Element of Surprise

Main Line Today

Tara Behan

22 January 2010

If you drive along Route 82 in Unionville, chances are you’ve passed Clayton and Starr Bright’s home without so much as a second glance. Given its unassuming façade — that of a 19th century barn — you’d never know that it’s won awards for architectural excellence. 

And so the adage goes: Don’t judge a book — or, in this case, a house — by its cover. Once you wind your way around the Brights’ drive to the back and see the modern, two-story glass cube addition joining the existing 18th-century house and the barn, you’ll see what all the fuss is about. 

Not that any of this was ever intended. Starting in the mid-’80s, the couple and their three children had lived across the street. When the property went on the market, Clayton first considered buying it and converting the barn into an artist’s studio for himself. Internationally renowned, his sculptures and paintings are in private and corporate collections throughout the world, including South America and Japan. Locally, you can find Bright’s life-size, bronze Jersey cow on display at that Brandywine River Museum. 

The property’s main selling point—the view of an 80-acre valley—was also the primary reason it wasn’t selling. The land was subject to a conservation easement and the seller refused to entertain any buyer with plans to build on the hill or in the valley. Another turn-off was living so close to the road.

For his part, Bright considered neither a detriment. He would abide by the seller’s rules. Then he got to thinking that the property was better suited to be a home than a workspace. 

“The aftermarket on a studio in Chester County wouldn’t be lucrative,” says Bright. “It had to be designed as a home anyway, so why not live there and take advantage of the tremendous views?”

Though they purchased the property in the mid-’90s, the Brights waited until 2002 to start construction. That gave Bright and his wife plenty of time to identify what they really wanted and research various designs. First and foremost, the new home had to fit their lifestyle. From early on, Bright had a general plan. “I knew I was going to put a structure in between the schoolhouse and the barn,” he says. 

A fan of Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House in Illinois and Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, Bright was certain he wanted plenty of floor-to-ceiling glass. To take full advantage of the stunning natural surroundings, it made perfect sense.

Rest assured the design wouldn’t be typical of anything found in Unionville. The Brights had done the stone farmhouse thing, so they were ready for something unique. Now they needed an architect who could make their vision a reality. Enter Richard Buchanan, of the West Chester-based firm Archer & Buchanan, who came via referral.

“The person told me, ‘Richard is the kind of architect who will listen to what you’re saying,’” says Bright. “‘He’ll design with you, instead of for you.’”

Little did Bright know that Buchanan lived a mere three miles away on Route 82. “I’d passed by his home several times and had no idea it was Richard’s,” says Bright. “In my eyes, it was just good design.”

It’s not every day that a client asks Buchanan to “really push the boundaries and do something exciting.” That was Bright’s directive, and Buchanan embraced the challenge—so much so that his work was honored last fall by the Society of American Registered Architects.

“In Chester County, we often don’t get the chance to do something really cool and modern,” says Buchanan. “Tying together the existing ancient Pennsylvania architecture, the glass cube with the ’50s modern feel and the Asian influence of the Japanese water garden — which goes back a 1,000 years — was really amazing.”

Working with a client as creative as Bright was an added bonus for Buchanan. “Not only as an artist, but as a craftsman and a technician, Clayton understands how things are made and the value of good materials and details,” says Buchanan. “He was able to convey a broad aesthetic agenda. And when the aesthetic agenda was as diverse as this project was, he was pretty articulate. It was very gratifying working with him.”

West Chester-based builder Jack Young joined Bright and Buchanan as the third member of the team. “He’s an excellent craftsman who really was in tune with what I was trying to do,” says Bright. “He went the extra step to get it done.”

“As in every house, everyone hangs out in the kitchen, so we figured why not make it one big room?” says Bright.

That was the reasoning behind the great room that makes up the entire first floor of the home’s glass structure. It has a family/living space with a fireplace, an eating area and a kitchen. The glass walls, are counterbalanced by the irregular, sunbaked Mexican tile flooring. Small paw prints can be found on some of the tiles. “In Mexico, when they slice the clay into tiles, they lay it in the courtyard to bake,” says Bright. “If a dog or cat walks through it, so be it.” 

For the room’s eating area, Bright designed a geometric-shaped glass table with a wood base. “A glass table doesn’t take up as much visual space as a wooden one,” he says. “And that’s what this room needed.” 

Throughout the project, Bright never lost sight of his goal to balance old and new. “It’s the contrast of two different elements that always catches you in a space,” he says. “And that’s what I wanted to achieve.”

Windows in the kitchen reveal a peaceful water garden also designed by Bright. “If you stand in the middle of the room, you can look out to the very controlled environment of the Japanese garden, or out to the open valley,” says Bright. “Again, there’s a contrast.”

The multilevel garden fills a narrow space between the house and a wall that serves as a barrier from the road. Its steps lead to the top of a waterfall that empties into a pool. A horticulture enthusiast, Bright planted everything, built the pool, set the stones for the waterfall, built the rapids, and found just the right stone for the bridge.

Back inside, the conservatory leading from the kitchen to the barn is accessed through a sliding glass door of the sort you might find in a retail store. “We didn’t want to have a solid door that would block the view,” says Bright. “This also solves the problem of having to open and close the door if we’re carrying in groceries or other bags.” 

The conservatory has an open breezeway feel, with its wall of glass windows. A few steps lead to a cozy library, with its second-level reading area surrounded by built-in bookshelves. There’s also a guest room with farmhouse-appropriate plaster walls and a full guest bathroom. “This area of the barn yields a lovely interior landscape,” says Buchanan. “There’s an amazing amount of old fabric in there. Clayton and Jack did a great job picking new elements that made it unclear what was old and what was new.”

Buchanan sees the home’s many contrasts as a sort of story line. “There’s a barn and a house and the new elements,” he says. “The new elements are crisp, distinct and modern, and the old ones are the crunchy 18th-century building fabric. As an artist, Clayton was very prudent in the way he edited the whole story, so to speak.” 

On the second level of the glass addition is the master bedroom suite—the room with the best view. And though there are curtains, they’re always open, unless it’s really cold. “Sometimes the moon shines so brightly into the room,” says Bright. “But you get used to it.” 

Obviously, the couple enjoys the panoramic view of the valley. But they also like that they can see the conservatory/barn area—and one of Bright’s prized possessions: a Boston & Maine steam locomotive bell that sits outside along the entrance path. “All old farms had bells, so I traded the bell with a neighbor for a piece of my sculpture,” Bright says.

From the bedroom, the Brights also have a full view of the brise soleil (French for “breaks the sun”) that wraps around the glass addition. It provides shelter from too much sun in the summer, and yet is positioned to take advantage of the more limited natural light in winter. Instead of growing wisteria to cover it, the Brights opted for grape vines, which aren’t as dense and are easier to control.

Now six years in their unique home, the Brights couldn’t be more comfortable in the new environment. Thanks to all that glass, they’re always immersed in the beauty of their surroundings.

“It’s a very private expression of his personal architecture,” says Buchanan. “That privacy gave us a little more courage to be bold. Being in a conservative, traditional area, you want to be thoughtful before you oblige your neighbors to live with your own big idea. The Brights are not imposing the house on anyone else. It’s really an appealing thing.”

And while Bright has the home he always imagined, he never did get that new studio. “I bought 80 acres of ground and spent a lot of money, but I didn’t get it,” he laughs.

At least he doesn’t have to go very far—just across the street to his old one.

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