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Renewing a Pennsylvania Country House

John Milner Architects revives an early nineteenth-century stone farmhouse in Chadds Ford. By Kathleen Randall | Photos by Don Pearse

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    The front two parlors of the restored country house feature period mantelpieces. Architect John Milner designed historically accurate built-in cabinets in the second parlor to reflect the house's origins.

    The restoration and expansion of “Keepsake,” a picturesque residence sited on the Brandywine River in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is expertly designed to avoid a time stamp.

    Keepsake began life in the 1820s, a rural house designed in a vernacular expression of the elegant, urbane Federal style. The Federal style flourished in the eastern states between 1785 and 1830 as the American rendition of the English Adams style. More a period than a style, it encompassed a succession of neoclassical trends reaching well beyond architecture and all aimed at lending stature to the new republic. Architecturally, the Federal style was a refinement of the preceding Georgian style and yielded a lighter, more delicate mode of detailing.

    The current project involved restoration of the original house, reconstruction of its 1850s smokehouse, construction of a major addition, a linking building and two new outbuildings, and extensive site landscaping. Architect for the project was John Milner Architects, Inc., a firm with 35 years of experience analyzing and restoring old houses, particularly those of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River Valley. Founding partner John Milner, FAIA, has also designed dozens of new houses in the Northeast, each sensitive to its unique historic setting.

    Homeowners John and Patricia Celii acquired the property in 1999. An interesting twist to the purchase was an easement attached to the deed. The easement, held by the Brandywine Conservancy, was put in place by the previous owners to protect the site’s historic and architectural qualities and stipulates that any addition must be placed on the east side of the house and not exceed 1,500 square feet. Milner notes that this location hides the new construction from passersby and was the best location for expansion, easement or no easement. Over the next two years the Celiis worked closely with Milner and his team to create a residence chock full of amenities, yet wholly appropriate to the architectural roots of the original house and Brandywine Valley traditions.

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    This integration was achieved through careful siting of the new buildings, an expert restoration of the 1820s house, the use of traditional materials authentically presented, and fine interior decoration that complements the period architecture. Part of what makes Keepsake so successful is the way in which the overall volume is parceled on the site. An 1,800-square-foot garden house and 1,350-square-foot carriage house are set apart from the main house and connected to it by landscaped stone paths. The 1,365-square-foot master bedroom addition does not directly abut the original house but is linked by a narrow, low structure serving as an internal passage and as a means for reducing massing when viewed from outside.

    The Original House

    Restoration of the original house started with careful investigative research both on-site and in the local historical archives. The front porch, which had been lost to gravity and the elements years ago, was reconstructed based on old photographs and physical evidence. All the original window frames and six-over-six double-hung sash windows were repaired and the stone walls were repointed after professional mortar analysis. At the roof level, the chimneys and projecting brick cornice were repaired and new Vermont slate roofing installed.

    The house is true stone masonry construction resulting in walls 18″ to 20″ thick. Brandywine blue granite, a very dark, black-blue stone, is set in a coursed ashlar pattern to denote the principal façade while the same stone is used in a random rubble pattern on the remaining façades. Not only does the stone lend stature and permanence to the house, the thick walls act as a heat sink, moderating temperatures throughout the year and slightly reducing the heating and cooling load.

    The smokehouse, a stone extension built off the rear of the house in the 1850s, had been constructed without a foundation and was seriously beyond repair. Its precarious condition precluded stabilization by underpinning. In the end, the smokehouse determined its own fate by partially collapsing. Milner then oversaw masons as they rebuilt the structure, stone by stone, in the same location. Today the 14′-by-17′ room serves as a study.

    Breaking Ground

    New construction was just as important to the project as restoration work. The addition to the main house adds a master bedroom suite-something not likely to have entered the wildest fantasies of early nineteenth-century builders. Keepsake’s suite is an ensemble of moderately sized rooms that combine to provide the space and features of grander master suites within the context of a traditional farmstead. The grouping includes a bedroom with fireplace, sitting room/office, dressing room, bathroom, and kitchenette. A narrow, passage-like room, used as a gallery, provides the transition from the public areas of the house to the new bedroom suite.

    What the Celiis call the garden house is more than a place for collecting gardening paraphernalia. The “L” shaped structure includes a retreat for John Celii, a gardening room for Patricia, and a small garage. A fireplace and covered porch are inviting extras.

    The addition, garden house, carriage house, and linking building are constructed in the same manner and with the same local Brandywine blue granite to visually tie the new buildings to the old. Yet careful design devices were used to keep the original house most prominent. The linking building and addition are set back from the façade plane of the original house and both are single story compared to the houses two. Inside subtle clues hint at the transition from old to new. At the intersection of the original house and linking building there is a 12″, two-riser step-up to a new floor level that carries through to the addition.

    Construction for all three new buildings is hybrid: 10″ stone veneer set over a 2-by-6 stud frame wall. The resulting 18″ wall almost measures up to that of the original house. Thick walls create deep window openings, a feature that distinguishes true traditional masonry construction from the standard knock-offs, employing a 4″ stone veneer over a 2-by-4 stud frame. Stone wall construction in the nineteenth century used two wythes (adjoining parallel rows of stone or brick in a wall), each about 10″ deep, to create a single wall. Milner’s variation maintains the exterior wythe over a wood frame carrying the roof and upper floor structure. He explains why this is important: “To replicate the appearance of a traditional stone wall you need to give your mason the same depth to create a pattern as the original mason would have had. With only a 4″ or 6″ veneer to work with, the mason must use thin, flat stones and lay them like tile. Traditional stone walls were structural. They looked structural. When you look at the pattern of a thin stone veneer you realize that thin stones standing on edge could not be carrying the wall’s weight.”

    While Keepsake’s stone construction might suggest dark interior spaces, quite the opposite is true. Large areas of the primary façades are given over to runs of large windows that flood the interiors with light. The attention to appropriate detail and authenticity carries to the interiors. Most of the millwork and plaster finishes in the 1820s house were intact and thus restored. The simplified, yet refined, Federal-style detailing of the two main fireplace mantels is the most formal note in this vernacular country house. Both were fortuitous finds salvaged from demolished historic houses. Milner hands off much of the credit for the interiors to Patricia Celii, who was instrumental in their design, including acquisition of antique architectural materials, furnishings, fabrics, and decorative arts.

    Collaboration out-of-doors was also critical to the home’s picture-perfect presentation. Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects reconfigured and redesigned the entire 7-acre site to make the three separate parcels of house work together. Alderson’s plan provides terraces off all the main rooms, new gardens, screening from the street, and a realigned driveway. Finally, a project is only as good as its general contractor, and Milner gives exceptionally high marks to Spencer Abbott Builders. “They did a superb job, exercising great skill in managing the construction process and all aspects of the execution.”

    Timeless: Both appropriate to its own time and for all time. It’s no small assignment, but one that Keepsake proves possible. For John Milner Architects it means working with its clients to make an honest and incremental-read “believable”-leap along the evolutionary path of a historic style. It’s taking the core vestiges of an architectural vocabulary that has evolved over 100 years and fine-tuning it for 2004 and beyond. Remember, it’s the missteps that lend the time stamp. Traditionally styled new construction carries a double burden. To be convincing it must be appropriate to historic, even regional, architectural forms as well as appropriate to its own time in terms of delivering on expectations of twenty-first-century livability. Keepsake promises this and more for many generations.

    Kathleen Randall is a freelance writer living in New York.

    Published in: New Old House Winter 2005



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