailed around it during the 1995 renovations. John reads the caption to us, “Bethany Jan 1 George Washington,” and adds, “We just honor and protect it. Who knows what the true story on that is? It could have been little David’s.”

The upstairs loft area is separate from the upstairs main area, so we descend the narrow staircase and climb the main stairway to the bedrooms above. This staircase has beautifully crafted rails and banisters of Honduran mahogany, ending at a wide hallway.

Both bedrooms feature wide plank wood floors, and the bathroom (formerly the sewing room) has a clawfoot tub. An unusual feature of the bedrooms is their spacious closets. Most houses of this period had small or no closets, using wooden wardrobes instead.

Artworks abound. Dawn opens the door of a cabinet that sits under a window in the hallway to display the hidden radiator. The attractive radiator covers were crafted by previous owner Alex Baker.

John and Dawn agree that the house is comfortably warm in winter, due mostly to the insulation added during the major renovation. Since the Bethany Glass windows are single pane, the Harveys use temporary storm windows for extra protection against cold.

We head down to the back of the house, where the Harveys have their kitchen, originally the dining room. Though the kitchen retains a colonial feel, with its large fireplace, plank floors and original windows, it has modern appliances. A bathroom has replaced the old pantry, which has moved into one of the closets beside the fireplace. The other closet is home to the refrigerator. “I like the history, but there’s nothing like modern wiring and plumbing,” says Dawn.

Once more we descend. This time, we feel the air grow colder, and I am reminded again of spectres and spirits. Almost entirely underground, the fieldstone cellar was the original kitchen. A large meat hook hangs threateningly from the ceiling. “Tall people have to be careful,” John warns, with a smile. “The Pub” is furnished with comfortable chairs, where people can gather casually before the large stone fireplace that extends into the room.

There are things about this house that took some getting used to, the Harveys admit, but most of them are great. There is privacy in the house. “Here, if the TV is on and you don’t want to hear it,” says Dawn, “you close the door. Also, we have a real sense of community on this street, which is wonderful, but if we want to feel like we live in the country, we go out back. We really like having both.”

What advice would they give to someone who is considering purchasing a historical house? John answers. “I would say first step would be getting Zeke Boyle to restore it. He did a masterful job of preserving the historical characteristics and yet upgrading the house to make it livable. Here, we feel that we’re custodians—that we’ve been given something that it’s our job to care for and upgrade carefully.”

Dawn’s attitude is that a house should not be a museum. “I don’t want to feel that my kids have to not touch anything when they come here.

“Ghosts? No, no ghosts.” They both shake their heads. “You might think there would be, but no.”

Sorry, but I’m not convinced.