Home of the Year: The Farm

Our editors selected this renovated farmhouse, with its extended living quarters, workspaces and astonishing amenities, for our 2013 Home of the Year in the renovation category.

Photos by Jordan Beckman, Craig Shilmm and Roger Wade

On a rich expanse of ground in Robinson Township, Washington County, Esther Dormer has created an oasis of living: The Farm. Modeled on a truly unique design, its environs are unexpectedly resort-like, with rustic countryside architecture, lush landscape and greenhouse-filled gardens.

This place is pervaded in raw and refined materials, and furnishings by Dormer and self-taught interior and exterior designer Lisa Dagnal. The property, perfectly placed along 150 acres, is filled with shabby-chic glamour that mixes substance and style with functionality and form.

The Farm, which was recently renovated, forces you to unplug. It’s the product of hard work and imagination — and it’s exactly what Dormer, a business owner and mother of two, saw in the property when she purchased it 13 years ago.

“We drove up to [it], and I fell in love,” she recalls. “It was covered in garbage, loose cans, appliances, a lot of downed wire and tons of old tires covering the creeks.”

Dormer wanted to do a good deed while having fun, only looking to acquire property as a way to give back to others. She had hoped to have a farm where she could grow and cultivate organic food for her family and the community.

“Thirteen years ago, my kids were little, and my husband, Brian, and I were looking for a long-term investment,” says Dormer. “I wanted to acquire an asset, as well as a productive vehicle to help others — plus provide something tangible for my children to be involved in.”

Dormer knew she wanted to donate her homegrown produce to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB), a local nonprofit that collects and distributes food through a network of community partnerships.

“I worked with the food bank, and established that I wanted to grow the produce supply and provide the equipment to grow the food — but I would need volunteers to help with the farming and distribution,” Dormer says.

The GPCFB provided distribution assistance and recommended a farmer to help with cultivation. Though Dormer originally planned on committing to the GPCFB for three years, she ended up supplying goods from 2001-2007, providing more than 150,000 pounds of kale, carrots, peppers, potatoes and other produce. The logistics of farming became taxing. Dormer was working full-time at her business (she started The Future Fund in 1999 with partner Richard Madden) and knew something had to give; thus, she ended her partnership with the GPCFB.

Dormer then decided to turn the working farm into a weekend getaway.

“I love print, and I love photography,” she says with enthusiasm. “I incorporate that aesthetic and love into each part of The Farm.”

The perfectly curated property, which is currently for sale, boasts a Top House (with four bedrooms and three bathrooms — plus a kitchen, home office, storage room and deck that overlooks the waterfall and one of the seven ponds and side porch; 1,950 square feet); the original farm house (the only existing building when Dormer bought the property, featuring three bedrooms, two kitchens, two baths, a tub room, living room, dining room, home office, two porches and arbor; 2,000 square feet); The Barn (a two-story reclaimed 100-year-old timber frame barn that features a loft and a lower floor with stalls for horses, and has a custom dining table to seat 50; 4,800 square feet); the Tool Shed (which features a copper and cement floor with a large workshop; 2,000 square feet); two glass Greenhouses (filled with vegetable plants, flowers, herbs, trees and shrubs; 400 square feet each); the Storage Shed (located in the lower fields; it holds equipment like tractors, lawn mowers, accessories, golf carts and tons of tools to grow food; 1,250 square feet); a lit parking lot to accommodate 40 cars; and outdoor rooms called the View Houses.

“We have five houses, and they really connect the premises,” says Dormer. “Made out of cedar and all single-floor, every View House can seat about six people comfortably. They each have different views, too; one is over a pasture, another is over a hillside, one is over the orchard and two are overlooking the waterfall and a pond.”

Her guiding vision for The Farm: Enjoy your space, use every corner of it — and take a walk.

“It’s a process of learning and doing, and I think nature shows you that — you have to have deep roots,” says Dormer. “We’ve planted hundreds and hundreds of plants throughout the past 13 years, and it takes time for those plants to settle their roots. We couldn’t plant things that weren’t tough. We wanted people to enjoy the landscape and allow things that flourish in this region to simply have the room to grow.”

Dormer has gravitated to simplicity “of imperfect design, as it relates to nature.” So she was hoping to achieve this blend of genres with a designer who understood her aesthetic. A friend suggested that she meet with Dagnal — who was not only a self-taught designer, but a local.

“I had been looking for people to understand how buildings and nature work together — to look at wind patterns, where the deer cross [and so on] and put together a land plan,” says Dormer. She hired landscape architects, yet still wanted to step up the interior and exterior with luxury. “It was hard to find somebody with the aesthetic I wanted.”

Until Dagnal came along.

“My first encounter with Esther was when she came to my home for a get-together with mutual friends,” recalls Dagnal. “She popped in and took stock of my home design. So I [later] met with her and toured [The Farm].”

Dagnal designed the structures, using the 150 acres inside and out; it took her six years to transform The Farm — only a 15-minute drive from Pittsburgh International Airport — into the jewel of luxury and earthiness it is now.

Last year, when Dormer decided to put The Farm on the market, the two performed additional renovations on the kitchen by adding new cabinets, countertops, a sink and faucet. They also remodeled three of the bathrooms in the Top House, selecting new countertops, showers and lighting.

In 2012, Dormer and Dagnal placed new beds, paintings and lighting in the Top House’s two bedrooms and installed a new side yard; they added giant outdoor lighting at the pond across from the greenhouses and placed antique statues above the barn and the entrance to the property.

“The Top House is where we did a bulk of the renovations, including adding new tile in the bathroom,” says Dagnal. “In keeping with the design of the farmhouse, we made it bright and added touches of raw material, including barn wood. My personal experiences affected the design — and renovation of The Farm was [also] influenced by my sons, Alex [18], Jonathan [16] and Will [11]. I designed around what would survive [with] them living in the house — so I did a lot with a mix of iron and concrete materials.”

Dagnal says when Will was in kindergarten, he loved the shed (previously made of wood, without walls).

“Will was drawing and coloring in the space, and it hit me to make the shed into an artist studio,” Dagnal says. “After a million coats of white paint, we took the shed and made it into a mini palace with gilded mirrors, a light from Neiman Marcus and a vintage red velvet stool from France.”

Today, Will’s charcoal sketch of a bird’s nest is the space’s featured artwork propped on an easel.

Dormer’s 100-year-old farmhouse is on the market for $8.25 million, which includes oil, gas and mineral rights — and, according to a recent geological report, there’s more than $5 million of value for those permissions.

“It’s not manicured — we couldn’t imagine it that way,” Dagnal says. “You walk on the trails, and you’re getting to see nature. It’s from that starting point of nature and how to embrace it that Esther and I have creatively addressed each nook and cranny.”

Much like their simpatico thoughts on design, it’s hard to see where Dormer and Dagnal’s ideas begin and end.

“With last year’s renovations, we feel The Farm is completely done, and each area has its own personality — yet [it still] feels connected,” says Dormer. “I’ve always looked forward in business and in life; thus, the best family — or company — to succeed me as owner should possess an intimate understanding of the essence of the land, and enjoy it with family and friends.”

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