Traditional Building Portfolio



Mature Growth

An early- 19th-century Maryland residence is restored and expanded.

Project: Residence, Baltimore County, MD

Architects: John Milner Architects, Inc., Chadds Ford, PA; John Milner, principal; Amy Scanlon, project architect; Edward Wheeler, project architect

Contractor: Matt Slater, Lutherville, MD

By Lynne Lavelle

When restoring and expanding old buildings, there are generally two schools of thought; one says that modern needs should trump the intentions of the original design, while the other says that historic precedent should not be swept aside. John Milner, FAIA, of John Milner Architects, Inc., is firmly allied with the latter and, with almost 40 years of experience in the analysis of historic buildings, identifies "historic precedent" with precision. As an adjunct professor in the University of Pennsylvania's graduate program in Historic Preservation, Milner instructs his students on the techniques for identifying a building's architectural components, which may date from a variety of time periods. These techniques include not only archival research, but also careful physical investigation of saw marks, molding profiles, nail types, mortar composition and paint layering. So when his firm was approached to preserve, restore and expand a 19th-century residence in Baltimore County, MD, that had undergone numerous late repairs and additions, it was well-equipped.

Built between 1800 and 1810, the original two-story gable-roof house is believed to be one of the oldest buildings still standing in Baltimore County. In 1848, it was expanded to include a one-story kitchen addition, but the most significant changes occurred in 1854 with the addition of a third story, a three-story second wing and a two-story porch. Subsequent owners removed and replaced the porches, and attempted to expand further at the rear with a small stone shed. Over the years, the property proved difficult to maintain and by the time it was acquired by the clients, the house, barn and related outbuildings were in an advanced state of disrepair, cosmetically and structurally, and the historic narrative had been obscured.

The clients wanted to restore the original portion of the house, remove the 20th-century modifications and accommodate a new living room, kitchen, guest bedrooms, informal family entrance and attached garage in new additions to the rear. From the beginning, the clients and the architect agreed that the integrity of the historical wings was of primary importance. "Their goal was to restore the original house, make as few changes as possible in the original configuration of the floor plan and the details, and accommodate their space requirements in the new additions, so they didn't compromise the old house by trying to squeeze these larger spaces into it," Milner says.

Before construction began, all elements of the building that post-dated 1854 were removed, including the stone shed. On the front façade, a 20th-century porch was removed and rebuilt in the original style – determined by remaining evidence on the exterior – and the two-story porch dating from 1854 was replaced. "The two-story porch was in very bad condition. It was collapsing and unsafe," Milner says. "So we took it down and copied all the woodwork, then put it right back up the way it was." This back-to-basics approach left only the 1848 kitchen addition, which was restored and converted to a new office and den.

Prior to its purchase by the clients, structural problems had prevented the use of certain areas of the house. The basement of the 1854 wing had a dirt floor and practically no room in which to stand up. In addition, water penetration over the years had weakened the stone foundation walls. The clients wished to use every available space, so one of the first steps in the restoration was to underpin the entire 1854 wing to create adequate headroom for exercise and work spaces. Structural engineer Gary Gredell of Newark, DE-based Gredell & Associates designed new reinforced-concrete footings and foundation walls that were incrementally installed under the existing stone foundations. This work added four feet of height to the basement and provided the opportunity to install an exterior waterproof membrane with foundation drains.

Despite its structural problems, the interior elements of the house had aged remarkably well. All of the original woodwork, doors and door frames were salvaged, and many pieces, including the stair-hall banister, remained in place throughout the restoration. Before work began, a detailed survey was taken of the entire building to determine which features dated from the 1800-1854 historic period and which had been added later. According to Milner, the preservation objectives were clear from the beginning. "We wanted to save as much pre-1854 material as possible, and remove later material that did not contribute to the building's architectural integrity," he says. "We didn't take any license with the original woodwork. We preserved it all, cleaned it and removed paint down only as far as necessary to reach sound surfaces, and then we re-painted."

