Working Relationship
E.C. Trethewey III Building Contractors Inc. collaborates with clients, architects and craftsmen to breathe new life into older homes
by Sharon A. Shaw

When the Silliman family hired E.C. Trethewey III Building Contractors Inc. to begin renovations on their 1700s-era Kennett Square farmhouse, they signed an open-ended lease on a place in town so they could minimize disruption to their lives while allowing the builders free rein of their home. Shortly after, however, plans changed. More than a month before construction was planned to be complete, they unexpectedly had to move back into their under-construction home, with a newborn baby, a 5-year-old and three dogs.

“We lived in the formal living room,” says Silliman. “It is the only room that was not touched by construction, but it was fine. One of the reasons we chose Ted [Trethewey] is that we knew that if something like that happened, it would be OK. It wasn’t easy, but Ted and his staff were so nice to be around. ”

It is easy for Silliman to laugh about it now. The home has been completed for several months, providing the young family with the space and amenities they need. “We have really enjoyed how cozy and happy our house is,” she says. “It has so much light even on these cold, gray days.” It wasn’t always this way, though. The home, originally built in the 1700s, was expanded in the 1800s and again in the 1980s, resulting in a two-story, four-bedroom stone-and-brick home full of character. The Sillimans fell in love with it at the time of purchase, but after three years of saying “if only” it had this or that feature, they realized they wanted to renovate but didn’t want to lose the charm they had first loved about the home. “We had never done a project like this before,” Silliman says, “but we could see Ted’s genuine enthusiasm and love of old houses.”

E.C. Trethewey specializes in building historically correct custom homes. Trethewey and business partner Dave Lignore, a Williamson Free Trade School graduate, have a passion for old homes and revealing the potential they hold. The Sillimans were referred to E.C. Trethewey by their architect, Joe Mackin, a principal at Period Architecture of West Chester. “We have the utmost respect for what they do,” says Mackin. “We share a similar philosophy; we listen to one another and approach it from the perspective of working as a team. … We are usually not building the first design we come up with. Fortunately we have a builder like E.C. Trethewey to help us.”

This project required plenty of revisions in order to bring the client’s budget and goals into alignment. “I always enjoy that challenge,” Trethewey says. “The worst thing you can do is build something that the client has spent a lot of money on but is not happy with. My team and I work to deliver their complete wish list while meeting their budget. … If I cannot get there, I will not do the project.”

Mackin also compliments the Sillimans, and others like them, for respecting their older homes enough to take on these renovation projects. “They could have taken the easy way out, met the bare minimum,” he says, “but they chose to exceed that by giving the house new life without sacrificing amenities that they need.” The goals they explained to Mackin included updates to the bathroom, laundry and kitchen, an improved dining area and windows that allow more light into the home and better views of the backyard.

“Ted had great ideas,” Silliman says. “Right from the start he encouraged us, ‘Show me the things you love and don’t want to lose.’” As a result E.C. Trethewey salvaged the original hardware and stones found in the backyard during demolition. They also made use of beams reclaimed from other old properties “We save anything that has value to the house or the time period then during construction integrate as many items as possible so that the new areas look just as old as the old areas,” Lignore says.

The final renovations include a two-story addition with a master suite; a transformation of the old, closed-off formal dining room into a family room; updates to the kitchen, which now opens to the dining space filled with windows that overlook the backyard; a geothermal heating/cooling  system; and a complete remodel of the laundry, bathroom and entryway. “E.C. Trethewey helped guide us in making every decision along the way,” Silliman says. “Ted always gave us the most-informed opinion.”

Lignore explains that it is important to make sure clients are involved in the process. “Halfway through a project, many homeowners get stressed out,” he says. “The more we can hold their hand, the better they can understand and know they are working towards an end.”

Among Silliman’s favorite features are the stone fireplace added to the kitchen because it includes an old beam used as a mantel. It also mirrors one in the family room, which she now refers to as one of the “coolest rooms in the house.” She says another favorite feature, the custom-built cubby system in the mudroom, changed her life: “We used to have wooden hooks in the kitchen with coats, backpacks and leashes all over. Now we look so organized.” Trethewey points to that cubby system—designed by Period Architecture and built by a subcontracted cabinetmaker—as “a good example of the hand-in-hand partnership” he has with the architects and craftsmen.

E.C. Trethewey is known as being a part of the go-to team for highly specialized historical renovations. “We bring our proven history—30 years—of doing the finer work that the majority these architects draw on,” he says. “We have familiarity with them and their work, vice-versa. … We have a passion and fascination with the projects that the architects we work with provide and that level of timeless architecture that excites us.”

Another of its projects currently under construction is Fairlawn, the John Torrey Windrim residence in Devon. Windrim was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects who designed numerous civic buildings in and around Philadelphia at the turn of the century. Renovations had begun on the red-brick Georgian mansion years earlier but halted when the owner ran out of funds to continue. The historic landmark had been shuttered for nearly four years when it was purchased by local resident Kim Adams, who used to pass by it daily on her way through the neighborhood. “The house was literally going to fall to the ground,” she says. “I kept saying ‘Please, someone save it.’”

Adams asked a structural engineer to inspect the home before making an offer on it and though the roof was close to collapse he told her the rest of the house was solid.  He advised she bring back the entire team that had been working on it, warning that she would have to start from square one if she chose someone else to do the work. “Luckily for me,” she says, “every contractor who worked on the house loved the house.” This included E.C. Trethewey and its frequent collaborator, architecture firm Archer and Buchanan. E.C. Trethewey also brought in talented craftsmen to restore the plaster medallions, carpenters to provide the detailed millwork needed to match the crown molding and an artisan tile setter to relay the mosaics.

“The most interesting thing about our work is that it is never the same,” says Lignore. “With the kind of work we do, each job, each home, I am learning something new. … Every job is about quality, though; making sure the architect’s and the customer’s vision is applied regardless of size or budget.”

E.C. Trethewey III Building Contractors Inc.
1220 Horseshoe Pike
Downingtown, PA 19335

Photography by Jody Robinson