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From Dairy Barn to Country Manor

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The dairy barn on a quiet road in Newtown Square had stood for more than 150 years, but by the time Scott and Peggy Brehman found it, everyone had stopped waiting for the cows to come home. Scott thought it could be converted into an amazing house. Peggy, however, thought the barn felt dark and cold.

“Then we had that lightbulb moment,” Scott recalls. “What if we opened it up?”

As it turns out, they’re both in the business of creating beautiful places to live. Scott is a partner in Main Line reBUILD, a Berwyn-based firm that has repurposed churches, meeting halls, and other nonresidential spaces into homes. Peggy owns Aubusson Home, a fabric- and-trimming store in Wayne.

And so they set to work, essentially building a house with energy-efficient, modern systems within the barn’s stout stone walls. A cow paddock became a terrace paved with Pennsylvania bluestone, ideal for entertaining. 

“I had stopped thinking of it as looking like a barn,” Peggy says. “I was thinking more of a country house in France.”

Island living

The ground floor is a gathering space, with an open and airy center that encompasses a kitchen, an informal dining space, and a seating area. The core is flanked by a den on the left and a mudroom, a pantry and storage on the right.

At the heart of it all is a vast kitchen island measuring 12 by 9 1/2 feet. The multifunctional hub includes storage, glass-fronted shelving for cookbooks, a prep sink, seating, and surface space for serving, casual dining and crafts projects. Two brass chandeliers configured in large, open spheres hang above. 

Under-counter dishwasher drawers are ideal for parties. “Put all your glasses in there, hit a button, and you’re done,” Peggy says.

The island is colored turquoise, a hue inspired by vintage milk paint. “I had the color in my mind,” Peggy says. “Still, it was scary painting such a large
piece of furniture turquoise.”

An accomplished hostess, she chose a Wolf professional-style range with six burners, a grill, a griddle and two ovens. “A dream to cook on,” she says. 

The passageways between the appliance walls and the island are 4 1/2 feet wide, rather than the standard 36 inches, to accommodate multiple cooks, as well as guests. “We’ve had 40 people in this space, and it’s always great for conversation,” Scott says.

With an active family, lots of company and two dogs, the Brehmans took care to select surfaces that stand up to daily use. The random-width plank floors in the gathering space came from an old tobacco mill in Tennessee. “I wanted wormholes; I wanted checks,” says Scott. “I wanted lots of character.”

Maximum light

With only four windows on the second floor, a strategic plan was essential. The windows were reserved for the bedrooms. Hayloft doors were converted to French doors, with Juliet balconies to usher in more light. Secondary bathrooms, a laundry room and a home gym were tucked into areas without windows. A third-story loft is now a playroom.

The only window the Brehmans added is the small one above a soaking tub in the master bath. “We thought we absolutely had to put a window there, so we punched through the exterior wall,” Peggy says. 

Skylights flood an open hallway and an upper-level landing with light. The latter is spacious and serves as a sitting area, furnished with a formal mix of antiques, including a mahogany highboy handed down through Scott’s family. The Philadelphia clock with paw feet was purchased downtown at Bailey Banks & Biddle back in 1900.

In the master bedroom, the ceiling was opened all the way to the roofline, soaring 32 feet above the floors. Such expansive proportions call for a bold statement, which the Brehmans found in a clock face that stands eight feet tall, salvaged from a tower in Europe. “It has a twin that’s in the Public Hotel in Chicago,” Peggy says. 

Murals of peacocks, set into the walls, were originally painted for a hotel in Newport, R.I. The fireplace mantel came from a cottage designed by Richardson Brognard Okie, an architect who led Pennsylvania’s Colonial Revival movement after World War I. “We like to repurpose and reuse whenever we can,” Peggy says.

Pieces of the past

The Okie cottage was the first of a number of homes the Brehmans have renovated over the years. Each new project includes a piece of the past—like the running-horse weather vane in their latest kitchen that they brought with them from an 1810 barn they restored.

In the dining area, antique Audubon prints of swans and a heron hang above the banquette. “A great white heron is good luck,” Peggy says.

The den once housed pens for bulls. It’s still a masculine space, replete with hunting trophies and busts of Native American chieftains. A freeform black-walnut cocktail table, reminiscent of the naturalistic work of George Nakashima, was crafted by an artisan in Maine. Silver cups from squash and golf tournaments are displayed on the bar.

“We bought the bar at The Dump,” Peggy confides. “The squash trophies are all Scott’s.”