Traditional Building Portfolio



Transparently Traditional

John Milner Architects takes timelessness to the future.

By Nancy Ruhling

Since the beginning, it has always been the hand of the craftsman that has caught architect John D. Milner's eye. He has seen it in the details of every historic building he has restored, every new traditional-style house he has built and each addition he has designed to complement historic residences. Milner, FAIA, and principal of the Chadds Ford, PA, firm that bears his name, has always had an interest in architecture, but he came to the profession in a round-about way. Like the seamless additions he designs for traditional-style houses, his interest in the field grew organically in his heart – after he abandoned studies in engineering and tried his hand at sculpture.

While earning his architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania, it was at a summer job working on the Historic American Buildings Survey that Milner began to focus on historic buildings and traditional design. "I saw buildings and how they were built," he says. "The hand of the craftsman was evident, and I could relate to the artisans who built them. I continued to work with HABS for a couple of years, and that experience allowed me to see how craftsmen in the past faced challenges. That is what sets my firm apart – we have always done a lot of restoration work, and there is a very strong connection between our new design and what we have learned from our restoration work."

The firm is grounded in Milner's vision, which is informed not only by the Greek Revival tradition of William Strickland and the Neoclassicism of Sir John Soane, but also by the contemporary designs of Philip Johnson. "As an architecture student, our class visited Johnson's Glass House," Milner says. "I was absolutely blown away. I was impressed by the proportions, the clarity and simplicity. I have found that these principles are translatable to traditional design. Because of my background in art, there also is a sculptural quality to my designs that gives them personality."

The award-winning firm, which Milner established nearly a half century ago, has 20 employees, including four partners: Milner; Mary Werner DeNadai, FAIA; Christina Carter, AIA; and Christopher Miller, AIA. While tradition is the constant in the firm's design vocabulary, Milner says that every project is driven principally by the location. "We respect the site," he says. "We have no preconceived style unless the client requests it. We always visit the site first. It tells us what kind of house to design. For example, on a hillside, you can't put a rigid, traditional house. You have to drape it around the landscape."

Milner's legacy is far larger than his projects. For the past 37 years, he has served as Adjunct Professor of Architecture in the Graduate Program for Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, his alma mater. He believes that his greatest responsibility is to extend that legacy into the future through his firm's accomplished partners and talented design staff, as well as the many generations of his students.

Milner's Home Base
All of Milner's design ideas come together in his own home, a quaint 18th-century house that sits on a hill above the Brandywine Valley in West Chester, PA. The modest two-story red-brick house, which is a wonderful example of the English Quaker style, had been inhabited, for most of its long, storied life, by tenants on a large property. When the land was divided, Milner and his wife, Wynne, bought the 10-acre parcel that is hemmed in by hundreds of acres of conservation land. His intent was to restore it and add what he calls "a sympathetic addition" to make it amenable to his 21st-century lifestyle.

An addition was necessary because the house was small: Its 1,200 sq.ft. held only two rooms per floor. Although there had been a rear addition at one time, only the original 1724 structure remained. To honor the house's history, Milner decided to put the new addition on the same spot but to position it in such a way that it did not distract or detract from the glory of the main house.

The two-story, 1,800-sq.ft. addition, which features a wood-shingle roof like the main house and a front and a back porch, "recedes visually even though it is larger than the old," Milner says.

Milner didn't want the addition to match the house. By making it of wood clapboard that is stained dark to further blend it with the landscape, he placed the main house front and center. "The original house was made of bricks made from clay found on the land," he says. "I wanted to honor that."

Milner uses the addition as the main entrance to the house. "The original front door faces and is close to the road, and I didn't want to clutter that area with a driveway," he says.

The addition and the original house fit together perfectly: The old home houses the living room and dining room, plus an upstairs guest room and sitting room. The addition, which is where the Milners spend most of their time, includes a first-floor new old-style kitchen/sitting room and second-floor master bedroom suite, both with corner fireplaces.

