Home: Past Perfect

The Chester County road that leads to Meadow House has the rhythm of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Taking off from a patch of cookie-
cutter developments, it wends between hills where long-haired Scottish cows graze, crosses a one-lane bridge, passes Amish farm stands, doubles back on itself and slips through a tunnel of Osage orange trees.

When the lilting route comes upon Meadow House’s 4.5 acres, it never skips a beat. No matter that the property’s centerpiece is a recently renovated house, one half contemporary, the other half historic — or, more precisely, half 180 years old, and half five years new.

Since 1998, Meadow House has belonged to Carolyn Fornell. A Kentuckian by birth and a Floridian for decades, Fornell came to Nottingham in search of a year-round country home.

She knew what she wanted: a timeworn, organic escape from her seasonless suburban lifestyle. She found what she was looking for — and then some — in a 900-square-foot stone settler’s house that backs up to a rocky bluff and faces a gentle creek.

At purchase, the two-story structure was largely unchanged from its original state. Thick stone kept the interior cool in summer and warm in winter, with a little help from a brick-and-stone Rumford hearth. The only modifications were additions: a kitchen on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second, all added about thirty years ago.

For a few years, the house suited its owner’s needs. “I really enjoyed living in a smaller place,” says Fornell. But she knew she couldn’t live there forever as it was. “I didn’t have a dining room. I didn’t have space to entertain … and a bathroom on the second floor is nice,” she says. Other items on Fornell’s wish list — drawn up while working in her perennial garden, and during long walks in the snow with Jonah, her Bernese mountain dog — included a modern kitchen, more natural light, more storage space, deep windowsills, plenty of fireplaces and a red tin roof — one detail that, to the new homeowner, embodied country living.

To make these dreams come true, Fornell hired architect Brad Pressman, owner of New York-based DESIGNimpulse, a multi-disciplinary design firm that works in everything from architecture and interiors to lighting and industrial design.

Some of Pressman’s job was easy: It was obvious that most of the expansion would extend from the west wall of the house. The architect envisioned vaulted ceilings and earthy colonial paints, a state-of-the-art kitchen and central air — all ideas his client embraced wholeheartedly. But his vision for the structure itself was another matter.

“The concept was to take the volume and the form of the original [house], have a connected element, and repeat the same form,” he says. “Carolyn took one look at it, got real quiet, and said, ‘I’m sorry. I just don’t like it.’”

“I didn’t want it to look like an old house with a new addition,” says Fornell.

Pressman returned — literally — to the drawing board, and created new blueprints of a larger, airier, clean-lined, high-ceilinged, Shaker-inspired addition, one that would neither duplicate nor compete with the existing house. Bold in form but natural in feel, this sweeping, smooth-faced structure would face 90 degrees away from the first home’s front in order to, Pressman says, “defer to the importance of the original house.” The shorter, central bridging structure would remain, providing a transition between old and new, furnishing a place for his client’s kitchen — and for that bright red tin roof.

The changes to the settler’s house were few. The original main staircase went. The bedrooms became a Florida-
inspired guest room and bath. The kitchen was turned into a comfortable dining room, with reclaimed solid oak floors and a rustic English dining table. Pressman also designed a small mudroom at the house’s east entrance, with durable radiant-heat, dyed-concrete floors, a washer and dryer, and a hidden refrigerator for dog food.

But the bulk of the construction took place on the new side. The central structure — housing a new main entrance, kitchen and main stair — was outfitted with wide windows overlooking the front and back yards. Local Avondale brownstone paves the entryway, leading into a thoroughly contemporary country kitchen. An amateur chef, Fornell insisted on a sleek, hidden Amana refrigerator, a professional Viking stove, generous backsplash shelving for herbs and spices, a rolling butcher’s block, and marine paint — which is usually used outdoors for its durability — in Dijon yellow hand-rubbed over a deep red. To one side of the kitchen is a butler’s pantry; to the other, a cozy den.

For this all-important section of the home, which connects the old and new spaces, Pressman planned two
special installations. One was a clapboard breakfast nook, a casually intimate built-in dining booth made of cherry wood, within easy reach of shelves that were designed for holding Fornell’s cookbook collection.

The other was the detail-obsessed architect’s pride and joy: a switchback staircase. Shaker in aesthetic, the stair has slender spindles, a wrought-iron brace made by a local Amish blacksmith and smooth, Wharton Esherick-esque handrails joined by goosenecks and sweeps that Pressman himself carved in a wood shop.

The stair transitions into a second-floor balcony that overlooks the kitchen and leads to both the guest room (in the old house) and, in the new wing, a studio loft with a woodstove that backs up to a thick chimney enclosed in red boards recovered from an Amish barn. On the side of the chimney — facing away from the stove, toward tall windows — is the barn’s original, decorative hex sign, a traditional symbol of good luck. “I can see it through the window when I come home at night,” says Fornell.

Housed beneath the loft are a high-ceilinged master bedroom and luxurious bath with garden views. Both spaces feature wood-burning fireplaces and built-in cabinets and closets fronted by antique shutters and doors gleaned from Shank’s, a nearby architectural salvage yard. One lucky find is the late-1800s door that leads to the master bath. A section of the so-called “Indian” door’s double-thick bottom panel slides to cover the upper paned window, supposedly to block arrows. This unusual door also encloses a knickknack cabinet via a clever, Pressman-designed hinge. “It’s all about the details,” says the architect.

The master bath embodies the spirit of the house’s transformation. A sinuously modern glass Artemide chandelier hangs over a refurbished antique clawfoot tub. A sleek triangular shower and double sink are made of worn-in yellow limestone from Mankato Kasota Stone, the same material used to construct the Philadelphia Museum of Art. An old blue barn star hangs over the commode.

Like the entire house, says Fornell, “It’s truly a combination of the old and the new.”