Restoring the Daniel Hiester house, an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania gem
On a cold spring day in early 2012, I made my first visit to the Daniel Hiester house, located near Sumneytown in Upper Salford Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. I grew up just a few miles away and had long been curious about this house, which was reputed to be one of the finest examples of Pennsylvania German architecture. Yet no one I knew had ever been inside; the owners were said to be reclusive and there were even rumors that a trespasser had been shot and killed.
But now, a local land trust was trying to preserve the house and invited me to tour the property. As I drove across the old stone arch bridge over Ridge Valley Creek and up the long driveway, I could hardly contain my excitement. Sunlight glinted off the glazed header bricks as I approached the house, built in 1757 by German immigrant Daniel Hiester Sr. and his wife, Catharina Schuler. The dwelling of the Hiester family (the name is pronounced Heester) is an extraordinary survival with incredible original details, including elaborate ironwork and woodwork. At a minimum, I hoped seeing it would offer insights that might help with the restoration of another house that I was involved with—the home of Frederick Muhlenberg, who served in Congress with Daniel Hiester Jr. (1747–1804) and lived less than twelve miles away in the town of Trappe.
On this first visit, however, there were also things I had to look past: the lawnmower parked in the living room; the back door that had been hacked open with an ax; the large black snake living in one of the corner fireplaces. Still, it was love at first sight. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm that evening as I reported on the visit to my then-boyfriend, Philip W. Bradley. “We simply must buy this house and restore it!” I insisted. “But we aren’t even engaged,” he protested. Undaunted, I replied: “Is that a proposal?” We married six months later. It took five more years before we were finally able to buy the house, in late 2017, following the resolution of various deed restrictions on the property. The house was a match made in heaven for us—Philip an antiques dealer specializing in Pennsylvania furniture, and I a museum curator studying all things Pennsylvania German. Sadly, Philip did not live to see the Hiester house completed— he died of cancer in the fall of 2021—but its restoration and furnishing was our mutual passion.
From the outset, our mission was to restore the house as much as possible to its original appearance. We delved into a yearlong, hands-on architectural investigation supplemented by archaeology, paint analysis, and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating). Within days of buying the house, we set to work ripping out sketchy electrical wiring and shoring up the structure—the load-bearing summer beams were badly cracked, and there were six inches of sag in the middle of the house. We spent zero-degree days in January 2018 tearing out non-original plaster with the help of some dear friends. Chair rail fragments, bits of moldings, and other tantalizing clues emerged.
My parents worried about our sanity and our bank account, but we persevered. By summer we had completely gutted the house of all non-original materials and made countless discoveries in the process. Removing the Victorian flooring on the first floor, for example, allowed us to map out the original floorboards based on the nail evidence and revealed that the front rooms had fairly narrow, regular width floorboards while the rear kitchen spaces had larger, random width flooring. We visited countless other historic houses, seeking to learn from both their restoration successes and regrets. Colleagues at Old Salem and Colonial Williamsburg were particularly helpful, taking us behind the scenes to examine roof framing, HVAC systems, and so on. We also researched the Hiester family as much as possible, traveling to the village of Elsoff in Westphalia to study the local architecture and to meet Hiester relatives from branches of the family that had remained in Germany.
We developed a comprehensive restoration plan with few compromises. Kitchen and bathroom fixtures were to be entirely reversible, leaving as few traces as possible. Radiant heat was installed under the floors to avoid adding ductwork or floor registers. There is no air conditioning. We hid the plumbing and wiring for the first floor in the cellar ceiling above rows of riven oak pales running between each set of joists and topped by a mixture of mud and straw. Deep grooves in the side of each joist revealed that the house originally had this type of insulation, most often found in better Pennsylvania German houses of the mid-1700s. There were many bumps in the road and low points as problems were discovered. Asbestos. Mold. Cut wires. Leaks. Leaks! While shoveling mud into the floor of what would become our dining room to replace the old insulation, I wondered if we would ever finish this project. But we stayed true to our vision and the results were worth it.
Our restoration plans extended to the furnishings. During the five long years of waiting to buy the house, we kept our hopes alive by drawing up floor plans and plotting where everything would go—a corner cupboard here, a schrank there. We collected many pieces for the house, but it was not until late 2021—nearly four years after buying the house—that the furnishing could begin. It was an easy decision to focus on Pennsylvania German objects from the eighteenth century, but we wanted to emphasize pieces from Montgomery County and Philadelphia wherever possible, in keeping with what Daniel Hiester would have most likely owned. Few pieces from the Hiester family are known to survive, but in a stroke of good fortune I was recently able to acquire a set of six Philadelphia Chippendale chairs that descended in the family. They had long been used to furnish the president’s house at the College of William and Mary, which Philip and I had once visited to study the chairs. Late last year they came up for auction and I learned about the sale only the day before. Thankfully, I was able to buy the chairs, have them delivered, and photographed just as this article was going to press! Collecting antiques is often a combination of luck and paying attention.
Restored to its original grandeur, the Daniel Hiester house is a testament to the ambitions of affluent Pennsylvania Germans such as the Hiester family. It is strikingly different from the small houses, often made of logs, built by many Pennsylvania Germans—especially in rural areas. Some would describe the house as having an English Georgian exterior and a Germanic interior. I would passionately disagree. Both Germans and Pennsylvania Germans were quite familiar with so-called Georgian architecture, and it is overly simplistic to claim that they were choosing a house facade that broadcast their cultural assimilation, while constructing interior spaces that reflected their Germanic heritage. In countless details, interior and exterior, the Hiester house reveals itself as a German Palladian structure. (For more on this, see my article on the house in The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.) Even the shutters reveal the building’s Germanic roots, with elaborate wrought-iron hinges that resemble those found on many lift-lid chests, and single-leaf shutters on the rear windows typical of German architecture.
I often wander through the house and find it hard to believe how much has been discovered and how much has changed since that cold spring day over a decade ago when I first visited. I think about the Hiesters and what inspired them to build such a house. A prosperous tanner and brickmaker, Daniel Hiester at one point laid claim to as many as thirteen enslaved people. I wonder if they lived in the house, too, and what their lives were like. Did they make the bricks and the pit-sawn lumber of which the house is built? These walls have witnessed more than 265 years of history. The collection of furnishings itself also embodies history. Every object has its own story, linking it to a maker, or a previous owner. Ever cognizant that life is fleeting, I realize that I am only a temporary steward of this history, this house, and this collection. I love everything about it and look forward to sharing this passion with other collectors and history buffs.
LISA MINARDI is the executive director of Historic Trappe and president of Philip Bradley Antiques.