Where original details were missing or couldn't be salvaged, the firm followed historic precedent closely in its new designs and antique replacements. In the 1854 wing, Milner replaced the missing fireplace mantel in the living room with an antique one, and designed compatible floor-to-ceiling woodwork. "When we started, there was nothing on that wall except the fireplace opening," Milner says, "and our clients wished to use the space as a library with cabinetry to conceal a television and lots of bookcases. It is a completely designed room, but the elements are of an appropriate style for the time period."

To the trained eye, the dining room may appear a little large in comparison to the other rooms, but this is deliberate. "It was originally two rooms, one a parlor and the other a kitchen," says Milner. "But the partition that separated them had been removed already, and we did not put it back because the owners wanted a large dining room. We did preserve the evidence of that partition in the form of lines in the plaster walls and ceiling." Elsewhere in the dining room the original woodwork, including two fireplace mantels and the winding staircase to the second floor, remains. The plaster surfaces in the two original rooms had survived, with many patches, and were repaired and retained in place.

The new two-story wing at the rear of the original 1800 section, with the kitchen on the first floor and a guest bedroom above, incorporates the stone wall of the original 1800 house. "We preserved that beautiful stone wall so that when you are walking through the house you can constantly orient yourself to what's new and what's old," says Milner. Oak ceiling beams and random-width oak flooring, sawn from antique barn timbers, and antique-pine ceiling boards tie the new kitchen to the old house, and to the surrounding landscape, where oak and pine trees are common. And before the project began, Milner spent six months searching for 19th-century doors, cabinets, mantelpieces and paving brick with which to finish the new wing. "Before the project started we had a whole bunch of materials," he says. "We used most of them in the additions only – I don't like to confuse the historical record by introducing antique materials in original spaces. And we like to use antique doors because they are hand-planed and have wonderful character. I acquired the oak beams and timbers from a dealer, and they have the distinctive color and texture of old wood." The antique paving brick, used as flooring in the new informal entrance, was salvaged from city sidewalks that were removed as part of urban renewal projects. And the stone wall of the 1848 kitchen wing, now an office, was exposed by the architects to reference the building's historic origins. Antique beaded boards and six-panel doors were used to construct the side-by-side coat closets.

The new living-room addition is attached at the rear of the 1854 section, which is exposed above. Instead of e-panding to two stories, it was decided to limit this second addition to one, and to reference the front façade with a railing. "The new additions touch the original house as lightly as possible, and deliberately stand apart," says Milner. "We wanted to respect the original 1854 part of the house, and we really didn't need any more second-floor space." The architects incorporated woodwork inspired by 18th- and early-19th-century design president and designed the new space to take maximum advantage of the views of the surrounding open space.

Wood siding differentiates the new elements from the old and maintains the original stonework's priority. But a new standing-seam copper roof unites all the different elements and periods. "We didn't try to pretend that the additions had always been there by building them out of stone," says Milner. "We weren't trying to fool anybody. Just as the old house reflects a natural architectural progression, our new additions provide a clear continuum."

Rather than blend the new garage and parking courtyard with the main house, Milner decided on a different tactic – to "bury" them to the rear and landscape around them. By drawing the eye to the main wings, the effect almost conceals the more service-oriented elements. "The garage is very much a secondary feature and isn't prominent, which is often a problem when working with old houses," he says. "So we started with the highest part, which was the 1854 wing, then stepped down to the 1800 part, then to the kitchen wing, then down to the garage."

Contractor Matt Slater of Lutherville, MD, completed the complex project in 14 months, and draws high praise from Milner for "his superb craftsmanship and attention to detail." In addition to dealing with the many challenges presented by the condition of the house and the logistics of building additions with antique materials, he also had to "evict" some indigenous residents. "There were about 50 black snakes living in the house," says Milner. "They were everywhere. They were living in the stonework, the basement, the attic, under the foundation. The contractor removed them one at a time, but some of them were five feet long. I would go down there and I'd see a carpenter carrying a five-foot-long snake out of the house and setting him free in a nearby cornfield."

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