Tessa Marie Images
Leading regional design firm Archer & Buchanan rides the crest of the Chester County’s historic modern renovation wave.
When Peter Archer and Richard Buchanan debuted their architectural firm 25 years ago, they initially had a tough time landing local clients. “It took a whole year to get our first house on the Main Line,” Archer recalls. “We called it our flagship house.”
As it turns out, their timing was perfect. “At the end of the 20th century, the internet was just coming into existence and people were looking online for available spaces,” says Buchanan. “They were also moving out of the city and into Chester County’s horse country and the Main Line.”
A new wave of urban flight began in 2020. With real estate at a premium, people are buying land and renovating the homes on it. It’s a similar situation to what happened more than two decades ago when the dissolution of King Ranch aggregated about 8,400 acres of land that became available for development—or redevelopment. Homes, barns and other buildings existed on many properties, but they’d fallen into disrepair or were otherwise not conducive to modern living.
And the standard of living was changing. Technology and modern conveniences were upgrading the way people lived. Homeowners didn’t just want central air—they wanted smarthome systems. At the same time, they wanted to keep the historic, sometimes rustic aesthetic that’s so closely identified with Chester County.
Those twin goals may seem oppositional—but accomplishing is more a matter of renovation than preservation. “We’re not doing reproductions,” Buchanan says. “We utilize the beauty, character and detail of these 18th-century houses to create homes that people can live in now.”
Back in the 1990s, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts bought one of the initial King Ranch tracts and renovated its buildings using the region’s 1700s architectural language. That set the tone for other property owners, sparking a movement that benefited the growth of Archer and Buchanan’s firm. “We had the benefit of being in the right place and time,” says Buchanan. “Our mission is to use the visual language of Chester County responsibly and accurately to interpret for modern living.”
That visual language is unique to this region, setting it apart from, say, an Arizona ranch or a Vermont farm. Here, local architects left their unique imprint. Richardson Brognard Okie specialized in the Colonial Revival style, while William Price was a giant in the region’s Arts and Crafts movement. That’s the visual language Buchanan and Archer learned to speak. “Having those details gives us tools to make an older house livable for someone in 2021,” Buchanan says. “It’s not strictly preservation but adaptation.”
“We’re not doing reproductions. We utilize the beauty, character and detail of these 18th-century houses to create homes that people can live in now.”—Peter Buchanan
One example: In the 18th century, many Brandywine Valley families lived in multi-generational farmhouses with rooms to accommodate every family member who worked the land. At the same time, many Main Line families lived in large estates with staff quarters for servants. In both situations, houses typically had an upstairs, a downstairs, a back of the house and a front of the house, with two kitchens, two parlors and two entryways. Today, those homes are generally occupied by one family. So Archer and Buchanan turn three small bedrooms into one larger one and add more bathrooms. Two kitchens become one, albeit with plenty of room for modern appliances.
Not surprisingly, technology plays a huge role in the reallocation of space. Making room for a flat-screen TV isn’t tough, though creating laundry facilities can be. It’s the same for the plumbing and electricity required for modern master bathrooms. The heating and cooling elements alone are mind boggling. “We spend a lot of time thinking about environmental enclosures for managing heat flow and humidity gradients,” Archer admits. “A 21st-century home is bristling with technology.”
And COVID-19 ushered in the “away spaces” residential design trend—places where people can get away from each another. Archer and Buchanan are fielding requests for kids’ play spaces separate from family rooms and master bedrooms with adjacent private reading or meditation rooms. Even guest suites are being are a bit more removed from the main areas. “COVID made us realize the value of having actual rooms,” Buchanan says. “It was, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t get away from my family.’”
On the other hand, the design of equestrian facilities hasn’t changed. They’re still built on the 12-by-12-foot grid that dictates everything from the horse stall to the stable itself. There’s a new priority on the functionality of barns, paddocks and the like. “People are concerned with the safety and performance within the facilities because they’re invested in their horses,” Archer says. “The change is in the process of how horses get fed and turned out, and where the manure goes. It’s improving the lives and safety of the horses.”
Horses aren’t the only thing this region is known for. Archer and Buchanan have dealt with plenty of quirky characters—or the remnants of their houses. A carriage house in Wayne built by Price still had a hayloft and walls that tilted out six inches. Okie’s famous home in Berwyn had fallen into disrepair and needed extensive repair and renovation. Then there was the house on Avon Road in Haverford. Its previous owner believed he was a reincarnated German knight, so he had the house built in a style to match. On a more conventional note, there’s also been The Willows in Villanova, St. Patrick’s Church in Kennett Square and the Lenfest Center at Cheslen Preserve in Coatesville.
When it comes to houses, it’s the character that matters most to Archer and Buchanan—that, and the current inhabitants. Both architects bristle at the notion that, like their predecessors, their firm has developed a distinct visual style. “Our fingerprints don’t need to be visible,” says Buchanan. “It’s not all about the architect. It’s all about the family that calls the place home.”