Site Specific
It was the softly sloping site that inspired Milner to design the Philadelphia Main Line residence that looks as though it is draped over the land like an elegant shawl. "The revival of the French Norman style was popular in this area in the 1920s," he says, "so it was a natural fit, especially for a surprisingly small house."

The two-story house, which rests on a five-acre site, is in a pretty private setting although it is surrounded by other homes. "It called for a very intimate composition," he says. Milner's firm designed the low-profile house around a central tower and built it of red brick punctuated with black mortar. "I've never used black mortar in this way before," he says. "It is very striking. And we added a criss-cross pattern of glazed headers in the tower."

The wrought-iron front gate, which is illuminated by the soft light of a lantern, leads to a sunken garden that lies before the front door. A second door in the front brick wall, off to the side, is the entry to the loggia and the kitchen beyond. "This second door acts as sort of a back door," Milner says. "We wanted the owners to enjoy the garden regardless of where they entered."

The living spaces are on the first floor; guest rooms occupy the second. The central tower acts as a springboard for two wing-like additions, one of them the husband's office, the other the master suite. "All the little details like the strap hinges on the doors and the molded plaster ceilings hark back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the 20th century," he says.

Casual Classicism
A formal house that is decidedly informal. That is what Milner's clients, who have a penchant for the Irish Georgian architecture they had seen while living on the Emerald Isle, asked him to design for their 10-acre property amidst the farmland of Villanova, PA.

The site was relatively flat but with expansive vistas, inviting any number of traditional styles. "It was an interesting challenge," Milner says. "We took the formal arrangement of the façade and massing from that Classical style and dialed it down by using random rubble dry-laid stone. We brought back a bit of formality and definition by outlining the windows in brick."

Prime examples of this rare mix appear at the front door, which features a Neoclassical hand-carved limestone frontispiece that contrasts with the country-style stone, and at the back, where a stiff-upper-lipped colonnaded verandah is a commanding presence looking over the country garden that was designed by landscape architect Jonathan Alderson of Wayne, PA. "We situated the swimming pool so it wouldn't scream 'pool,' and we worked with Alderson to obscure it with hedges," Milner says.

The formal/informality continues on the interiors of the two-story, five-bedroom house, where the Boston, MA-based design firm of Gauthier-Stacy complied with the owners' wish for an "edgy" style that infuses the spaces with contemporary details.

The Country Life
For a 40-acre property in bucolic Chester County, PA, the Milner firm designed an expanded Pennsylvania farmhouse and 12-stall barn. The two-story fieldstone house, which is encased by a five-ft.-high stone wall, opens to a large, casual garden that gives it the feeling of a contained estate. Its view is of preserve land. A charming blue gate leads to the stables.

The attached library, which is clapboard, was designed to look as though it were added later. "We used an interesting composition of rooflines and massing to convey this feeling," Milner says.

Milner brought history inside by pairing custom woodwork with antique architectural elements, including a chimney breast in the living room and paneling from an old house that was demolished. The central staircase, angled to create interest, evokes an earlier time. "It is less formal than a straight run," he says.

Interior designer Barbara Gisel of Haverford, PA, continued the casual, traditional theme with furnishings and color schemes.

Building on Time
Old houses are built over time, and Milner got the chance to repeat history in a Chester County, PA, weekend home that his clients decided to make their full-time residence. Originally, the couple commissioned Milner to design a small stone house with an expansive porch, where they could sit and watch nature as it unfolded on their 40-acre property, which is surrounded by preserve land.

As it turned out, they liked the house so much that they decided to sell their Delaware home and settle there. So it was that two bedrooms, a kitchen and an informal great room, complete with a fireplace and living room and dining room, were no longer enough.

The clients asked Milner to add a large living room to the house. "We deliberately made it look like an addition," he says. "We built it of wood instead of stone. By doing this, we adopted a somewhat more refined vocabulary."

In response to the clients' request for a "light, bright and airy space," Milner made the ceiling higher than those in the main house, created woodwork that follows the height line of the built-in shelves and added a plaster cove ceiling. "It is very different in character from the rest of the house," he says. "It has a very sculptural feel."  

Nancy A. Ruhling is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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