Living with antiques: A Labor of Love

Lisa Minardi Art, Living with Antiques

Restoring the Daniel Hiester house, an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania gem

Built of brick with glazed Flemish-bond headers on all four sides, the Daniel Hiester house is one of the earliest brick houses in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It was built for Daniel Hiester Sr. (1713–1795), a prosperous tanner and brickmaker, and his wife, Catharina Schuler (1716–1789), in 1757. The rear half of the side gable wall has no windows due to a large fireplace on the first floor and built-in closet on the second floor. Behind the house is a summer kitchen with a clay tile roof. A stone mile marker stands alongside the driveway, which was originally the Sumneytown Pike. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth and Michael E. Myers.

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.

In the living room, which likely served as Daniel Hiester’s office, a c. 1775 walnut corner cupboard is positioned where paint evidence on the chair rail suggested one originally stood. The yellow ochre color on the woodwork in this room was also found in the hallways and in one of the kitchens. One of three cast-iron stoves in the house stands in the corner at the right; the protruding corbels above it are for the large flue of a massive fireplace in the kitchen and a stove in the room above. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.

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.

This Philadelphia mahogany desk and bookcase is one of my favorite pieces in the house. Philip bought it at a Pook and Pook auction; he had previously owned, restored, and sold it to a collector. I learned just after the auction that there was writing inside the desk. Dashing back into the auction house, I studied the inscription: “William Shinkle’s Drar [drawer] January 9th 1789” and quickly realized that I knew all about this desk. I had written about it in an article on Philadelphia German cabinetmakers in the 2013 American Furniture journal—including its 1773 purchase as recorded in the account book of Friedrich Schenckel (William’s father), who paid cabinetmaker Leonard Kessler (1737–1804) £22 for making the desk—but I didn’t know the desk had survived! I promptly informed Philip that we were keeping it. The chairs flanking the desk were also made by Kessler and are similar to a large set that he made in 1763 for Lutheran pastor Henry Muhlenberg, now in Historic Trappe’s collection. Ashworth photograph.

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.

