The Laboratory

In our backyard is a laboratory. It is very close to the house and super convenient if you wish to use the Bunsen burner on a whim one evening. In fact, it is not too far from the back door as noted in the picture below.

I will not take you into the lab quite yet as there is a bit of history that may be forgotten once you see the interior photos. First let me introduce you to G. Raymond Rettew. He has his own historical marker in town, and this was his lab many many years ago.

Granville Raymond Rettew was born in West Chester in 1903 and studied chemistry at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. Despite his lawyer father’s desire for Rettew to follow in his footsteps, Rettew became a chemist. He did, however, try to appease his father by working in his office but not even a month later Rettew received a phone call from Hires. Swarthmore had recommended Rettew for the job and he was soon hired by the root beer manufacture where he proudly recalls introducing ph control (Mainline Today,”The Mushroom Man” by Mark E. Dixon).

Meanwhile Rettew marries into a mushroom family and with his father-in-law in the business the dinner table conversations were often centered upon the challenges the growers faced. Rettew and good friend Joseph Strode decide to go into the mushroom spawn business. He left Hires and he and Strode incorporated as the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories in 1929. They did well right from the get go despite starting a new business just months after the beginnings of The Great Depression.

The 1930s were a busy and prosperous time for Rettew and it is during this decade that he bought our house. In 1933 he moved in and begins experimenting in the “lab above the garage”. It seems as if the lab may have been the garage initially, though at some point the lab/garage was reworked and possibly added onto as the stucco is noticeably different from one part to another.

The war was approaching and that necessitated a change to their approach to business. The first thing Rettew did was encourage the study of the nutritional value of mushrooms so they could be deemed an essential food. The second thing he did was to consider his hobbies and decide if he could contribute anything of value to the war effort. In 1941 Rettew read about penicillin and its potential at healing wounds. Rettew decided this was to be his focus.

Here is an excerpt from Rettew’s own writing (A Quiet Man from West Chester by G. Raymond Rettew):

During the remaining part of 1942, I worked alone in my own laboratory, mostly at night, experimenting with the cultivation of the Fleming strain of Penicillium notatum, developing an improved culture medium, and proving the adaptability of the 40-ounce culture flask (a kind of shortnecked bottle with four flat sides), and the equipment of the Chester County Mushroom Laboratories. It was then that I started to develop the method for the recovery of penicillin from fermentation broth.

Raymond Rettew (on right) with Dr. Desmond Biel, holding sterile culture with seed spores of Penicillin Notatum, circa 1945. (from

By 1943 Rettew figures out how to stabilize the penicillin cultures that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered and sends his first penicillin to the United States Government with 90% of it going to the Armed Forces. Fleming and Rettew became friendly over the years and it is rumored Fleming had dinner in our dining room. Rettew partnered with Wyeth in town and eventually moves into a sizable lab not too far from our house which is where the historical marker sits today. For a long time the historical marker sat at the edge of our property.

Rettew never goes back into mushrooms and continues working for Wyeth producing penicillin. He died in 1973 but before that the family sold the house to a pediatrician in town to whom they entrusted the preservation of this home lab.

We bought the house from the pediatrician’s daughters who listed the house after their parents passed away. The daughters left paperwork from the historical marker dedication which does a wonderful job describing Rettew’s work and contributions to World War II. We also get bits and pieces from the neighbors. In fact, one day a neighbor explained that his grandfather was visiting. He recognized the lab – he had been inside that lab working on several occasions. He then went onto tell the story that the FBI sat outside the house many evenings as he (a Dupont scientist), other local scientists and Rettew worked on chemical weapons for the U.S. Government.

The interior pictures are fascinating but will make you question our sanity. Fortunately the lab is not an immediate project as the house is taking priority, so we have time to mull over how to best use the space. That is a hot topic in our house. One part of the family envisions a ping pong table and dart boards, another faction thinks it would best function as pool house for a pool that would need to be installed and yet another faction believes it is charming as is and would be even more charming with lots of rakes, shovels and lawn equipment inside. More to come!

Hot and Cold

The windows are painted shut and there is no central air. We decided to tackle both problems simultaneously. The HVAC vans arrived earlier in the week and Anthony and his crew started the pretty involved process of installing central air. Things seemed to be going smoothly until I left one day for school pickup and arrived home to this:


It was Friday, so I was able to go visit this vent cover over the weekend. The more I visited, the more I hated it. It does not sit flush against the ceiling, not even close and is a bit too industrial for my taste.

A closer shot of what was the first of 16 of these in the house.
A closer shot of what was the first of 16 of these in the house.

