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Italianate, Hyphenated

A sensitive addition to a landmark Michigan property utilizes two divergent approaches to preservation.

Project: Residence, Dexter, MI

Architect: Architectural Resource, Ann Arbor, MI; Michael Klement, AIA, principal in charge

Contractor: Home Renewal Inc., Manchester, MI; Donald Huff, owner

By Dan Cooper

With the exception of a museum property, where evolution is halted and possibly reversed, an old house is not inviolate. It is a home, and subject to the whims and needs of its occupants, some who respect the intent of the original architect, and others who do not. This fact remains: Houses will be changed over time, and we try to honor their pasts without rendering them obsolete as places for living.

This conflict between the past and the present was the challenge facing a Michigan couple as they came to terms with their beloved ca. 1860 brick Italianate and its lack of amenities for their current lifestyle. As their architect, Michael Klement, AIA, of Architectural Resource in Ann Arbor, MI, states, "The owners have such a passion for the house and understand their role in its stewardship. They didn't want to be known as the couple who screwed up that grand old house down by the river. They took their responsibility very seriously and realized that the house would be there long after their tenure, and that they should act accordingly."

The house was hardly in original condition, and it lacked amenities that most now consider basic for the 21st century. "Over its history, the house had several different uses, including as a boarding house," says Klement. "But in the middle of the 20th century, a very homely porte-cochère was added, and it was too narrow for a car to pass through. So the space under it became a catchall for toys and furniture. It was really an eyesore."

Klement adds that the house also lacked a garage and outbuildings, and that it had a clumsy front entrance at the center of the house. "So how do you handle daily egress with young kids?" he says. "We had to find a sensitive solution for the lack of a suitable entry, as well as vehicle storage."

The clients and the architect agreed on a two-story addition with garage space, as the typical single-story garage would be glaringly inappropriate. Klement was faced with two divergent theoretical approaches. "There's a prevailing attitude toward historic structures that insists that there be a clear visual separation between an old structure and its addition," he says. "We struggled with this, as our goal was to make the transition between forms as seamless as possible, as if the original builder and client had met the need for an expansion of the earlier structure. This runs afoul of current historic preservation guidelines, which don't acknowledge how such an addition would have been approached in the past. In the old days, they would have gone ahead and enlarged the existing house with a matching ell."

With this in mind, Klement tried to do both – create a stylistically consistent addition while trying to adhere to the modern concept of a clear and obvious demarcation between the old and new sections. "We had worked with these clients in the past, when we redesigned and rebuilt a crumbling side porch on the far side of the main structure," he says. "We converted it into a conservatory that was stylistically in keeping with the period of their home, and they were delighted with the results. They were confident in our capabilities, and felt we could tackle this new, far grander project and not compromise its integrity."

Klement says that when his firm begins a project, they always stress to clients how critical a master plan is, and that they should try to understand their home in broader terms – to recognize not only their immediate tenancy in the building, but also its place in the community and in history. He considered several options for adding to the house, and the solution that honored both schools of preservation thought was to create a connection that acted as a hyphen. "The hyphen gives us a pause between the main house's elements and the addition, and as an ensemble, it works out nicely," he says. "So, we designed the connection to echo the expression of the sunroom we had previously designed and used that and the main house to create a design vocabulary."

Architectural Resource spent a considerable amount of time getting the scale of the addition right, going through some 20 different iterations in its height and width, all while incorporating the functional spatial requirements. The new section had to be subordinate to the main house and not dominate the elevations. "We replicated the roof pitch of the main house and lowered the spring line of its roof, and then set it back from the front elevation of the house so the parallax and perspective make it seem smaller," says Klement. "We used a lot of visual techniques to complete the addition's subordination."

As with any historic architectural category, the Italianate style has its own distinctive vocabulary, and a design misstep can quickly wrest a believable re-creation into one of the all-too-common Neoclassical mélanges that dot suburbia.

Once the firm had the scale correct, the next critical step was the proper fenestration. "Here the key aspect was the proportion of the windows and doors to solid wall mass to ensure that they were balanced, as they were in the old house," says Klement. "We knew that simply matching the style of the windows wasn't going to be good enough. We also had to look far and wide to match the brick, whose coloring and texture had to be as similar as possible, and through the efforts of our builder's mason, Ron Davis, we found tumbled ones in the Detroit area that are perfect."

Klement and the Architectural Resource team designed a tripartite window for the stairwell of the addition that echoes the theme of the cupola. "We didn't want to challenge it," says Klement, "but to reestablish the cupola's presence in some manner. The window also brings a vast amount of light into what would be a long, dark stair corridor. We also emulated the front entry for the garage door, and scaled to approximate the cornice and bracket work from the main house. You can't merely replicate it; the scale has to make sense. The owners actually came up with the railing design; they found it on another Italianate during their travels on the East Coast."

Key suppliers for the project included Kohler (bathroom fittings); Pella (entry doors and windows); Restoration Hardware; Chelsea Lumber (interior paneling); Halo and Brass Light Gallery (lighting fixtures); and CertainTeed (roofing).

The firm painstakingly detailed the rear elevation as well. "The north side of the house is equally prominent," says Klement. "It's sited on the banks of a major tributary of the Huron River, so when we addressed this elevation, we placed a grand balcony that steps from the guest suite and has a commanding view of the meadow down a 500-ft. meadow to the river. The balcony breaks up the façade of that side of the house as well."

Noting that each historic house is comprised of unique details, Klement says that when working on a project addition such as this, you truly need to learn the language of a house before you start. "Look for the small jewels it possesses and use those to build upon," he says.  

 

 

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