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Redesigning a 1937 Colonial Farmhouse is a Dream Come True

Apr 13, 2015 03:00PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Carol Sorgen // Photography by Stephen Buchanan

The Pennsylvania couple spent three-and-a-half years “casually looking” for a weekend getaway on the Eastern Shore before they experienced that long-awaited “this is it” moment. It was three years ago, when they came across a 1937 “typical Colonial Eastern Shore farmhouse” on the outskirts of Easton and it’s been an ongoing love affair ever since.

“We’re here just about every weekend,” say the homeowners, adding that though the house is handy to all that downtown Easton has to offer, its 6-acre setting on the Tred Avon River gives them the feeling of being out in the country, with the “serenity” they associate with the outdoors.
While the farmhouse—local lore has it that the property was originally a dairy farm—had the location and traditional Shore charm the couple was seeking, it needed to be brought up to date.

“It was a solidly built home and we wanted to maintain its integrity and keep its character, but modernize the essentials,” says our anonymous couple.

In Goldilocks parlance, the size of the home—about 3,800 square feet—was “just right.”

“We didn’t want a lot of unused space,” the homeowners tell us; they did, however, want more open space and more light. The couple called in Easton architect Pamela P. Gardner to help them bring the home into the modern day while preserving its early 20th century roots.

“The house has a traditional graciousness about it that we felt was worth preserving,” Gardner says, noting that the main rooms and general layout needed very little attention. The kitchen, on the other hand, was small and outdated, “as were most houses of this era because they weren’t the nerve center of the house the way they are today.” To that end, Gardner added a wing to create a comfortable eat-in kitchen with views to the entry and pool and an easy link to the outdoor living spaces.

The master suite and the bathrooms—three full and one powder room—were also enhanced, and modern amenities such as an elevator and energy-efficient windows were added.

“Our goal was to bring the residence into the 21st century while retaining its former beauty and graciousness,” says Gardner, who recalls that she grew up in a similar house in Illinois and always dreamed of renovating her childhood home. “So I sort of got to live out my dream!”

Gardner’s main challenge in redesigning the house, which was renovated by Easton-based contractor Bruce Harrington Construction, was its one-room depth which gives it a strong linear quality. “We needed to put an addition off one end and not throw the balance off or make the entire building look unmanageably long,” she says.
For Harrington, the challenge was to modernize the home and bring it up to current standards—from insulation to plumbing and more—while retaining the original look. “Our changes to the footprint of the house were modest,” Harrington says.

Harrington has nothing but high praise for the homeowners. “Most people would have torn the house down or added to it in a way that wouldn’t befit the house,” he says. “But on this project, you can’t tell the house has been altered. It looks the way it must have looked when it was just built.”

Though both Gardner and the homeowners love the detailing in the original woodwork of the home, they didn’t wish to emulate it or overpower it with new detailing, so the interiors are, as the homeowners describe, “careful and controlled.”

The homeowners, who spend nearly every weekend at the house, especially enjoy the views, as does Gardner herself. “With its view of the water and nature on three sides, I think I could live in the sun porch,” she says.

Their Philadelphia-area primary home is quite traditional, says the couple, but they characterize the interior design of their Easton retreat as “transitional,” and credit Easton designer Jean McHale with helping them achieve a look that is clean but still in keeping with the home's history.

“The homeowners wanted something that was sophisticated yet casual and livable, and a combination of traditional and transitional,” McHale says. “It had to be practical and visually stimulating at the same time.”

The gentleman of the house admits to being something of a collector (“books, art, antiques...it’s an ongoing process!”) but is keeping his habit somewhat under control, in order to maintain the “pared down” look they are enjoying, although they are partial to purchasing local art as well as adding to their collection during the annual Plein Air Festival.

McHale started with the cabinetry in the kitchen, bathrooms, living room, and sunroom, making sure that the designs captured the feel of the house and provided an appealing camouflage for heating and plumbing pipes. Then, all working together, the homeowners and McHale started playing with fabrics and floor plans.

“We just happened to have a great transitional dining table at the store that was a perfect fit for the dining room,” recalls McHale, who was then able to find appropriate chairs to go with the table.

The floor plan for the living room was designed so the couple and visiting family and friends could enjoy the fireplaces at the same time they were watching TV. This was accomplished with a pair of sofas and a pair of swivel chairs that could orient in both directions. Both homeowners are avid readers as well, notes McHale, so it was also important that the big chairs by the window be exceptionally comfortable.

For the sunroom floor plan, the objective was to afford the homeowners the opportunity to enjoy the water view from the sitting area but also have functional space as well, accomplished by the addition of a large window seat and game table. “In this room we tried to find unique pieces that would add interest to the room,” McHale says. She also used a round rug instead of the traditional square to anchor the seating area.
McHale, who says she loved working with the homeowners so much she was sorry when the project ended, enjoys the ambiance of the house when you walk in the front door. “You look to the left and see a ‘killer’ dining room table and chairs and a gorgeous interesting kitchen,” she says. “To the right you look through the living room, over the interesting table and chairs in the sunroom, right through to the expanse of the water view. It wraps you up with hospitality but says at the same time, ‘I am fun and I am cool!’”

In the end, all parties involved say reimagining this home was a labor of love. “Projects are not just about buildings, they’re about people,” Gardner says. “The chemistry between client, architect, and builder can make or break a project. We were most fortunate to have these homeowners as clients of a similar mind as our own and Harrington Construction as builder who has a way of making a project even better.”

Though it may have taken some time to find their dream home, the couple says it was well worth the wait.

“This is a very special spot.”