Homage to Okie

Main Line Today

Tara Behan

14 January 2009

The setting often dictates the design of a new home. So it was no surprise when a local couple decided to build a farmhouse on their 15 beautiful acres in Malvern. As they sought out information on Pennsylvania farmhouses, they came across the work of famed Main Line architect R. Brognard Okie and were instantly taken by his signature style. Further inquiries led them to Richard Buchanan of Archer & Buchanan Architecture in West Chester. “We’ve designed many homes in the style of Okie,” says Buchanan. “We’re interpreting Okie, and Okie was interpreting the Pennsylvania farmhouse.” 

Buchanan’s appreciation for Okie’s work goes back to his childhood. “My father was an Okie enthusiast,” he says. “He was always pointing out examples of his work and explaining to me what made it so unique.”

It was Okie’s attention to detail that makes his designs classic. “A Pennsylvania farmhouse is so much more than just a simple five-bay house,” says Buchanan. “Okie’s homes have a simple image that sticks with you. There is no mistaking [an original] from a knockoff.”

With architect and client on the same page, the next step was finding a builder to articulate their vision. They decided on Paoli-based Martin J. Cappelletti Custom Builders, who boast an impressive portfolio of additions, renovations and new construction. “We consider ourselves a boutique builder,” says Marty Cappelletti. “We get really involved with our projects and always give our clients very personal attention.”

Cappelletti knew Archer & Buchanan would be the perfect collaborator. “If you’re looking for detail and someone who is going to monitor that detail, Archer & Buchanan are your guys,” he says. “They don’t settle for anything that doesn’t exactly match what they’ve drawn. And their absolute attention to detail shows when they finish.”

Before construction began, Buchanan stressed two things to project superintendent Andy Lucas. “He told me the key was that it had to be simple and not overdone,” Lucas recalls.

For the homeowners, there were a number of absolutes. Plenty of windows were needed to maximize views of the gorgeous open acreage. “And we wanted the house to have the details of an older home, but to fit our family with four children,” says one owner.

They sought to avoid some of the elements common in newer homes. “We didn’t want soaring ceilings, a two-story entry foyer or oversized rooms,” she says. “We didn’t want any wasted space.”

Buchanan designed a kitchen that opened up to the family room. “These are the two rooms we spend the most time in together as a family,” says the owner. “I love standing [in the kitchen] cooking and having a perfect view of the fireplace.”

The kitchen’s white cabinets and beaded inset doors were chosen for their easy maintenance and Quaker-like simplicity. Classic white subway-style tiles form the backsplash for the stainless steel oven and hood; the refrigerator is also stainless steel. Black, honed granite tops the counters, which line the perimeter of the room.

“I love the white kitchen,” says the owner. “Plenty of color always fills the room through the food.”

The focal point of the room is a large, custom-built center island commissioned to Jeff Knudsen Woodworking of Kirkwood. In the days of Okie, kitchens were furnished, so Buchanan wanted the island to be a standalone piece. “He is such a beautiful furniture maker,” says Buchanan. “His pieces are so detailed and authentic that they’ve been mistaken for antiques. This was definitely a well-deserved splurge for this kitchen.” 

The island’s dark-walnut base and chunky bun feet were modeled after a William and Mary period antique; its white, honed marble countertop and a prep sink provide a large workspace for family baking projects. A 150-year-old Canadian beech beam salvaged from an Amish barn helps lend a feeling of separation between the kitchen’s dining area and its main workspace while also bringing a rustic element to the room. Solid walnut countertops—also found in the adjacent butler’s pantry—support an additional wall of cabinets and a desk in the kitchen.

Authentic, re-sawn oak floors are found throughout the house. For the informal back staircase, Buchanan designed his interpretation of an 18th-century box winder, with beadboard walls—another Okie signature.

For the sake of convenience, the children’s bedrooms are just up the stairs from the kitchen and family room. A large, floral upholstered sectional couch predetermined the family room’s dimensions. It’s custom Okie-inspired millwork accommodates a flat-screen TV and other electronics. An adjacent home office has windows on two sides. “I usually don’t like the way garages are the first thing you see when you drive up to a house,” says the homeowner. “But since I wanted everything in the back of the house to take advantage of the great views, I had the garage put in the front so nothing would disturb [them].” 

Though the days of serving tea in a formal living room or sitting area are long gone, Buchanan still thinks it’s important to have a place where adults can go to entertain and converse. “The majority of modern-day living occurs in the kitchen and family rooms,” he says. “But there should still be formal living rooms and dining rooms.” 

Since the space wouldn’t be used on a regular basis, it’s almost half the size of a traditional living room. The millwork is exceptional—from the enclosed, built-in liquor cabinet to the cope and pattern walls in the front entry. The fireplace’s plaster box surround—the plaster flush against the woodwork—is a classic Pennsylvania farmhouse feature. “It’s a way to create an elegant look in a room,” says Buchanan.

Okie was known for searching out colonial buildings, measuring and recording their details, and incorporating the findings into his own work. In keeping with that tradition, Buchanan found an Okie house at West Chester University with a beautiful cornice he wanted to incorporate into the Malvern project. Ladder in hand, he went to the campus, measured the cornice, recorded its details, and had an exact replica made. This authentic touch is complemented by other exterior details, including a custom-made, Spanish-cedar front door (the same wood used on all the home’s exterior millwork) and a traditional standing-seam copper roof over the home’s informal family entryway.

While excavating for the home, Cappelletti Custom Builders dug up tons of fieldstone and rocks that would typically be discarded. A stonemason suggested cleaning off the stone and using it to veneer the residence. In the end, more than 100 tons were used.

“Two hundred years ago, that’s how the farmers built their homes—with stone from their land,” says Cappelletti. “We didn’t have to buy any stone—and if we ever need any more, we know where to find it. In terms of ‘green’ building, we saved approximately 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel that would’ve been used in hauling and excavating the stone.”

With the first anniversary of their new home coming this summer, the owners have plenty to celebrate. “We wanted a house that would enhance this beautiful property and the existing neighborhood,” says one owner. “Our expectations were exceeded tremendously.”
 

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