Okie Inspired

New Old House

Mary Grauerholz

01 April 2009

Archer & Buchanan looks to early-twentieth-century architect R. Brognard Okie for the design of a Pennsylvania country house.  

The main hall of Canary Cottage, dappled with morning sun, is a feast for the eyes. Beginning with a pool of light resting on a honey-colored farmer's table in the kitchen niche, the view lead to the flower-filled dining room and, finally, to a bay of windows overlooking a vista of daffodils on the rolling green lawn. 

The interior view is one of Betsy Grace's favorite places in the Wayne, Pennsylvania home she shares with her husband, Charlie. "I love standing in Charlie's library, looking straight down the main hall through the butler's pantry to the sunlight peeking through the windows in the family room," she says "It's amazing to watch this interplay of light." The expansive view also has the imprint of trio of architects responsible for fulfilling the Grace's family's vision for their new home: Peter Archer and Richard Buchanan, of Archer & Buchanan Architecture, and R. Brognard Okie, an early-twentieth-century visionary best known for reinterpreting the Pennsylvania farmhouse as a blend of historic restoration and modern comforts.

"We're great admirers of Okie," Peter Archer says of himself and his partners. When Archer began developing plans for the Graces' new home several years ago, he found himself in an architect's most enviable position: clients who not only shared his love for Okie's work but had experienced his style firsthand. Charlie Grace has lived in three Okie designs, and the Graces were living in an Okie home in Chester County, Pennsylvania, when they hired Archer & Buchanan to create a house that would put them closer to Philadelphia, where Charlie works as an investment banker. Betsy Grace has loved the influence of country design since her childhood in Chagrin Falls, Ohio; in fact, the memories of an inn in her town were so meaningful that she named her current home after it: Canary Cottage. So it's no wonder that the Graces wanted a home imbued with the best of Okie's principles.

Okie's hallmarks - with touches and modern amenities incorporated by Archer and Buchanan - run subtly through the farmhouse: headboard walls, wide-board details, quartersawn oak floors. And then there is the stone, gorgeous local fieldstone that gives the structure's exterior its Pennsylvania farmhouse identity. "The stone," says Archer, is much more than a material; it reflects the area's people and its roots. This house carries on a history, the development of the Pennsylvania farmhouse," Archer continues. "You don't see these attributes in New York or North Carolina. It's what makes a local tradition. This house speaks very much of the region."

Archer captured another Okie detail, the soft transition from outdoors to inside, with a courtyard placed in the front of the house. "I created the courtyard approach and entrance to express the history of so many wonderful American historical homes surrounded by vistas," Archer explains. "The courtyard is the beginning of the experience of the home." 

The overall feeling is one of expansive space. "Upon walking in the front door, the first thing you experience is the openness. It is the true welcoming of the home." Sweeping stairs to the left, the library to the right, and a wide cased opening lead to a view of the living room fireplace. The traditional raised-panel woodwork and furnishings (many of them are inherited antiques; other pieces were found by Diana Bittel of Philadelphia) bolster the comforting, elegant mood. The living room and library have what Archer calls "lots of ins and outs": snug little inglenooks, built-in seating, bookcases, and alcoves.

The easy way the house has of accommodating both solitude and group settings is one of Betsy's favorite aspects, especially considering the entertaining she and Charlie love to do. The couple has eight children between them, as well as grandchildren and many friends. "It's very comfortable," she says. "It moves very easily with different groups of people." The arrangement of the alcoves, inglenooks, corners, and cubbies' was literally Betsy's dream. An architectural conceptual designer, she recounts a creative dream that spawned one of the most beautiful of the cozy spaces: the inglenook with a comfortable antique chair placed next to the living room fireplace. "I was dreaming about this inglenook one night, and when I woke up, I drew it; I knew I wanted it as an appendage to the living room," she explains. The inglenook's floor of irregular Bryn Mawr stone echoes the exterior's stonework.

