Buying Here: Robinson, Washington County

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Esther Dormer and her family always called their Washington County hideaway The Farm. But when it's auctioned Tuesday, it will be The Retreat.

Whatever you call the 150-acre property in Robinson Township, it's a sylvan slice of serenity with pine-scented air, 5 miles of wooded walking paths and seven ponds.

Like many urbanites and suburbanites, Mrs. Dormer and her husband, Brian, fantasized about getting a place in the country. Then, in 2000, they did it, buying a century-old farmhouse and surrounding land for $398,000. Since then, the property has undergone a stunning transformation at the creative hands of the energetic Mrs. Dormer, who lives in Peters, and Lisa Dagnal, her kindred spirit and favorite designer.

"We had so much fun. That's why it turned out so well," Mrs. Dagnal said.

And the Dormers have enjoyed it. Years ago, their son, Max, hosted a memorable sled riding party with 15 of his friends. He and his younger sister, Maggie, spent summers playing flashlight tag until midnight while the family's two dogs chased them around. There was a sit-down brunch for 36 people in the barn when a solid bronze statue arrived.

For more than a decade, the family devoted 5 acres to growing vegetables in a greenhouse. Volunteers harvested the produce and delivered it to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Robinson at a glance


Size: 21.3 miles

Population: 1,931 (2010 census)

School district: Fort Cherry (

Enrollment: 1,135

Average 2013 SAT scores: 484 Verbal, 484 Math, 457 Writing

Annual 2014 property taxes on 1357 Valley View Road, which is assessed at $31,837: $5,122; Township: $477 (15 mills); School: $3,852 (121 mills); County: $793 (24.90 mills)

History: Formed in July 1781, Robinson in the early 20th century made much of its money from the many coal mining operations that set up shop there. Today, a primary source of income for township residents is the gas industry from the Marcellus Shale formation.

-- Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette

In 2011, they decided to try to sell it. Initially, the asking price was $8.5 million, which later dropped to $5 million. Now it will go to the highest bidder.

There is no reserve and no minimum at the auction, which begins at 2 p.m. Tuesday. The property can be toured from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Tuesday. Information: 1-800-552-8120 or

For Mrs. Dormer and Mrs. Dagnal, leaving will be bittersweet. The two women spent nearly a decade on indoor and outdoor projects. They redecorated the original farmhouse with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and two wood-burning stoves.

Just past the farmhouse front door is a small catering kitchen that features copper-fronted cabinetry and a dishwasher. Past a dining room is a much larger, eat-in kitchen with white cabinets, dark slate counters and a stainless-steel Viking stove and dishwasher.

One second-floor bedroom feels like a loft. An old copper fence whose tops are shaped like tulips became a head board. Under a sloped ceiling is a closet shielded by curtains. A beige flohate rug contrasts with the dark cherry floors. A sitting room features a sleigh bed. The master bedroom offers a view of the property. Outside the farmhouse and under an awning is a patio table that seats four.

The women designed a spacious tool shed that's really a glorious man cave where a guy could play poker, enjoy a cold beverage and forget about his cares.

Using reclaimed wood from a 100-year-old Amish barn, the women designed a new two-story barn that is heated and has an enormous, long pine-topped table. Outside the building is a large fire ring.

"You really don't have to worry about fire when you have doors this big," Mrs. Dormer said, adding that when the family hosted parties, barn stalls were used to serve wine, beer and soft drinks.

Atop the barn is a copper weathervane in the shape of a horse. The barn's exterior is stucco and outside of it are four large black Victorian-era lanterns hanging from wooden posts.

Near the curving driveway stand two glass-enclosed conservatories that are each 400 square feet with roofs that are about 30 feet high. The unheated greenhouse has a massive butcher block table and a rusting bird sculpture while the heated one bursts with roses, petunias, rosemary and a wisteria vine that climbs above the entry door. There's also a potting sink. Black wrought iron finials top both greenhouses, giving them a Victorian air.

"This is really meant to connect you with nature," Mrs. Dormer said as she walked the rain-drenched property last week. "We were always aware of the views, and we did everything with the curve."

All of the construction, landscaping and plantings, she said, were inspired by European land use and buildings. Flat land was left flat and used for planting. New structures were tucked into the landscape so that they look as if they have been there all along. A portion of Raccoon Creek burbles and curves its way around the fertile, rolling hills. Curved stone walls and pergolas made of tall North Carolina cedar timbers soften the landscape.

"I love that look of old that will be there forever. Europe has never gone out of style," Mrs. Dormer said.

When her son Max was 12, he began spending summers at the farm, doing hard physical labor such as planting, moving heavy logs, mowing and raking grass and cleaning out the chicken house. His mother said it taught him a work ethic.

Now an accounting student at Penn State's Erie campus, he recently told his mother that he plans to have his own children do physical labor, too.

While the chickens, llamas, pigs and horses that once lived here have found new homes, there is an abundance of birds, whose song is nearly nonstop. Five acres on a hill are under pasture and contained by a fence. For 14 consecutive years, the Dormers planted trees and shrubs, including pines, oaks, weeping willows and even a no-till orchard made up of apple, pear and peach trees. There are lush domestic grasses, azaleas and daffodils. Ornamental cabbage fringes the creek.

There are seven ponds plus an abundance of wrought iron and wood benches, Adirondack chairs and even a couch with cushions in the woods that overlooks the flowing stream.

"We created these private spaces in the woods," Mrs. Dormer said.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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