Working from home has new meaning for a vintage park house caretaker and restorer in Collingswood
Sean O’Donnell remembers walking past the Victorian-era Knight Park House everyday on his way to Collingswood High School.
But he had never set foot there – let alone imagined that he would one day live and work there – until a decade later, when he became the resident custodian of the local monument in 2020.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t say no,” said O’Donnell, who is also restoring the house on behalf of the board of directors of the nonprofit Knight Park, which owns the 60-acre park.
“I do all the work myself, by hand and on ladders,” he said. “I love getting my hands dirty.”
A 2014 graduate of Williamson College of the Trades in Media in Pennsylvania, where he majored in horticulture, O’Donnell has been the park house’s third resident caretaker and conservator since 2010, when the Proud Neighbors of Collingswood organization started funding the restoration. The park itself was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
“Proud Neighbors has always been about historic preservation, and the Knight Park House was not in its best shape,” founding member Frank Vita said.
Proud Neighbors has donated more than $30,000 to the restoration so far because “we want to work with the trustees to restore the house to how it was when Mr. Knight donated it to the community,” said declared Vita.
The Knight Park Board estimates that contracting out the catering could have cost up to $250,000 and the live-in caretaker/restaurateur approach could end up costing as little as $30,000, all provided through donations and fundraising.
Edward C. Knight was a Philadelphia businessman and Collingswood real estate developer. He grew up in what is now Collings-Knight House facing a triangular expanse of woods, fields and marshland bounded by Browning Road, Collings Avenue and Park Avenue.
Knight deeded the site to the trust he established in 1888. Knight’s board of directors holds title and oversees the property for the benefit of the public, as directed by its benefactor.
“The park is named after Mr. Knight because of his generosity as a donor,” said Michael Brennan, who served as the park’s trustee for nearly 30 years and served as borough mayor from 1973 to 1993.
Offering open landscaped space in the densely developed center of Collingswood, Knight Park is within walking distance of many neighborhoods in the 1.9 square mile borough, home to approximately 14,000 people.
The bustling stretch of restaurants and shops along Haddon Avenue two blocks from the park is testament to Collingswood’s continued evolution from mere suburb to destination. Like other towns in the Philadelphia area’s inner belt, Collingswood enjoys good downtown access, attractive housing stock, and a bustling downtown core.
Vita said Proud Neighbors raised more than $200,000 for improvements to the business district as well as the park itself – including the cost of building a children’s play area dedicated to the late actor Michael Landon of Bargain and little house on the prairie fame, who spent part of her childhood in Collingswood.
“Knight Park is Collingswood’s biggest and best asset – a stabilizing asset,” Brennan said. “So we had to preserve the house.”
Brennan credits former borough commissioner and Haddon Avenue business owner Joan Leonard with originating the resident custodian-restorer approach in 2010.
After the longtime resident caretaker and his family left, “we had the opportunity to really start to look at the bones of the house and see what needed restoring,” she said. .
“Each [caretaker-restorer] did what he could, little by little, remove the carpet, remove the layers of paint and bring the house back to the original wood. It’s exhausting work,” Leonard said.
“Even though it’s a beautiful house and you live in the middle of a park, it’s a labor of love. You must really love this house.
Like his predecessors, O’Donnell donated his job in exchange for living in the house rent-free. An initial two-year deal will likely be extended as long as progress is made, and both sides want to continue it, Brennan said.
“We had a committee of volunteer architects and experts look at the house and give us some preliminary advice and also talk to the carpenters and contractors,” Leonard said. “We chose this [projects] could be done under the expertise of a caretaker, and Proud Neighbors donated the seed money.
Knight had the six-room Park House built as a residence for the superintendent and a gathering place for the public, with a wrap-around porch and a decorative rooftop viewing platform called a gazebo.
Unlike the interior of the house, where the original woodwork, windows, doors and plaster remain (some under multiple coats of paint and varnish), the porch and gazebo have been significantly altered, O said. ‘Donnell.
Knight Park itself has evolved over the decades: a pond created by damming and bridging the marsh in the late 19th century has been greatly reduced. More recently, a pavilion and a playground have been added. And the borough continues to mow and maintain the other parks.
The house still has the original cedar siding that has been siding for decades, O’Donnell said, climbing a ladder against the west side of the house on a cold October afternoon. “Holes had been drilled [some of the clapboards] when the insulation was installed, and I had to fill them all.
“Right now, I’m putting the final layer on the filling. It’s a lot of work. Hours and hours of stripping, scraping, priming, but I wanted this stuff done before winter hit. i will do it [south] side of the house in the spring.
Residing in the park “is amazing”, he said. “It’s quite a place to wake up and look out the window at the trees. And it’s quiet.
O’Donnell lived alone in the house for almost two years until he married Eileen O’Mara on October 6.
They married under a red cedar arbor they built together from wood salvaged from a Knight Park tree, with one of the native plant gardens he grew near the house as a backdrop. background for the ceremony.
“I had the privilege of watching Sean work with passion to bring this historic home back to life for almost two years,” Eileen, a special needs educator in Haddon Township, said in an email. “It amazes and inspires me to see the dedication he has to his work to restore and preserve the character of this house.”
Her husband said peeling back layers, taking appliances apart and putting them back together and getting to know the bones of the house helped hone his carpentry skills and taught him the value of patience, a- he declared.
“I made sure to be patient and not rush into my preservation projects,” O’Donnell said.
He also learned “to appreciate the craftsmanship and great patience it took from the men and women who built this house and the stewards who cared for it in the decades before me,” said he declared.
Sitting on the roof where the gazebo once stood, O’Donnell said: “It’s been missing for years. I myself researched what it would take to build something like this.
“I would like to be the one who builds it and puts it back on the house. It will be like the icing on the cake.