When they flushed the toilet and water flowed through the walls, Bob and Ruth McKeaney wondered if they’d gotten in over their heads. House-flippers for decades, the McKeaneys knew that restoring their 300-year-old Berwyn property would be a tremendous undertaking. When they bought the Hillside estate in 2010, the main house had broken windows and trees growing into its roof, the barn was in ruins, and thick bramble had taken over the 12-acre property. Bob even found a deer carcass in that bramble. “It looked like a scene from Saving Private Ryan,” he says.
The house’s cast-iron pipes had been out of use for so long that they became troughs, spilling water through the walls. “When we look back at pictures of what the house looked like, I start to hyperventilate,” Bob says. “But the bones of the house were great—that’s why we bought it.”
With Bob as the construction pro, Ruth documented the mammoth reconstruction project for Hungry for Home: A Year Together at Hillside Farm. The recently released self-published book also celebrates the joys of cooking, decorating, entertaining and family traditions. “The issue of home and the desire for it crosses every boundary,” Ruth says. “It’s more than just the four walls that surround you.”
First deeded by William Penn in 1717, Hillside was once a 300-acre dairy farm. The McKeaneys are just the fourth owners of a property that had been passed down through generations, with each set of occupants keeping it for about 100 years. One was legendary architect Richardson Brognard Okie. He purchased Hillside in 1902 and turned it into what Bob calls an “architectural masterpiece.” The den’s bookshelves are among his favorite pieces. Instead of using pins to hold the shelves, Okie created grooves in the wood. “Everything is hand cut, handmade,” says Bob. “All of the woodwork in this house is custom.”
He was originally concerned about the floor in the front foyer, which is six inches lower than those in adjacent rooms. Then he realized that Okie configured the trim to fit a floor that would settle. “It was done with perfect measurements,” Bob says. “When he refurbished it, Okie built it to how the house had settled.”
Hillside has proven to be the perfect pandemic refuge for the McKeaneys and their five children, ages 12 to 20. Now five bedrooms with four and a half baths, the house has a back porch with a fire pit, a barn, a spring house, a silo, and a chicken coop, corn crib and stone smokehouse. The property also has two guesthouses and a dollhouse cottage built in 1902 with a working stone fireplace.
There’s plenty of space to entertain. The barn is one of Ruth’s favorite spaces. More than 120 tons of rock had to be removed from a destroyed structure overgrown with trees and thick bramble. Peter Archer of Archer & Buchanan Architecture in West Chester advised the McKeaneys on the restoration. “He brought the whole office to Hillside and told everyone about the history of the barn,” Ruth says. “Peter told us where to put the walls and how to restore the barn to its former glory.”
The barn’s courtyard was a pile of stone ruins. The McKeaneys mostly left it that way, adding a tall tepee with lights to create an outdoor living room. The back side of the barn was transformed into two English-style sunken patios. “It’s magical,” says Ruth.
Hillside is also a magical place for kids, with its sports court, zip line through the woods and paths for dune buggies. All of that was installed by 2012, the year the McKeaneys officially finished the restoration. “I’m so grateful that everything was in place before the pandemic,” Ruth says.
As much as they changed, the McKeaneys left many things intact as an homage to the architectural genius of Okie, who died in a tragic accident in 1943. Still in place is Okie’s mounting rock, which he climbed to get onto his horse. “The story is that Okie refused to own a car or drive one,” Bob says. “So, he rode his horse to the Paoli train station and took the train to his office in Center City.”
Of all the homes the McKeaneys have flipped, this is their favorite—so much so that they’ve lived here longer than most places. Before Hillside, they moved every two years from home to home in Wayne and Villanova. “This is the first house where we wouldn’t do anything differently,” says Ruth. “We absolutely love it.”