Traditional Building Portfolio



Good as Old

An architectural team adept at historic preservation creates a contemporary residence fully immersed in the past.

Project: Residence, near Philadelphia PA

Architects: John Milner Architects, Inc., Chadds Ford, PA; John D. Milner, FAIA, Partner in Charge; Patrick McDonough, AIA, Project Architect

Interior Decorator: Jennifer Nicaud, Pass Christian, MS

Landscape Architect: Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects, Wayne, PA

Contractor: E.B. Mahoney Builders, Inc., Bryn Mawr, PA

By Dan Cooper

The new is often judged more harshly than the old, especially if it looks to the past for inspiration. Those in the field of historic preservation and design are always casting cynical glances at contemporary traditional work: so many recent projects, regardless of their budget or the resources available to the architect, possess some inaccuracy or flaw that tips their hand and makes us aware that the structure in question is of a recent vintage. Equally as frustrating is the scenario in which materials, detail and scale replicate what has come before, yet the sum of all these parts remains unconvincing, stiff and soulless, as the desired aura of history is still fugitive from its walls.

A residence recently built in suburban Philadelphia, PA, and designed by John Milner Architects, Inc., of Chadds Ford, PA, overcomes these pitfalls with grace. John D. Milner, FAIA, and his 24-member firm are renowned for their historically sensitive restorations and additions. In lesser hands, this sprawling 6,000-sq.ft. manse would have been yet another study in awkwardly designed excess, but this project is a delightful challenge for those looking for anachronistic slip-ups, as the home easily deceives the passerby about its age. "Our clients came to us because of our focus on traditional design," says Milner. "They asked us to create a new residence that would be comfortable in the eclectic architectural environment of Philadelphia's Main Line."

"The objective," Milner states, "was to achieve an architectural composition inspired by 19th-century French design precedent and appropriate for a secluded setting with unique existing site features." From the grounds, the impression of the property is one of a prosperous estate constructed ca. 1890-1910, an era when several architectural styles might be harmoniously merged on any given stylish building. The inspiration of Viollet-le-Duc is evident in the Gothic touches, especially in the tower, roofline and the ornamentation on the garden entry. The lacy iron balcony rails and entry ironwork also pay tribute to a French heritage, while the overhanging eaves and hooded windows nod to the American Shingle Style of the same period.

The home, built for a busy professional couple, is much more complex and artful than some random chateau plucked from the French countryside, homogenized to conform to contemporary building materials and then plunked down near a major American city. For just as architects of a century ago employed indigenous European styles and reinvented them for North America, Milner's design craftily replicates the same spirit of his forebears: the massing, details and finishes are rather indistinguishable from a century ago. The house references the original historic reinterpretation and emulates it, thus making it "believable" to the trained eye.

The exterior walls of the home exemplify how to re-create an historic elevation. Rather than utilizing standard off-the-shelf brick, which would impart the rigidity typically found later in the 20th century, notes Milner, "we wanted to establish a color palate in the dark reddish-brown range for the exterior so that it would blend in with the surrounding mature landscape. We achieved that using dark red hand-molded brick with recessed black mortar." These bricks contribute to the organicism of the façade, and assist it to become a cohesive whole with the surrounding grounds; a tenet adhered to by architects of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Additionally, it is the dark mortar, a touch rarely employed today, that adds much to the patination of the façade. The ornamental diamond-patterning of the bricks of the third-story tower is another accent that further indicates that the house is much older than it appears. An important design choice was tucking the garage around back; it is concealed as an outbuilding or attached carriage house, a refreshing deviation from the current trend of placing automobile storage front and center in the primary elevation.

Many of those who wish to imitate historic buildings underestimate the importance of a roof's contribution to the overall historic credibility of a structure. To successfully re-create such a critical portion of a building, whose viewable surface area rivals any wall of an exterior, involves a meticulous attention to historic precedent, especially during this period of interpretation known for its overhanging eaves and steep roof-pitches. Milner, realizing that this was not the place to scrimp and utilize architectural shingles, specified terra-cotta roof tile with sculptural forms and an array of ceramic chimney pots, the former of which transition authentically onto the top of the garden wall. In fact, it is the manner in which the roofing material and design embrace the walls that lends so much to the historic feel of the home.

