Past Perfect

Profiles on some of the more compelling players in the ongoing battle to keep history alive on the Main Line.

(page 5 of 8)

Deignan’s Downingtown

Developer Tom Deignan builds a future for an abandoned paper mill.

Tom Deignan inside Firecreek Restaurant + Bar, once a dilapidated paper mill. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)The walls, the floors—everything, really—were caked in an 8-inch-thick mass of papier-mâché. And where there wasn’t paper pulp, there was graffiti and oil tanks when developer Tom Deignan arrived at Brandywine Paperboard Mills.

Other than the old mill’s bones, only its location on the banks of the Brandywine River provided a glimmer of hope. Inspired by Downingtown’s declaration to revitalize itself, Deignan bought the site’s buildings—a hodgepodge of dilapidation—in 2004. In January 2005, work began with four months of sandblasting.

“It was either an epiphany or a moment of temporary insanity, but I envisioned what it could be,” says Deignan, whose Haverford-based Carroll Contractors and Carrollton Development Group have focused on preservation for 25 years. “Old buildings are a dime a dozen, but the proximity to the river gives this place an iconic look and feel.”

Now, the 19th-century mill is a mill no more. Last April, two eateries opened in the former industrial space on Lancaster Avenue—Firecreek Restaurant + Bar and Doghouse Gourmet Burgers. Between the two, there’s seasonal patio space for al fresco dining.

Inside Firecreek, the mill’s original walls of cracked stucco over stone have been invisibly sealed. “Some people say I should cover them with art,” Deignan says. “But this building is a work of art.”

The mill’s old pulley system is still in its original position up in the rafters; two bull wheels—each weighing 2 tons—were relocated for architectural flair. Cranes are now anchors for spotlights above the wait staff’s prep stations.

“What’s interesting is to see [locals] in their 80s come in,” says Deignan. “They just light up at the transformation. They worked here. This is a sort of life after death—literally.”

Deignan moved here from Boston in 1984. His first project was a 1796 barn-to-residence conversion in Bryn Mawr. A dozen similar projects followed, and he began importing barns from England and the Midwest for prominent Main Line estates. Over time, he focused on commercial interests, pursuing old pharmacies, manufacturing plants and paper mills. Fittingly, his headquarters are in a former Ford dealership that sold Model Ts.

Both Boston and Philadelphia are known for their Colonial roots, old money, and stubborn, successful, traditional folks who want a job done right. To that end, Deignan is a kindred spirit. He’s a descendant of Charles Carroll, who was the oldest survivor of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence—a large landowner and the only Catholic to sign.

Deignan’s companies take their name from Carroll, which is also Tom’s middle name. He has 13 siblings, just like the number of original colonies, and his home in Willistown Township—built in 1856—has been in an ongoing state of restoration for 26 years.

Back in the day, Downingtown was known as Milltown because of its thriving industry along the river. But over time, that all died. Now, the town is ripe for a renaissance.

“Though Downingtown is in the crosshairs of Chester County, it was always next in line to be transformed,” says Deignan. “It was the town that time forgot. Now, it’s on its way back in a big way—and this restaurant could be the single catalyst.”

Three other unrelated projects are in the works in Downingtown, all of them on industrial sites. For his part, Deignan is here for the long haul. In fact, he’s only completed one of three phases on his 3-plus-acre site by the Brandywine. Next up is a 50,000-square-foot office building in an existing two-story structure, which he’ll expand by two stories and connect to a five-story addition. The third phase is a new condominium complex. All, he says, will “evoke an industrial-architectural feel” and be “a melding of old and new.”

Outside Firecreek, Deignan even preserved the old mill’s 85-foot-high brick smokestack, making it into the valet stand. “It’s an iconic structure,” he says of the mill. “If we tear it down, then this is just another town. If we keep it, we keep the historical fabric of this community.”

Deignan has sunk $40,000 into the restoration of the smokestack alone, and he’s already got $10 million invested in the entire project. After the final two phases, that figure will balloon to $35 million.

Across Route 30, Diottavio & Co. of Glenmoore recently completed preservation work on the circa-1701 Downingtown Log House originally built by John Hickman. The 1 1/2-story structure remained in the Downing family until 1940, when Thomas W. Downing died and left it to the borough. It was home to the Downingtown Chamber of Commerce from 1950 to 1988. Then the local historical society did an extensive restoration and relocation 70 feet west of its original location.

Outside Firecreek, a 9 1/2-foot bear built with 65,000 nails guards Deignan’s beloved restoration project. It’s a fitting symbol of the times. “True to form, sometimes you get the bear,” he says. “And sometimes the bear gets you.”

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