Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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A New Roof for the Finley House

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
originally published October 9, 2002

It’s not the history of the Finley House that makes it memorable. Rather, it’s how much history it has imparted.

This is because the home of the Radnor Historical Society has been used not to store history and historical artifacts but to show and teach the lessons of Radnor for more than 300 years. Miss E. Dorothy Finley gave the house on West Beechtree Lane in Wayne to the Radnor Historical Society in 1964 in memory of her parents.

The home shows three distinct periods of life in Radnor Township through a later-18thcentury kitchen, the mid-19th-century bedchamber and late-19th-century front and back parlors.

“It shows in stages what life was like in Radnor Township 100 and 200 years ago,” said Bennett Hill, president of the house’s occupant, the Radnor Historical Society.

Now, after years of use, the house is getting a new roof, and thanks to the Radnor Township commissioners, the roof is going to be historically correct.

“The township commissioners gave a generous grant that made it possible for us to do this in a historically accurate way,” Hill said. “Also, this was at a time when we needed to put on a new roof anyway, so it worked out for the best for the society.”

The roof is about 30 years old, said roofing contractor Don Merget from Coatesville.

“It’s coated stainless steel, but before then, there was another metal roof and under that regular roofing shingles,” he said.

The original roof was cedar. So-called “tin” roofs were very popular when this roof was put on the house in 1888, when the Finleys enlarged the structure.

The new roof being applied is a handformed standing-seam metal roof. The metal roofs applied at the time were generally called “tin,” even though they were often made of another metal. So in this sense, the roof is accurate, as well as durable. The new roof will cost about $40,000.

The age of the original Finley House is uncertain, and as with many Colonial houses, some parts are older than others. In the case of the Finley House, these periods are fairly well defined. The differentiations make a lot of sense when you know the history of the house.

Part of the house clearly dates from Colonial times. The basement kitchen with a storage cellar beyond; a front and back parlor on the first floor; two bedrooms on the second floor; and an attic are possibly from as early as 1789. The home was originally built by a Revolutionary War veteran, Capt. John Pugh.

Looking at other dwellings from that era in the Pennsylvania and Delaware area, Hill thinks he knows something about the house that has gone unrecorded.

“It’s a particular kind of house, perhaps it was a tenant house on Pugh’s property,” he said. He holds that belief because there are other tenant houses from that period that look similar in appearance.

By the middle of the 19th century, the house had been modernized. This was done by John Pugh III, whose name would lead you to believe he was the original Pugh’s grandson.

His house consisted of a front and rear parlor, “The front parlor being formal,” said Hill. “The back parlor would be much more of what we would call a family room today. Meals would be eaten there, brought from the basement kitchen by a dumbwaiter.”

After Pugh’s death in 1842, the house changed hands six times before being purchased to become a part of the Wayne Estate by Drexel and Childs.

Before it was to be razed as a part of the overall development, Drexel and Childs rented the house to several Philadelphia families for the summer. In 1887, one of those renters, William H. Finley, bought the house and nearly an acre of land to make it his permanent suburban home.

“Finley bought the house and what would have been four lots from Drexel and Childs Wayne Estate housing development,” Hill said.

He was joining in a general move of the upper middle class out of the city and into the healthy suburbs. In 1888 the Finleys doubled the size of the house, using stone from an old barn on the property, and brought the interior up to Victorian standards.

This addition was the entire left side of the house and included a modern kitchen and pantry, a dining room, bedrooms – and possibly a bathroom.

“The new construction included a kitchen, because with the development of enclosed stoves and ovens, kitchens didn’t have to be somewhat removed from the main structure due to the real risk of fire from the open hearth,” said Hill. “Stand-alone stoves were probably the first true change in cooking techniques in thousands of years.”

At some point, they also constructed a back porch, which would have been a pleasant addition in the heat of the summer. There was probably a porch there earlier, because there is a door above the kitchen, from which stairs or a veranda would have been required.

There is also a wagon house on the property, which includes the historical society’s collection of three wagons: a Germantown carriage, a one-horse open sleigh and a Conestoga wagon. These three forms of transportation would certainly have been at home in front of Finley House at some time in its history.

Now that history will be recovered – thanks to the new roof – the ability of history to be conserved and passed on continues in Radnor. Not only that, a very important addition is the fact that the roof is accurate – something much appreciated by historians.