Monday morning I approached Anthony and asked him about other options. Glad I asked as yes, there was a catalog. And yes, it would be an extra charge for the upgrade, but the ugly would disappear. And he agreed those vents are uuuuuggggllly. In fact, he admitted he did not use them for his own 200-year-old farmhouse. He then flips to the page in the catalog where vent covers begin to get pretty. He points to the one he used and before he could even begin to explain the option, I interrupt him with a – I’ll take it. Switch them out now! We both laughed and then Anthony asked if I would like him to bring a sample from his house. Absolutely. The next day he shows up with an example of the vent cover and it is even better in person. Sold!

In the meantime, there is actual work that needs to take place. It’s not all about pretty vent covers, afterall.

photo 2

A square is cut into the ceiling and because our ceilings are lath and plaster, it is a dust storm. The patch of ceiling was so interesting to see as the craftmanship involved is something you just do not see today.

A piece of the plaster lath ceiling.
A piece of the lath and plaster ceiling. Laths are narrow strips of wood that were nailed to the ceiling joists. Three coats of plaster was then applied, and it is heavy.

The new vent covers were shipped and arrived yesterday. Anthony was almost as excited as I was. He left in his big truck to pick them up in the town next door and was waving them out the window as he pulled into the driveway.

And, this is the new cover installed. Less office cubicle-looking and more historically appropriate. Not to mention they sit nearly flush to the ceiling. Lesson learned: always ask about other options. Always.

photo 4-1

The Master Bath

Welcome to the Master Bath. It has a lot I like: a deep tub, hexagonal tile, marble sills. We’ll keep the deep tub but the rest is about to be thrown out the window into the dumpster below. It’s time.

A lovely patch job by someone clearly geometrically-challenged.
A lovely patch job by an individual very obviously geometrically challenged.

photo 3-9

I cannot bear to part with the cast iron tub so that will be re-glazed and prettied up for a new bathroom on the first floor. It likely weighs 10 million pounds so I know my name will be synonymous with a profanity or two when I tell my contractor that I need 15 men to move that down two flights of stairs into the garage until we are ready for it. Wait until they hear – Oh and while you are down there I need that soapstone sink that weighs 20 million pounds moved up to the laundry area.

The Master Bathroom is going to be a better space with room for a walk-in shower and two sinks. I do not like to share a sink with my husband. We have done it about half of our married years, and I spend those years plotting how to NOT share a sink.

Most of the finishes are chosen so I will keep that tucked away for a bit, but I do need to hash out flooring here. I like hexagonal tile. It is easy and relatively timeless though let’s face it just about everything is out of favor at some point. In any case, hexagonal tile is liked more often than it is disliked. I like the marble hex tile on the floor currently but it is carerra and carerra requires a bit more love and care. It stains easily and the light grout can be stained by something as silly as toothpaste. I speak from experience.

Under consideration is a bluestone hexagonal tile.  Though I may save this for another bath in the house.

Tomorrow I will be discussing vent covers. A titillating topic for certain. Stay tuned!

Fenestration Frustration

The original windows in the house are big and beautiful and beat to heck. The glazing is shot, the wood rotted, the panes cracked and the paint in even worse shape. Did I mention nearly all the windows were painted shut? If you recall, our neighbor is restoring the windows. I have come to appreciate the infinite patience it takes to restore one window, never mind an entire houseful. It is a finicky process and sometimes painful. I will often come to the house and find that our neighbor needs a Band-aid or two. The weather stripping on the windows is razor sharp and secured with many many teeny tiny nails. Our neighbor will be the first to tell you these windows elicit blood, sweat and tears, yet he persists and for months now has worked religiously each day and sometimes on weekends. We are so grateful.

The only double hung in this area of the house.
The only double hung in this area of the house.

This is a pretty standard window for the house: old and craggy with some fancy-looking screens. If you look closely you can see that the screen lets in just about any kind of bug. My husband mentioned it possibly keeps the zombies out, and he’s probably not too far off. It was likely there for security purposes (more on that down the road). The windows in the laundry and powder room, 3 casements and one double hung, were all in a similar state of disrepair. Our neighbor has worked tirelessly to pretty them up and get them in good working order. The transformation is incredible.

A window on deck.  The paint is burned off, wood sanded down and any rotted areas repaired with Bondo.
The finishing touches on part of the casement window . The paint is burned off, wood sanded down and any rotted areas repaired with Bondo. Finally the screen is replaced and the window is fitted back into place.
The hardware was cleaned and polished and you can see the window waiting for its screen.
The hardware was cleaned and polished and you can see the window awaiting its screen.
A finished casement.  The original hardware is beautiful and the windows open and close now as they likely did when first put in all those years ago.
A finished casement. The original hardware is beautiful and the windows open and close now as they likely did when first put in all those years ago.
Another finished casement in the downstairs powder room.
Another finished casement in the downstairs powder room.