Retrofitting is always an opportunity to celebrate the history of a place by breathing new life into it. Usually, that history is architectural: an old manufacturing building, for example, is transformed into contemporary loft apartments that evoke the building’s industrial character.
But for this project in Blue Bell, Pa., Voith & Mactavish Architects (VMA) LLP was charged with remaking a bank barn complex into a family home that celebrates a history that was not only architectural but also personal. That’s because our clients—a married couple who had been high-school sweethearts—are long-standing friends of mine whose family had owned and lived on the site for more than 150 years. In addition, I have known the couple since eighth grade, so when it came time for them to renovate their bank barn and surrounding land, they turned to VMA.
A lot has changed since high school. Our clients were now living in a charming farmhouse next door to the barn and shared a clan of family members, including a sister who lived just over the fence line and parents nearby. Their entire extended family would get together for holiday celebrations and other occasions. Initially, our clients wanted to transform the bank barn into an entertaining space and guesthouse to accommodate these gatherings.
But we saw too much potential in the early 19th century barn to do only that with it and we quickly convinced the couple that it should become their primary residence, leaving the farmhouse for guests. In addition to the bedrooms, living areas, kitchen and grand entertaining space, the couple wanted a screened outdoor porch off the primary bedroom as a cigar smoking venue. Also in the program: a new garage and small caretaker’s apartment the couple would rent to seminarians in return for tending the lawn and looking after the property while the couple was away.
An oak tree on the property that had special significance because one of the client’s great-grandfathers planted the tree more than a century ago was taken down before we started the project and its wood was stored in the barn. It was a cherished link to the family history. Working with our clients, we found a creative solution that honored the heritage embodied in the oak tree. Its wood was carefully processed and used for richly crafted chests and boards in the reimagined barn, incorporating its legacy directly into the home’s design.
A Logical Site Plan
The site plan emerged naturally from the pre-existing logic of the plot. Bank barns are defined by their unique accessibility and their relationship to grade; by being built into hills, they offer ground-level access to two building floors.
The lower level of this barn hosted stables while the upper level was used for hay storage. The stables gave way to a paddock where the horses could graze and was oriented south, capturing sunlight to make a naturally warm area for the horses. The paddock was transformed into a private garden while we kept the original hay entrance—which faces an entry circle—as the front door, leaving that wall opaque to offer privacy from the surroundings.
The new garage is sited off the orthogonal of the barn, maintaining the grace of the entry circle. A subsidiary drive runs down to the lean-to enclosure on the west side of the barn, housing mowers and other garden equipment. We turned a small existing addition into the caretaker’s cottage while taking advantage of its parking and easy access to the lean-to. By separating the cottage from the house’s main living areas, the design maintains a sense of privacy for both.
The Bank Barn
Likewise, the barn renovation takes cues from the logic of the original building, emphasizing its heritage and character while transforming it into a one-of-a-kind residence and entertaining space. The barn’s stone walls form a “C”-shape with a board-sided southern façade and upper gables. Inside, it was divided into three equally sized bays defined by heavy timber bents.
VMA’s approach was to leave the original structure and stone intact to retain the barn’s look and feel while opening up flowing, uninterrupted interiors that highlight the views and celebrate the inherent beauty of the materials: wood, stone, steel and glass. The clients wanted the house to be warm and accommodate their eclectic furniture, both antique and modern. They wanted a place that is tactile, warm and happy.
PHOTOS: Jeffrey Totaro