Sean O’Donnell remembers passing the Victorian Knight Park House every day on his way to Collingswood High School.
But he had never set foot there – let alone imagined living and working there – until ten years later, when he became the caretaker of the local landmark in 2020.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I couldn’t say no to it,” said O’Donnell, who is also restoring the 134-year-old house on behalf of the nonprofit Knight Park Board of Trustees, which owns the 60-acre park.
“I do all the work myself, by hand and on ladders,” he said. “I just like getting my hands dirty.”
A 2014 graduate of Williamson College of the Trades in Media, where he majored in horticulture, O’Donnell is the park house’s third live-in caretaker and restorer since 2010, when the Proud Neighbors of Collingswood organization began funding restoration . The park itself was placed 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 the best shape,” said founder Frank Vita.
Proud Neighbors has donated more than $30,000 to the restoration so far because “we want to work with the trustees to restore the home to what it was when Mr. Knight donated it to the community,” Vita said.
The Knight Park Board of Trustees estimate that outsourcing the restoration would have cost as much as $250,000 and the approach of a live-in caretaker/restorer could have cost as little as $30,000, all provided by donations and fundraising.
Edward C. Knight was a Philadelphia businessman and real estate developer in Collingswood. He grew up in what is now the Collings-Knight House across from a triangular expanse of woods, fields, and swampy ground bounded by Browning Road, Collings Avenue, and Park Avenue.
Knight transferred the site to the trust he had established in 1888. The Knight Board of Trustees titles and oversees the property for the benefit of the public as indicated by the benefactor.
“The park is named after Mr. Knight because of his generosity as a donor,” said Michael Brennan, who has been a park manager for nearly 30 years and served as mayor from 1973 to 1993.
Knight Park offers landscaped open space in the densely populated core of Collingswood and is within walking distance of many neighborhoods in the 1.9 square mile district, which has a population of approximately 14,000.
The bustling array of restaurants and shops along Haddon Avenue, two blocks from the park, is testament to Collingswood’s continued evolution from just a suburb to a destination. Like other inner-ring cities in the Philadelphia area, Collingswood benefits from good transit to Center City, an attractive housing stock, and a vibrant downtown area.
Vita said Proud Neighbors has raised more than $200,000 for improvements in the business district and on the park itself — including the cost of building a children’s playground dedicated to the late actor Michael Landon of Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie fame, who spent part of his childhood in Collingswood.
“Knight Park is Collingswood’s biggest and best asset – a stabilizing asset,” said Brennan. “So we had to keep the house.”
Brennan credits former borough commissioner and Haddon Avenue business owner Joan Leonard with creating the live-in janitor-restaurateur approach in 2010.
After the longtime janitor and his family moved out, “we had an opportunity to really look at the bones of the house and see what needed to be restored,” she said.
“Each [caretaker-restorer] has done what they could, little by little, removing carpeting, removing coats of paint and returning the house to its original wood. It’s exhausting work,’ said Leonard.
“Although it is a beautiful house and you live in the middle of a park, it is a labor of love. You must really love that house.”
Like his predecessors, O’Donnell donates his labor in exchange for rent-free living in the house. An initial two-year deal is likely to be extended as long as progress is made, and both parties 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 spoke to carpenters and contractors,” said Leonard. “We chose what [projects] could be done within the expertise of a janitor, and Proud Neighbors donated the seed money.
Knight had the six-room park house built as a residence for the overseer and a meeting place for the public, with a wraparound porch and a decorative rooftop viewing platform called a belvedere.
Unlike the home’s interior, which retains original woodwork, windows, doors and plaster (some of it under several coats of paint and varnish), the porch and belvedere have been significantly altered, O’Donnell said.
Knight Park itself has evolved over the decades: a pond created by the damming and bridging of the marsh in the late 1800s has been considerably reduced in size. More recently, a pavilion and playground have been added. And the municipality will continue with mowing and other park maintenance.
The house still has the original cedar shingles that were covered with siding for decades, O’Donnell said, climbing a ladder against the west side of the house on a cold October afternoon. “There were holes drilled in it [some of the clapboards] when the insulation was installed, and I had to fill them all in.
“Right now I’m applying the final coat to the upholstery. It is a lot of work. Hours and hours of stripping, scraping, priming, but I wanted this stuff done before winter sets in. I will the [south] side of the house in the spring.”
Living in the park “is great,” 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 nearly two years until he married Eileen O’Mara on October 6.
They were married under a red cedar arbor they built together from lumber salvaged from a Knight Park tree, with one of the gardens of native plants he has created near the house as the backdrop for the ceremony.
“I have been privileged to watch Sean work passionately for nearly two years to bring life back to this historic home,” said Eileen, a special education teacher in Haddon Township, in an email. “It amazes and inspires me to see how dedicated he is to his work to restore and preserve the character of this home.”
Her husband said peeling away the layers, disassembling and reassembling fixtures and getting to know the bones of the house helped sharpen his carpentry skills and taught him the value of patience, he said.
“I’ve made sure to be patient and not rush my preservation projects,” said O’Donnell.
He has also learned to “appreciate the craftsmanship and great patience it took the men and women who built this house and the stewards who cared for it in the decades before me,” he said.
Sitting on the roof, where the watchtower once stood, O’Donnell said, “It’s been missing for years. I myself researched what it would take to build something like this.
“I’d love to be the one to build it and put it back on the house. It will be like the icing on the cake.”