This c. 1775 dressing table from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is heavily embellished with the Germanic method of carving the solid wood; in Philadelphia, carved ornament was typically applied. Philip had owned another Lancaster dressing table that he sold to the Bayou Bend Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; I was furious, as I wanted that table for the Hiester house. I told him the only way he could make amends was to buy this dressing table from a private collection, which he did a few years later. The enormous Chinese export punch bowl is perfect for decorating; I fill it with apples, pinecones, vintage Christmas ornaments, flowers, you name it. Hanging on the wall above is a portrait of an unknown young woman attributed to Ralph Earl (1751– 1801). We found it at a local auction, utterly filthy and with a long slash through the canvas. Conservation and a period frame sure make a difference! I’ve loved Earl’s work since I first encountered it as a summer fellow at Historic Deerfield and am just thrilled to have this example to look at every day. Photograph by Michael E. Myers.
This c. 1790 tall clock was made by Adam Brant (d. 1804) of New Hanover, Pennsylvania, and has a distinctive Montgomery County case, including the turtle-shaped panel in the base and the arrow-shaped sidelights in the hood. The built-in cupboard on the wall is one of four in the house and survives totally intact. Its drawer is divided into six compartments and has a shallow false bottom underneath, further evidence of our theory that this room was used by Daniel Hiester as his office. Ashworth photograph.
This c. 1796 massive walnut schrank (an Anglicized term for the German Kleiderschrank, or clothes cupboard/wardrobe), attributed to Johannes Bachman (1746–1829) of Lancaster County, makes a wonderful storage closet. I use the hanging pegs on the right side for coats, while the shelves in the left side are perfect for dishes, wineglasses, and just about anything else. I love how the cornice and raised panels echo the architectural details of the house. The c. 1740 armchair has an unusual base, with turned front legs and square sawn rear legs. It also has a carved shell at the center of the seat rail. Above it hangs a large Pennsylvania German sampler worked by Maria Elisabeth Langenecker c. 1820. Ashworth photograph
Inside the front hall is a set of six c. 1755 Philadelphia chairs that descended in the Hiester family. Supposedly, they were owned by Governor Joseph Hiester (1752–1832), nephew of Daniel Hiester Sr., but most likely they were made for Joseph’s father, John Hiester (1707– 1757), a brother of Daniel. Hanging on the wall is a reproduction of Nicholas Scull’s Map of the improved Part of the Province of Pennsylvania, which includes the Hiester house even though it was only two years old at the time the map was printed in 1759. When Daniel Hiester died in 1795, a copy of “Sculls Map” was listed in his inventory. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation kindly provided a high-resolution image of its map for making this reproduction. The pierced lantern is a replica of one that hung from Boston’s Liberty Tree in 1766 to protest the Stamp Act. Myers photograph.
With four large windows, the parlor gets terrific daylight all year long and functions beautifully as a modern dining room. The blue polka dots below the chair rail are a painstaking re-creation of remnant dots found underneath layers of flaking whitewash. I was thrilled to discover them, having first learned about the Pennsylvania Germans’ love of polka-dot decoration when volunteering as a child at the nearby Peter Wentz Farmstead, which has polka-dot paint in many of the rooms. The large stretcher-base table with scalloped apron, c. 1750, is from the collection of William K. du Pont (1938–2020); it was advertised by Joe Kindig Jr. in The Magazine ANTIQUES in July 1951. Flanking it is a pair of c. 1750 armchairs by William Savery (1721/2–1787) of Philadelphia. Ashworth photograph.
The walnut chest is inlaid across the front with the inscription “CATHARINA SCHULEHR 1805.” Daniel Hiester Sr. married a Catharina Schuler, probably the aunt or great-aunt of the younger woman for whom this chest was made. Flanking it is a pair of c. 1750 Philadelphia side chairs attributed to Savery with their original painted rush seats. They are the only chairs in the house that no one is allowed to sit on. The walnut hanging cupboard is embellished with brass cutouts and dated 1766. Ashworth photograph.
The Hiester house was originally heated with five fireplaces and three stoves. Made of five cast-iron plates, these stoves were typically inserted into a masonry collar that abutted the side of a fireplace in the adjacent room. The stove was fed through a hole in the side of the fireplace. We collected several dozen stove plates in anticipation of restoring the stoves. This is the most authentic one in the house, as the plates match an original one that I found in the house, dated 1756—one year before the house was built. The carved sandstone foot that supports the stove is based on an original example, now in Historic Trappe’s collection. Ashworth photograph.
I fell in love with this c. 1740 clock when I first saw it deep in storage at the old Bradley antiques shop in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. The movement is by Joseph Wills (1700–1759) of Philadelphia, an English émigré whom I discovered had a German wife. (He requested permission for her to be buried in the city’s German Lutheran cemetery.) Wills also owned a farm in New Hanover, located about ten miles from the Hiester house. I suspect that the chunky, Germanic case of this clock was made locally in northern Montgomery County, rather than Philadelphia. In 1759 Wills had a massive stroke and died while at Caspar Singer’s tavern in New Hanover. The chairs flanking this clock were likely in that very tavern, as they were part of the wedding furniture of Caspar Singer (1738–1797) and his wife, Eva Maria Spangler (1726–1802). Ashworth photograph
