By Kate Ritter.
My inspiration for pursuing a career in historic preservation can be traced to many sources. Growing up, my parents always sought opportunities to introduce us to the built environment through guided tours, books, adventures in the car and on-foot. They made sure we all appreciated the satisfaction of squarely hammering a nail, and how to properly paint a room, feathering the final trim coat with prideful precision. Knowing I wanted to play an active role in saving old buildings, I went from studying architecture at Bennington College, to entering the historic preservation master’s program at the University of Vermont, then diving into a variety of work experiences involving a timber framing crew, the National Park Service, and consulting. At the root of my chosen path exists our family’s 1886 farm in western Pennsylvania.
The Ritter Farm was settled in 1853 by our German ancestors, and it has remained in our family ever since. The original 50-acre plot is tucked behind a thick row of pine trees, the rough driveway extending back to rolling fields filled with timothy grass and oats, amidst a variety of wildflowers. Louisa and Karl Ritter originally constructed a small cabin, which was replaced by the extant 1886 Italianate farmhouse. This house, graceful in its simplicity, is perched atop a rise with the main half-banked timber framed barn standing beyond, against an avenue of mature maple trees. Between the house and barn is a “squirrel tail” wood-fired bread oven constructed of laid-up field stone with an inner layer of brick, the structure once accompanied by a variety of small outbuildings before the diversified subsistence operation transitioned out of full-time production.
The buildings look much like they did a century ago. The farmhouse, with its gingerbread-trimmed porch and arched windows, contains original furniture within its hand-grained wood interior, set in rooms adorned with intricately laid wallpaper configurations. My parents, brother, sister and I spend pieces of each summer here, with additional trips as we can manage. Certain smells and sounds punctuate our experience there: bacon wafting up from the wood-fired kitchen stove in the morning, the old oil furnace rumbling on in the winter to heat only the first level, the scent of the linoleum kitchen floor when first entering the place after our long trip from Massachusetts. Although bacon on the stove remains a fixed element, other memories of our sweet farmhouse have changed. We restored the kitchen floor to its original yellow pine boards, which lingered patiently under the 1960s “improvements” and are now re-varnished to their prime glory. We painted the accompanying knotty pine cabinets to achieve an aesthetic more compatible with the rest of the house. We no longer have to hear or smell the furnace, its replacement being a geothermal system that utilizes an existing chimney chase which used to service multiple small central stoves. The furniture, rather than smelling musty, is fresh with the resulting regulation in temperature and humidity. To further promote a healthy and energy efficient environment, we invested in custom “Invisible Storms”, tinted dark red to match the historic windows. The old barn also has a new standing seam metal roof, expertly installed by neighboring Amish craftsmen.
Each visit presents us with new projects. We attempt to balance work with relaxation, but the two inevitably become intertwined, and our lists grow alongside our excitement to pour love into this special place. Two longer-term initiatives we are currently undertaking involve placing the property on the National Register of Historic Places, and negotiating lease agreements with local farmers to revive the once plentiful fields. Between my siblings and myself, we have a project team: architect, civil engineer, preservationist. Our parents are managing a recently established trust for the property and brainstorming with us to articulate an on-going master plan.
This farm is more than just a vacation spot – it represents six generations of Ritters, a thriving center for animals and food production, and a setting where cell phones, television, and computers feel unnecessary. Time is occupied by operating 1940s Farmall tractors, baking bread, kicking a soccer ball barefoot in the wild thyme, and (in my brother’s case) stealing away to take a nap behind the barn in the bed of his pickup truck. We all have richly busy lives, but sustainably preserving and enlivening this farm means future generations will know its significance and will draw joy from experiencing it, as we do. Our farm has shaped me, and I cannot imagine life without it.
Kate Ritter is the former program director with AARCH, and has enjoyed exploring and absorbing places off-the-beaten-path throughout most of her life.
Tags: 1886 farm, farmhouse, national register, Pennsylvania Dutch, restoration