Improper fenestration selection is another grave mistake often made by architects attempting to replicate an authentic historic exterior. But, in this example, the use of steel, leaded casement windows contributes yet another convincing aspect to the façade and reveals Milner's fixation with detail. Additionally, instead of the usual black or evergreen finish, he selected a delicate, middle-toned shade of green. "The gray-green color for the window frames and sash seemed to be the perfect complement for the brickwork and the landscape," says Milner. The impression is given of the era in American building from 1890-1920 devoted to the romantic European "castellated" aesthetic that gave us the later Shingle Style, the Stockbroker Tudor and the Norman Revival. One can simply imagine how, had Milner defaulted to the typical wood-sash, double-hung windows, it would have altered the appearance drastically and instantly revealed the home's contemporary nature. Obvious care was taken in creating the scale and size of the windows, and their careful placement in the various elevations is testimony to the architect's regard for historic precedent – instead of specifying over-sized, clumsy sash beholden only to interior locations rather than partnership with a harmonious exterior.

Another fortuitous aspect that contributes to the illusion of age is the location of the property. "The building site featured an existing narrow stream serving two small, interconnected ponds and mature specimen trees and plantings that were part of the existing topography," says Milner. "We wanted to nestle the house down into the landscape to afford privacy from the street and establish the relationship with the ponds." The fact that these older trees were left to closely surround the house, coupled with the gently sloping grounds, removed the potential factor of the frequent severe look of new construction, whereupon a structure abruptly imposes its form upon a newly converted piece of farmland.

The artful landscape design not only honors old growth, but also creates new plantings that draw from earlier historic influences that will mature and further enhance the lushness of the grounds. Perhaps the most enchanting feature is the walled garden with flanking loggia. "The sunken entrance-courtyard garden was designed as a transition space that would be part of the entrance sequence," notes Milner. The clients dictated that "the walled entrance garden must have a presence from the house and be accessible from the office and kitchen, and that it provide a secondary entrance from the circular driveway and the garage." Indeed, this walled garden appears to have aged with the house, as vines climb timbers and a water feature creates a quiet focal point in its center.

Despite the size of the overall structure, scale was foremost in the minds of Milner and his client. "They asked us to create a new residence with comfortable and refined living space on the first floor, and accommodations for visiting family members and guests on the second floor," he says. "Of particular importance were that the interiors, although quite refined, have a diminutive and intimate scale."

The main stair hall features lacy, wrought-iron balusters that convey a feeling of formality without pretension, lending a delicacy and grace to the entry. Here, the French influence is felt a little more keenly, conveying a trace of the Ecole des Beaux Arts that arose as the late Aesthetic Movement waned. The transition into the other public rooms off of this hall reveals the eclecticism that was the norm of this period in America.

In the interior, Milner continues with an historic approach, as the finish and trim adhere to standards set at the turn of the last century. The woodwork in these public areas possesses the crisp detail and ornament typically found in ca.1900 grand houses, and are embellished with the attendant refined flourishes. The beamed dining-room ceiling, with its shallow relief carving, recalls the finer work of the Colonial Revival, as does the multi-paneled wainscoting. The same consideration has been given to the flooring material, as quartersawn white-oak flooring was used.

Throughout the house, touches of Gothicism subtly appear in exposed beams, a fireplace surround and the massive strap hinges on the entry door. Classicism is combined seamlessly with these details, as it was in so many of the Romantic Revival structures of the early-20th century. In fact, it is the use of this concept of subtly mixing the different styles that maintains the historic credibility of the interior, as one would be hard-pressed to find more than a few ca. 1900 houses that did not draw from many stylistic wells. The naturally finished Gothic trusses in the library are a clever solution for a room with a cathedral ceiling.

While the interior design in itself is an eclectic blend of historic and contemporary furnishings, there is ample regard given to the past. Through the use of a range of styles, one feels that this home is an estate that evolved through the decades, as some pieces were retained while others added as tastes changed. The cool tones of white in the design concept, coordinated with delicate patterning and accents, belie a love of history and embrace the present.

From conceptual design to completion of construction, the project took 34 months; it was finished in November 2005. It would be interesting to observe, 50 or 100 years hence, how Milner's work has aged in comparison to its contemporaries. While the latter, should they still exist, will reveal some aspect of age, they will be readily identifiable as millennial dwellings, yet this estate will be thought of a being far more historic and from a different time altogether.  

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