Behind the parlor is one of two original kitchens; I believe this kitchen was used for preparing the Hiester family’s meals and the other kitchen for tasks such as laundry and cooking to feed the many workers—both free and enslaved—who toiled on the property. The original brick hearth, laid in a herringbone pattern, was discovered under a concrete cap. The square hole to the right was used for tending the fire inside the stove in the parlor; above it is a smaller hole that serves as a flue. The fireplace mantel, which is also original, holds a group of redware plates made by contemporary potter Selinda Kennedy of Muncy, Pennsylvania, based on designs from period fraktur. The Adam and Eve charger in the middle was inspired by a favorite fraktur of mine, made by the Sussel-Washington Artist c. 1775, which I included in my book Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection (2015). Ashworth photograph.
To make the modern kitchen as non-intrusive as possible, we hid the refrigerator and dishwasher behind raised paneling and used soapstone for the sink and countertop. Aside from the tulip-shaped pull on the refrigerator door, which is period, the iron hardware on the cabinets and throughout the first floor was custom made to replicate original hardware that survives throughout the second floor. The still life of vegetables and meat reminds me of similar works by Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) and was likely painted in Philadelphia by an artist familiar with those unusual paintings. Ashworth photograph.
The massive, twelve-foot-wide fireplace in the hearth room holds a display of additional stove plates that didn’t make the cut for one of the three reconstructed stoves. Each plate is unique, and I can’t bring myself to part with any of them. The bricks for the hearth were made by Colonial Williamsburg and replicate the herringbone pattern found underneath flagstones installed in this hearth during the 1930s, which we removed. The large fireplace makes the room perfect for entertaining and is used year-round for making pancakes and other hearth-cooked meals. The c. 1775 walnut dough trough at left is one of the finest examples of this form I’ve seen, and came out of Bill du Pont’s log house. Ashworth photograph.
To the right of the fireplace in the hearth room is a large stone sink—its massive weight supported by a brick corbel that is plastered over. We found the broken off corbel and infilled void where a sink had once been underneath the non-original plaster. The sink we installed is a salvaged example found in Lancaster County; it probably functioned as more of a drain, allowing wastewater and slops to be poured out without having to haul heavy pots outside. Between the two windows is a c. 1775 walnut kitchen dresser that looks as if it was made for this spot; the dresser was previously owned by Donald Shelley and Bill du Pont. Ashworth photograph.
One of my most treasured pieces is the c. 1750 stretcher-base table in the hearth room. It has inlaid hearts in the four corners and at the center as well as a scalloped apron and stretchers—all unusual features. But what makes this piece so special to me is that it was Bill du Pont’s kitchen table, and I have many fond memories of sitting around it with Bill and Philip over a spaghetti dinner, plotting our strategy for an upcoming auction, and of meals with Bill and Gavin Ashworth during photo shoots. The tall, c. 1750 shelf unit against the back wall holds a collection of Pennsylvania German redware and round rod baskets. Ashworth photograph.
One of the most impressive original details of the Hiester house is the staircase, which retains its Germanic vasiform splats and timeworn treads. The raised paneling under the staircase is restored, based on period examples. I love how the sunlight from an upstairs window plays across the walls, which were hand-plastered over wooden lath and then lime-washed. Ashworth photograph.
The second-floor stair hall is one of my favorite spaces in the house. Sunlight streams across the original pine floorboards, leading to seven doors—each of which survives in completely intact condition, down to the elaborate wrought-iron hinges. The attic door even retains its original iron pull in the center, a feature we replicated for the other doors accessed via the hallways. Myers photograph.
The back bedroom at the top of the stairs is used today as a cozy reading room. The leather- upholstered easy chair is a distinctive type associated with the Moravians and was likely made in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, c. 1775. Both the chair and table to the left are made of mulberry, which is occasionally found as a primary wood in Pennsylvania Moravian furniture—likely a byproduct of a short-lived silk industry in Bethlehem. The raised-panel door in the rear wall opens into a large, built-in closet with three shelves. Underneath, the floorboards lift out to reveal a large hidden compartment, which I discovered while scraping loose whitewash inside the closet one day. Unfortunately, it was empty! Myers photograph.
The other back bedroom functions as my home office. The freestanding schrank came out of the nearby Pennsburg Hotel some years ago. Unfortunately, the hotel owner stripped it, thinking that would enhance the value. Philip had Peter Deen repaint it to replicate the original decoration. A similar schrank, dated c. 1780, from the collection of Sandy and Julie Palley, sold at Sotheby’s in 2002. Both were likely made by the same cabinetmaker working in northern Montgomery County. The c. 1760 six-slat ladder-back chair at the right is a favorite. You can never have enough chairs; this house has more than four dozen and counting! Myers photograph.
