Timeless by Design
Architect Peter Zimmerman reinvents history in Bryn Mawr.
Walter Durham was one of the great Main Line architects of his day. From the 1920s through the 1960s, Durham made an impressive imprint in the area—especially in Lower Merion Township—with his English Georgian, Cotswold and French Provençal designs. His home layouts reflected the lifestyles of people of that day—with an emphasis on formal living areas for the family to entertain and utilitarian spaces like servant-friendly kitchens.
While local preservationists work to save homes designed by Durham and others who make up the Main Line’s diverse architectural history, the question remains: How can a house built in the days of pomp and pretension be made conducive to today’s less formal family-oriented lifestyle?
That’s a question for the great Main Line architects of today to answer. And one of those is Peter Zimmerman, president and principal of Peter Zimmerman Architects in Berwyn. Zimmerman’s reputation for traditional, authentic residential architecture spans 25 years, his specialty is custom architecture that’s historically accurate. Zimmerman’s designs achieve a certain purity and authenticity through exacting proportion, meticulous scale, and the harmony of shadow and light—all things inherent in timeless, classical architecture. “Our desire is to build architecture that’s seen to be as good today as it will be in 100 years and beyond,” says Zimmerman, who adds that his projects are the antithesis of what he describes as today’s “disposable, throwaway architecture.”
Recently Zimmerman completed a renovation and addition to a 1950s-era Walter Durham design in Bryn Mawr. The homeowner adored the stately exterior of the stone Georgian, but was frustrated by much of the interior.
“The client asked us to expand and create a part of the house that had the same level of architectural detail and thought as the main house, but fulfilled the lifestyle of today—which is family living,” says Zimmerman.
The task required renovations to reorganize the flow of the entire house and an addition so seamless it would be difficult to discern where Durham’s design stopped and Zimmerman’s began. “The addition to this historic house was a sensitive solution to the client’s desire for more generous family living spaces and to alleviate some circulation issues without compromising the beauty of the existing historical envelope,” he says.
Lately, a large portion of Zimmerman’s local projects have involved large-scale renovations. “The infrastructures of many of the great Main Line houses that were built at the turn of the century are coming to the end of their useful life,” he says.
And although these homes are beautiful and well crafted, after 100 years most have reached their limit in terms of functionality. But with the scarcity of land on the Main Line, often the only options are to tear-down or renovate. Zimmerman is happy that many chose the latter.
In Bryn Mawr, one of the major problems Zimmerman managed to solve was the lack of an informal family entrance off the kitchen in the Durham home. A narrow hallway leading to the kitchen didn’t satisfy the needs of an active family. So Zimmerman reduced the three-bay garage into a two, creating a sizable new entrance complete with a mudroom area for the dogs, a powder room and a “staging area” designed for someone who loves arranging flowers.
The staging area’s workspace has a hand-pounded copper sink surrounded by dark brown teak cabinets and counters. Nearby is a wall of closets for coats and storage. Another popular addition was the “command center” with its computer station framed by rows of cubbyholes for filing mail and other documents.
“Everything you need in a family entrance we were able to achieve in this space,” says Zimmerman.
The heart of any home, the kitchen, was anything but welcoming—and desperate for a makeover. Zimmerman was faced with a compact original space that was entirely utilitarian and completely inefficient. When the family of seven was home, the space was too small for them to congregate, which is what the homeowner wanted. “We took the existing kitchen and expanded it to double its size,” says Zimmerman. “It’s an entirely new space, for all intents and purposes.”
Zimmerman designed the plan for the kitchen and Jim Arthur, of Arthur Works, a custom cabinetmaker in Conshohocken, installed the cabinetry, modeling everything in a classic style with feet. Honed granite in a light Verdi green complements the crisp, antique white finish, and mild distressing affords an aged look. Arthur’s cabinets offer more than storage: They hide all appliances except for the professional stainless steel Wolf range.
A companion piece to the large island in the middle of the room, the narrow, butternut-colored oak table acts as a breakfast bar. “Supplementing kitchens with things that look more like furniture is something we do all the time,” says Arthur.
The adjacent butler’s pantry was also renovated using the same finish. “We really tried to not use too many materials, because it gets busy,” says Arthur.
Display cabinets with antique glass store china and serving dishes. Traditional hickory —more practical than granite for a busy workspace—was used for the butler’s pantry counters, and a dark brown armoire conceals the refrigerator.
The ability to entertain in the back part of the house was a major priority for Zimmerman’s clients. The kitchen flows into an informal dining room used for family meals. The addition of pocket doors means the area can be closed off from view during parties. The corner room between the informal dining room and the family room is dedicated to another gathering spot complete with a bar perfect for entertaining. The dark brown English oak paneling gives the room an air of sophistication; the wood has an aged look with plenty of natural imperfections to add character, and the honed Verdi green granite is featured again on top of the bar. A sense of continuity is achieved between the bar area and the new family room next door thanks to salvaged wide-plank floors made of oak.
Surprisingly, despite all the rooms in the front of the house, there was no space for the family to simply relax and watch television. A single-story addition solved this problem. The family room features exposed antique beams that resemble old trestles, and the brown English oak used in the bar shows up again in wainscoting that wraps around the space. A window facing the back of the property was designed to afford an optimal view of a beautiful pond on the property.
A new 50-foot-long orangery leads from the newer, informal section of the house back to the sunroom. “We needed to get the circulation so you didn’t have to go through the formal dining room and kitchen to get to this part of the house,” says Zimmerman.
With all of its glass, the orangery provides much-needed natural light in the back rooms. Light cream Durango limestone lines the floor and also helps keeps the area bright. Four sets of exterior French doors provide access out onto a terrace, while two sets of interior doors lead into both the formal and informal dining rooms.
It’s the Little Things
“In a renovation like this one, it’s the details—even the smallest ones—that ultimately define a successful project,” says Zimmerman. All details of the new and renovated spaces were made to perfectly match the existing character of the residence, from the slate roof to the re-sawn antique wood floors.
“It’s not only design, but it’s also implementation of the design, which Ed Mahoney’s company did a beautiful job doing,” Zimmerman says. “It should look seamless—reverent to the existing architecture. And it does.”
This past summer, Zimmerman’s exceptional work in updating Durham’s Bryn Mawr creation was recognized when his firm was awarded a Historic Preservation Award from the Historic Commission and the Historical Archi-tectural Review Board of Lower Merion Township for “Rehabilitation of a Residential Property.” In July, Peter Zimmerman Architects was recognized for designing an exceptional home that “has contributed significantly to historic preservation in the township. By such work, the community’s heritage is preserved and revitalized.”
One project at a time, Zimmerman will continue to contribute to the beautification of the Main Line through the renovation of existing architectural gems and building meticulously designed custom homes just as his predecessor Durham did.
And yet, he stresses that more must done to preserve the older homes and estates that make up the unique fabric of the Main Line—which are in jeopardy of being lost forever.
“In losing these houses, we face the real possibility of losing the entire sense we have of the Main Line,” he says. “The township’s commitment, as well as the client’s commitment, is really one that should be commended.”
Architect: Peter Zimmerman Architects
Peter Zimmerman, architect; Mark Hoffman, project manager
828 Old Lancaster Road, Berwyn
Builder: E.B. Mahoney Builders
615 Old Lancaster Road, Bryn Mawr
Custom woodwork: Arthur Works: Custom Cabinetmakers
101 Barren Hill Road, Conshohocken