Handmade Marvel

Main Line Today

Tara Behan

01 December 2006

A Berwyn home puts a modern spin on Arts and Crafts.

Peter Archer had never received anything like it from a client. Prior to beginning designs on a new house in Berwyn, the architect was presented with a 12-page, hand-written missive outlining in detail the owner’s expectations for his new home. The plan was for the house to remain in the family for generations, so much of the letter explained how its inhabitants lived and interacted, along with a list of ideas for the future. 

“It was really quite remarkable,” says Archer, co-founder and partner of Archer & Buchanan Architecture, Ltd., in West Chester. “A good bit of why this house is the way it is because the owners cared so much.” 

Taking his client’s wishes to heart, Archer went about conceiving his design on a 12-acre plot of land overlooking more than 25 acres of undisturbed meadow. Archer and the homeowner shared an appreciation for the Arts and Crafts movement, though his client was only familiar with American Arts and Crafts. So Archer introduced him to the English variation.

Ultimately, the house was influenced by both styles without really copying either. “When you talk about Arts and Crafts, you’re talking about a return to handcrafting and to the handmade aspects in a home,” says Archer. 

In keeping with that tradition, only the most talented artisans and craftsmen were commissioned for everything from the woodwork and glass to the paint and ironwork. “Each artist helped us achieve the look we were going for,” Archer says.

Outside In 

The artistry of the house begins with the exterior. Only select materials were used to give its façade a clean look. Red clay roof tiles from England drape the pebbled ash stucco layering the house. Popular in Europe, the technique produces a heavily textured stucco finish that appears to have rocks in it. All the trim and brackets are quarter-sawn oak, the windows copper clad (copper on mahogany) and the surrounds on the windows Kasota stone (the same material used on the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The two-story bay window’s colored glass is reminiscent of that found on the Undine Barge Club’s headquarters (built in 1882 by Frank Furness) along Boathouse Row. 

All said and done, detail was more important to the homeowner than size. From the outside, the five-bedroom house looks much larger than its 7,000 sf, and an attached cottage occupied by the homeowner’s in-laws adds an additional 1,800 sf. “I was much more interested in quality over quantity,” says the owner. “My wife and I couldn’t put up with the lack of detail that most big homes end up having.” 

The interior is a feast for the eyes, from the 23-karat gold-leafed appliqué in the dome ceiling above the main staircase to the custom-designed glass hood over the Wolf range in the kitchen. The owner wanted to experience the outside of the home from the inside, while also enjoying the southern exposure and meadow views. 

“I like seeing parts of the house when I look out the windows,” he says. “You get to live with the architecture in a way you don’t in a typically designed house.” 

To suit this purpose, there are windows or balconies in every room. And the main living area has a wall of glass with nine-foot doors that lead to an extensive travertine-tiled patio and pool. 

The rooms that make up the collection of casual living spaces in the interior’s open floor plan are defined by a unique use of materials. The living area has curved mahogany beams running across the ceiling; a pair of leather armchairs faces the open walk-in fireplace. 

A small window in the fireplace (mimicking an old bread oven) adds an element of intrigue and offers a nice view of the fire from the patio outside. The curved walls surrounding the fireplace may look like wood from afar, but they were actually made of plaster and painted a deep chestnut color.

The living area flows into a small dining nook and kitchen. Glazed, smoky-blue crackled tile lines the wall of the dining area and continues through the kitchen. The use of the tiles marries the rooms without creating too many lines of distinction. A large window acts as a back-splash behind the double-oven Wolf range and allows for yet another fine view of the outdoors.

Just beyond a commissioned art glass wall of green rondels by Emily Selvin lies the home’s proper dining room. “We wanted a separate area for the dining room without it being closed off,” says Archer, explaining the placement of the glass.

The room’s curved mahogany window seat cozies up to a two-story bay window that affords views of the front courtyard and brings in plenty of natural light. The mix of furniture from different periods includes a cherry wood dining table (from the owner’s previous house), which occupies the center of the room and is surrounded by 10 primitive Chippendale chairs. A sideboard made by renowned English Arts and Crafts designer Gordon Russell stands in front of the glass wall.

The room also holds one of the homeowner’s most prized pieces of furniture: a late 19th century American antique Soap Hollow china cabinet with a salmon faux finish. 

Sleeping Beauty

Seemingly miles away from the more convivial spaces is the first floor’s master bedroom suite (below). Double hammered metal doors with colored stained glass inserts mark the transition into this private world of comfort and relaxation. “I love moving through the house to get to the master bedroom,” says the owner. Their plans to spend the rest of their lives in the home played a part in the owners’ decision to have a main floor bedroom suite. A small seating area—complete with a fireplace, mounted flat-screen TV and shelves of books—provides a cozy retreat for the couple to relax. A vibrant abstract painting by classically trained Russian portrait artist Moshe Rosenthalis, whose work hangs in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, brings a lively burst of color to the space. The choice of sleek, quarter-sawn, fissured English sycamore gives the suite a look that’s distinct from the deep mahogany in the other rooms. Glazed travertine floors contribute to the monochromatic feel. 

The owner is proud to point out one of his contributions—commissioning Michael Dunn of Enchanted Creek Studios in California to create a bronze tile in a Celtic knot design, which lines the perimeter of the room. “It’s one of those things that people may not notice at first, but I know it’s there,” he says. On one side of the walkway that leads from the library area to the main bedroom, a nine-foot wall of windows affords views of the pool area and meadow beyond. “I love this bedroom,” the owner says. “I love being able to stand in the bedroom and look out the window at the rest of the house.” 

On the other side of the walkway, an English sycamore wall is accented with an unusual piece of art—a slab of beautiful earthtone red granite. “At the granite yard, they have rows and rows of granite. It’s like being at a contemporary art museum,” says Archer. “So we treated the granite like a contemporary painting and put it on the wall.” 

The bedroom’s surprise element is a door, designed to blend into the wall, that leads to a “his” dressing room and bathroom. The door to the “her” dressing room and bathroom is just around the corner. The separate spaces find common ground in a shared shower. The bed sits beneath a barreled ceiling that brings architectural interest, as well as volume, to the space. On the ceiling and walls, faux painting in a blond-yellow tone complements the English sycamore. 

After three years, this unique home is finally nearing completion. To outsiders, it already looks perfect, but the owners still have some things to do to make the house just the way they want it. After all, they plan on being there a long time. 

“There are days when I pull up in the driveway and think, ‘I can’t believe I live here,’” says the owner. “I feel I am extremely fortunate to spend my non-work waking hours in a place like this.”

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