Opposite the freestanding schrank is this built-in double-door example outfitted with an original peg rail inside to hang clothing. In modern usage, it provides ample storage for filing cabinets, out-of-season coats, and the like. The deep ledge on top is perfect for displaying a trio of jumbo rye-straw baskets. The painted chest, made locally for Catharina Inbodie in 1793, is positioned exactly where it sat in a c. 1930 photograph taken by architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh on a visit to the Hiester house. The chest had long since disappeared from the house, but I spotted it at a local auction and was elated to bring it back home. The fireplace—thankfully no longer occupied by the black snake that lived there when I first visited the house in 2012—retains its original plastered hearth and is flanked by two inverted plaster hearts set into the base of the fireplace surround. Myers photograph.
Overlooking Ridge Valley Creek, the front bedchamber is painted a brilliant copper oxide green to replicate the original color found by paint analysis. It’s shocking how vibrant the color is, even at night. Walnut furniture helps tone things down, especially the unusual c. 1775 arched-door schrank made in central Montgomery County. The c. 1775 blanket chest at the right is from a locally made group that is distinguished by tall bracket feet and a large pendant drop. Hanging on the wall above it is a cross-stitched rug made by Magdalena Snyder in 1879, once in the collection of Pennsylvania textile expert Patricia Herr. The narrow cupboard to the left supposedly came out of the New Hanover Lutheran Church; it has a parrot inlaid in the upper door and an ornately engraved lock that relates closely to an in situ lock at the Henry Antes House in nearby Frederick, Pennsylvania. Myers photograph.
One of four built-in cupboards original to the house, this one has a false bottom that pivots on iron hinges to provide access to a hidden compartment extending about a foot below the base molding. I’ve enjoyed filling it with an ever-changing display of small items such as pincushions, potholders, wallpaper-covered boxes, and wood turnings. The charming black cat holding a wooden spool between its front paws is an Amish-made toy from Lancaster County, previously in the collection of Clarke Hess. Myers photograph.
When we bought the house, this corner of the front bedroom had a brick chimney running up it, installed in the 1950s for an oil furnace in the cellar. Thankfully, the pieces of the cornice had been saved and we were able to reinstall them. The c. 1750 Brettstuhl, or plank-seat chair, at the left surprised me when microanalysis revealed that it is of American black walnut and thus most likely a Pennsylvania-made piece. The painted chest, dated 1765, is one of the earliest known dated Pennsylvania German chests. The bottom board extends out to form the base molding, a feature more typically found in Germany than Pennsylvania, which speaks to its early date. Other examples from the same maker are at Winterthur and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The small walnut chest, previously owned by legendary collector Titus Geesey (1893–1969), is dated 1765 and has elaborate iron hinges with dolphin-head terminals similar to an original strap hinge in my house. Myers photograph.
A plain, unheated room at the front of the upstairs hallway provided an ideal space to create a modern bathroom without having to subdivide any original spaces. Just close the door and you’d never know it was there! A nineteenth-century pie safe topped by an apothecary chest provides ample storage. The bathtub is the closest modern version of a period-style tub I could find, based on a lead example illustrated in a 1750s French engraving. This one is cast iron and was too heavy to carry up the staircase, so we built a scaffold tower and slid it in through the window—just barely. Myers photograph.
The tester bed was made by Alan Miller for Bill du Pont in the 1980s to interpret what a Philadelphia bed of c. 1740 would have looked like. When I called Alan to let him know I had acquired the bed, he encouraged me to finish it by having a cornice made, which Bill never got around to doing. The bed hangings, made of a reproduction mid-1700s English indigo resist fabric, are based on original examples at Winterthur and Colonial Williamsburg. Carol Spacht from the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia oversaw their production and installation. The c. 1745 Philadelphia high chest and c. 1745 Queen Anne armchair with intaglio knees were inherited by Philip from his father and were among his most treasured possessions. The painted chest at the foot of the bed, made for Elisabeth Shelly in 1801, is a very local piece: the Shelly farm is just a few miles up the road from my house. Ashworth photograph.
The mason who built the fireplace in the primary bedchamber did not get it centered in the corner, forcing the finish carpenter to compensate with the curved board to the right. Having lived through five years of restoration and worked with dozens of contractors, I can much better appreciate how this mistake happened. The rococo fireback was likely cast using a pattern made by a Philadelphia carver. The faux marbleized pattern below the chair rail was found underneath layers of white-wash; similar treatments are found in other local buildings including the Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe. On the c. 1760 piecrust candlestand is a collection of snuffboxes that belonged to Philip’s mother, Frances G. Bradley. Myers photograph.