Arts & Crafts Inspiration

County Lines

Laura Muzzi Brennan

01 February 2010

Mere blueprints and square footage can't begin to capture the spirit of this Arts and Crafts-inspired residence in Berwyn. Only philosophy can. As historian Wendy Hitchmough explains, American practitioners of Arts & Crafts style - architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Henry Greene among them - believed "a house must belong to a place and its people, and that it should be built of local materials using time-honored methods passed down through generations of builders." 

That explains why the Arts and Crafts umbrella shelters the bungalows of Pasadena, California; the mission-style dwellings of the American Southwest; and Wright's own Prairie Style homes in Oak Park, Illinois. Guided by that philosophy, architect Peter Archer and the Berwyn homeowners set about designing a family home that harmonizes with the Chester County landscape and showcases the talents of local craftspeople. In an eight-page letter to Archer, the homeowners talked more about their family - four active daughters, two doting grandparents, one mellow dog - than any specific directives regarding floor tiles and kitchen islands. Their desire to create an heirloom was clear, not the kind swaddled in bubble wrap and tucked away for someday but a work of art to be lived in and loved today.

Approach the Butterfly

Winding up the nearly quarter mile drive, you see the house grow naturally out of its twelve acre surroundings, achieving Archer's vision that one "cannot imagine anything else being there." In fact, the original 1912 house had sunk into disrepair and was torn down before construction began in 2003. Archer designed the almost 9,000 sf home to mimic a butterfly's shape - a body and two wings that look as if they embrace the landscape - so even a person standing inside can look out and take in the architecture.

This house may be a butterfly, but it is no ethereal creature. The clay tile roof is built to last a hundred years, and underneath the pebbledash stucco exterior, the 2 x 6 wood frame is supported by 8-inch concrete walls and a 16-inch concrete foundation. (In comparison, most foundations are 8 to 12 inches deep). Accenting the home are mahogany and copperclad windows surrounded by Kasota stone, the same yellow stone used for The Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

The home's main entrance faces north into the woods where Anna Anisko, the botanical artist who illustrated Plants of Pennsylvania: An Illustrated Manual, replaced invasive plant species with indigenous ones. From the woods, amble down a few steps into the Pennsylvania bluestone courtyard lit at night by cast bronze, bouquet-shaped torches. The real eye catcher of the entrance, however, is a river-and-woods scene art glass door created by stained glass glazier Emily Selvin. 

Once you've gone over the river and through the woods, find yourself in the stair hall with lots of paths to follow: walk forward into the main living space; left into the master suite or up the grand staircase to the "lantern" and the suites beyond.

Living Space

Like a greeter welcoming you to the home's main living space, the Art Nouveau-inspired glass cabinet promises an extraordinary experience awaits. An artistic flight of fancy, the built-in cabinet by wood artisan Fab Dubrunfaut showcases stemware on one side and rotates to reveal a fully stocked bar on the other. Just beyond the bar is the main living area where every room opens onto at least two others. On one side of the living room, two leather chairs cozy up to a walk-in fireplace, a nod to that beloved feature of the Chester County farmhouse. The walls surrounding the fireplace look as if they are upholstered in leather, but the illusion is merely the artistry of mother-and-son decorative painters, Nancy and Holland Evers.

The living room's main conversation area - a sofa flanked by two chairs, all richly upholstered in fabric reminiscent of a William Morris design - faces a wall of French doors and offers a spectacular south-facing view of the swimming pool, terrace and meadows. On the other side of the living room is a smaller fireplace with a casual dining area in front of it. Just beyond that fireplace, a pair of art glass doors usher you into an indoor/outdoor room complete with a Viking grill, ample seating and a dining area. During hot weather, glass panels surrounding the room are removed to expose screens and let the fresh air in. Directly behind the main conversation area of the living room is the formal dining room. The two rooms are separated by another Emily Selvin creation: a glass wall of bottle-green roundels. The dining room's two-story bay window, accented with panes of purple and pale yellow, alludes to another Philadelphia landmark, the Vesper Boat Club to which one owner belongs. Nestled into the window's curve sits a gleaming walnut and mahogany banquette, crafted by David Dougan, who did much of the home's fine woodwork.

From the dining room, you can either go back for another look at the rotating cabinet or explore the butler's pantry. Its lacewood and walnut burl cabinets are enhanced by seed glass doors and display, among other treasures, the owners' collection of French enamel and Spade pottery. On the other side of the butler's pantry, the kitchen features cabinets of quarter sawn oak, and windows topped by more of Selvin's art glass that look north to the woods. The kitchen opens to the living room and a mudroom with a back staircase leading to the second floor. 

Master Suite

Stained glass doors depicting trees above a verdant forest floor hint at the views to come in the master bedroom suite. Facing south, the suite's floor to ceiling windows present yet another view of the pool, the terrace and the meadow. In the suite's sitting room, blonde-hued, quarter sawn English sycamore walls, travertine-tiled floor and a circular-shaped fireplace give the room a contemporary feel. A narrow hallway connects the sitting room to his and her bathrooms, dressing areas, and the master bedroom itself. A shower joining the two bathrooms recalls a waterfall: a slab of teal marble forms a high-backed bench for sitting while water cascades down your shoulders. Painted to mimic English sycamore, the barreled ceiling above the bed frames a lovely view of oaks and maples on the property's eastern sector.

Staircase, Lantern and Suites

An oak and Hawaiian koa staircase by David Dougan leads to what Peter Archer fondly refers to as "the lantern." This turret-like landing space boasts a gold-leafed domed ceiling, its periphery inlaid with ebony in a scallop design. The day I visited, a Tiffany-inspired chandelier, two years in the making, was being installed. Archer and the owners could hardly wait to see the light shine through the blue and emerald panes, illuminating the lantern and the courtyard below. Beyond the lantern, the staircase carries you to three bedrooms, three baths and a shared study/playroom enjoyed by the owners' daughters. Then comes a bridge linking the main part of the home to a fourth bedroom and an exercise room. An enclosed stairway connects the exercise room to the in-law cottage, an 1,800 sf residence complete with bedroom, study and kitchen where the wife's parents live.

Hidden Gems and Future Plans

Tucked away on the lower level are several hidden gems. There you'll find a spacious playroom as well as a storage room large enough to hold the owners' rowing sculls. But the best reason to visit the lower level is its wine cellar. A vineyard scene rendered in art glass welcomes oenophiles, while curved shelving cradles rare vintages.

Throughout my tour of the home, I was struck not only by the easy rapport of architect and owners but by the way they talked about future projects with starry-eyed anticipation. No sooner was the new chandelier installed than they began dreaming aloud of a hand-carved bench in the lantern and an expansion of the wine cellar. So when Peter Archer calls this residence the "Great American House," I see why. It's not simply that native plants flourish in its woods or that Pennsylvania bluestone paves its courtyard, or even that so many American artisans contributed their talents to its creation. The name sticks because the owners and architect share that most American of qualities: a passionate desire to keep moving forward.

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