Much of the first floor's beauty lies in the mood created by details: chairs upholstered in sumptuous English fabric, antique furniture with the sheen of centuries of living, and four generations of family portraits, including many by artist Mary Whyte  of Charleston, South Carolina.

Enveloping every floor of the three-story home is an abundance of millwork-headboard walls, casings, mantels, paneling, cabinetry-building the home's historic identity, warming the house as only wood can, and reflecting, as Archer says, "all those things we love about old homes." The millwork was done by several local craftspeople, including David Thorngate, a Delaware cabinetmaker who recently returned from Iraq, and David Dougan, a cabinetmaker from Edgemont, Pennsylvania. Archer says the general contractor, Griffiths Consutruction Inc. in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, instilled the house with "heart and soul."

There is another critical force running through this lovely home's identity: Betsy Grace herself. Archer gives her much of the credit for the design's success. "She had a very clear vision of what she wanted," Archer states. "She needed an architect to make it a reality." Archer recalls Betsy's "almost apologetic call" to him asking for his help. "She said, 'I've been practicing drawing houses on shirt cardboard from my grandfather's dry cleaning since I was a little girl.' "Archer says the result was a lovely collection of sketches of her and Charlie's dream home. She didn't need a draftsman; she needed an interpreter. So the Graces, along with Archer and another Archer & Buchanan architect, Michele Thackrah, began talking and poring over books, many from the firm's library. Archer himself lives in an 1816 Pennsylvania farmhouse, so he also drew on personal experience. The basic task before the architectural team became obvious right away, says Archer: "To get to the essence and create a beautiful home, with all the qualities of the houses that the Graces had lived in." 

Archer began by making frequent trips to the spacious property, with spectacular sunlight, foliage, and topography that worked together like a song. "I visited the property several times during the day so that I could see where the light is. If I have the luxury, I like to visit properties several times a year, to see what speaks." Although the Graces wanted Okie style to define their new home, they needed some tweaks to add interest. "At one point," Archer recalls, "Charlie said, 'I've lived in Okie houses all my life; I want this one to be a little different.'" Archer responded by adding secondary and tertiary portions of the exterior in cedar shingles rather than the usual Okie-style clapboard. "We used a palette of materials, all natural, so they age gracefully and last a long time," Archer adds.

Charlie also knew he wanted some of the features of new construction. Canary Cottage has a wealth of modern amenities, such as a media system, heated floors, a sophisticated kitchen, and a combination exercise-sitting room on the second floor, with its modernity tempered by reclaimed wood floors, burnished millwork, and traditional furnishings. The four second-story bedrooms are arranged off a central area, with an entry such as an alcove leading to each room to provide a gentle transition from public to private space. The third floor will become a bunk room for the Graces' grandchildren.

A carriage house that includes Betsy's studio is also on the property. "Michele and Peter really had fun making a hideaway where I can draw," Betsy says. It's no surprise that Archer and Thackrah knew how to craft a space for Betsy's creative work. "Peter and Michele could finish my thoughts," Betsy explains. "They just make things come alive."

Pennsylvania Fieldstone

"The goal was to replicate the look of an 18th century fieldstone house for Canary Cottage," says Peter Archer of Archer & Buchanan. The architectural firm studied the stone used in historical buildings in the area. Archer not only studied the type of stone used in the past but also took note of how the stone was layered (horizontally or vertically), what size stones were used, and what type of pointing was applied. "This particular pointing style we used is called crown pointing," explains Archer. "The walls are 8"-thick field stone, a mix of gneiss and quartzitic sandstone, and are backed up by a 2 by 6 wood frame. Historically, the walls would have been 18" to 22" thick with a coat of plaster on the interior. Today builders incorporate the framing to allow for insulation. Stone masonry has become a real art form again," says Archer. "There are a handful of masons in the region doing beautiful work." And the stonework on Canary Cottage is the cream of the crop.

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