They were good neighbors who just wanted to help save a piece of Germantown history.
That was the only plan Wally and Susan Moyer had in mind nearly two years ago when they purchased the house at 107 W. Schoolhouse Ln.
But what began as a rescue mission instead became a new vocation.
“As we were doing each thing to save it, we fell in love with the house,” Susan Moyer said.
And so, the James Matthews Guest House opened its doors in September as one of the only official bed and breakfast lodgings in Germantown.
Four centuries of history
The nine-bedroom house has been on the city’s Historic Register since 1980.
While the original part of house was built in the mid-18th century, an addition was added to the front by whip maker, James Matthews in 1808, and included a third of the adjoining property at 105 W. Schoolhouse Ln.
Matthews, who also built the Vernon-Wister House in nearby Vernon Park, sold the house soon after to Germantown Academy for use as a schoolmasters’ residence. A final addition to the home was built post-Civil War.
More recently, it had been in Elisabeth “Betty” Shellenberger’s family for three generations, passed down through her maternal grandfather, the Rev. George W. Lincoln.
But the house had fallen into neglect for more than a decade when the Moyers, who then lived around the corner on Greene St., began to take interest.
Numerous windows were boarded up, the property overgrown with seed trees. A vagrant barricaded himself in an enclosed back porch amid a stockpile of trash.
“It was just derelict,” Wally Moyer recalled.
He began cutting the grass for Shellenberger, who is in her 90s and lives in Blue Bell. Wally did so mostly to keep an eye on the homeless man who sometimes started fires in the porch, putting other residences in peril.
Both Shellenberger and the Moyers wanted to find a way to save the house from further disrepair. Though structurally sound, it needed major restoration.
So, in January 2014, the couple made a bold decision and bought the place.
Labor turns into love
Loved ones were dismayed by the news.
Appalled by the house’s dilapidated state, Susan said family and friends were scared for the couple and the serious undertaking that lay ahead.
She and Wally admit that they, too, had misgivings.
“After we bought it, we looked at each other and said, ‘What did we do?'” he said.
They put the house on the market, but the only interested buyers were developers who wanted to turn the lot into condos or apartments.
Bit by bit, the Moyers began fixing the place up, learning about history and restoration process along the way.
They worked seven days a week as Wally, a tax accountant and Susan, an American Sign Language interpreter, continued to hold down their full-time gigs.
“Dates were at Home Depot,” she laughed.
Still, they did not know what they were going to do with the property when finished.
Then, in early 2015, came a particularly frustrating tax season. Susan asked Wally what it was he’d most like to be doing.
His reply? “I’d like to be Bob Newhart,” he said, referring to the dry humored Vermont inn keeper of 80s sitcom, “The Newhart Show.”
It has taken a year and half to return the house to its former glory. The couple did most of the restorations themselves, retaining the house’s original footprint.
All but eight windows were meticulously measured for historical accuracy and replaced. The remaining ones were hand restored by Susan.
Most of the original flooring was able to be salvaged and refinished by Wally, who has a contractor’s license. He also fit all seven working fireplaces with stainless steel liners in their chimneys.
The house’s 19 single pipe steam radiators were sent out for restoration, the boiler was replaced and asbestos was removed.
Other repairs included fixing the porch’s shed roof and a gaping hole in the corner of one of the upstairs’ bathrooms where vines had invaded. Numerous trees (some fallen) were also removed from the grounds.
Next came the decor. Susan consulted with the Historic Commission on paint color and scoured Craigslist for furniture finds.
As for the homeless squatter, it took six months to evict him.
“He finally got the message that we were here,” Wally noted.
Bed and breakfast and community
Six of the bedrooms have been transformed into guest accommodations with a list of area highlights in each room, complete with reasons they’ve been recommended.
It’s the long-time residents’ way of showcasing the neighborhood they love, a section of Philadelphia they both say is on the rise.
The couple, who live on site, say they offer flexibility with schedules for check-in/out and continental breakfast, plus personal touches like custom sight-seeing itineraries that hotels cannot.
Bicycles, helmets and bike locks are also available for guest use.
Since opening their doors, they’ve had guests from all over the world stay for the papal visit, the Philadelphia Marathon and to visit family in the area.
The house is also finding use as community hub.
Inside a ground floor meeting room, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf holds workshops and a local Buddhist meditation group meets once a month.
On Saturday, Dec. 13, the Moyers will host an Artists’ Breakfast in the space, featuring the work of three local artists.
“Our intention is to let people into a historic house to use it, not to just have it as a museum piece,” Susan said.