Editor’s Note: Aside from Wednesday night’s opening party at Liao Collection (the business and home of Michelle Liao), only one of Design Philadelphia’s 130 events will take place in a private residence–this on one of Philadelphia’s most glamorous blocks. The swank address and construction-site setting are only part of the intrigue behind Design Adventures in Architectural Archaeology, a lecture to be presented by Barbara Eberlein, president and creative director of Eberlein Design Consultants Ltd. and president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Eberlein’s design firm, which specializes in the restoration of historic residences and landmarks, is responsible for renovations of–among many buildings–the Union League of Philadelphia Heritage Center, the Horace Jayne House, and the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Eberlein brings her preservation expertise and formal archaeological training to 1831 Delancey Place, a property she purchased to rehabilitate, while exploring creative restoration.
During her lecture and tour, Eberlein will peel back the layers of wallpaper (and earlier renovations), share some demolition discoveries (which include a 19th century cistern beneath the basement and a former servants’ staircase), and explain her belief that, when renovating old houses with historic character, 21st century living should always be a consideration.
Contributor Karen Chernick spoke with Eberlein about her plans for 1831 Delancey Place, her previous projects, and the benefits of having an archaeology background when restoring old buildings.
Karen Chernick: This is a personal project. You purchased the house yourself and you’re renovating the entire structure from top to bottom. To what extent is historical research into the original architects and designers, or previous residents of the house, part of your design process?
Barbara Eberlein: What I was trying to do with this house was less recreation of what it had been for a particular owner at a particular period in time, and more a culling of all the goals, dreams, and aspirations of all the clients I’ve been working with for the past 30 years. For me, personally, with this house, especially since I was so familiar with the neighborhood having lived in the identical footprint on the same block for 25 years, it was more about respecting the architecture, respecting the fabric of the street and less about “let’s see what that exact molding would have been.” A lot of it depends on what you’re left with. If you have beautiful extant plaster moldings and marble mantlepieces, and inlaid floors and everything else, that you preserve. This house had, unfortunately, a series of, let’s called them “less than informed” renovations. And so somebody wanted air conditioning, and they just smacked a duct right up in the middle of the formal dining room. Crashed through the plaster molding and kept going. So, those are the layers that you get to peel back and peel back. You take that back and you find the bits that are original. But in between, you see all the layers that other people have added to it.
The decisions that get made are really very idiosyncratic. And so all of what preservationists do, and all of us in restoration look for also is did that alteration have merit? Did it do something better for that space? Did it take an obsolete space and make it a livable space? We hit that time and time again at the Union League. Well yeah, there was the original James Fraser (James Earle Fraser, 1876-1953) and then Ritter & Shay (Verus T. Ritter, 1883-1942 & Howell L. Shay, 1884-1975) had their hand in it, and you can peel back every 20 years something different was happening with that space. And if you’re going to restore it or renovate it, how far back do you go? Do you want to preserve the Ritter & Shay? Do you want to preserve and go all the way back to the Fraser? So you look at two things: do you have enough left to make it make sense? And are you taking out something that might also have merit at a later date? And, with what you’re left, does it make any sense for the function of the family, or the institution, or whoever owns the space? You have to look at those aspects concurrently.
The short answer is that it gives us the ability to do the research and then take from the research the parts that we’re going to pay more or less attention to. There’s a big difference between what people expected in the 19th century, and then what they expected in the 20th century, and what they expect in the 21st century. My view has always been that preservation is absolutely vital. Restoration is absolutely vital. The most important thing is you have to be able to keep your eye on that ball while you’re making sure that you’re building something that has a long life, because that’s ultimately what you want for the building. You don’t want to simply restore and say, “here’s my shrine to 1865.” Well, that’s great, but does that have a happy family living in it? It’s a tricky point about maintaining classical ideals, proportions and building materials and methods, but within a framework that allows life to happen.
KC: Do you make efforts to hide 21st century amenities when you’re working in a house like this?
BE: There are things that I would hide and things that I wouldn’t hide. I’ll tell you one of the issues that I have that I’m determined to get rid of, once and for all, from the face of the earth. In a house like this you know the living room is supposed to have a 12 foot ceiling and not an 11 foot ceiling. The only reason it would have 11 feet is that somebody didn’t want to take the time or bother to work out the HVAC ducts to get the air conditioning in there without just saying, “forget it, we’ll just drop it down.” When you do that you’ve really compromised the character of the design.
However, there are some times when I think that it’s almost disingenuous to pretend like it’s not the 21st century. There are a couple of rules. One is, you try not to do anything that isn’t reversible. If it’s something that can be easily plastered over when the next wave of technology comes around and you no longer need that big TV, then it’s easy to take the house back to what it was.
There are areas of houses where perhaps things haven’t changed that much. The way you use a living room today is sort of the way you used a parlor in the 19th century. Not different. But, oh my goodness, a kitchen is different. A bathroom is different. And those, in my mind, as long as you use beautiful, calm, rich materials and make sure you’ve incorporated enough classical and traditional details that it makes reference to what the house was, then the fact that you have fourteen body sprays and all sorts of jets coming off the ceiling is a bonus. It doesn’t really detract. You’re trying to create this envelope that feels right, that looks good. At the same time, the way you can live in it and the flexibility that’s inherent in it is what you tend to expect from architecture today.
KC: Were there any specific demolition discoveries at 1831 Delancey Place that you decided to keep during renovations or things that you changed your original plans for based on what was uncovered?
BE: We discovered an enclosed stairway. At some point when the servant’s quarters, which were in the back of the house, were no longer needed and that got flipped into use as a dining room, this redundant, but parallel staircase behind the main stairs was covered up behind plaster. So we knew that there was a basement stair. It just never occurred to me that this tiny, little 27 inch wide space kept going up through the back of the whole house. You couldn’t tell because it had been all chopped up with HVAC equipment and other things. If you weren’t looking really closely, you would just think, “oh, well it was a closet that was always built for that.” No, it was the staircase that kept getting floored in, and floored in, and floored in, and used for mechanicals. We did not keep that. I ended up pulling it and the second staircase out so that we could do this really wonderful, big sweeping staircase that goes into a now-excavated lower level “basement” that’s actually eight feet high, with crown molding and paneled doors. It became a real floor, as opposed to this back-of-the-house space that was there before.
As we were digging down to put in the big footings that were supporting the big steel posts that were supporting this cantilevered first floor to enable the addition of a carport, they hit a cavity. Because we had to dig down we discovered a huge, 19th century cistern in the basement. Of course, that calls in all the environmental guys, and they have to analyze for months and months what kind of fill you need, how hard it has to be packed, and what you’re going to do with that cistern once you take it out.
We also found a safe built into the library bookcases. Everybody tried to get that thing open and nobody could. So we decided, maybe we should leave it alone.
KC: Do you find that you have a consistent approach whether you’re working on a few Furness-designed houses, or if you’re working on a few Trumbauer houses?
BE: Yes, but it doesn’t mean that there’s a formula and it doesn’t mean that there’s a rule book. It does mean that, like any other method of expression, each one of those architects will have a language and they’re using a particular color in their language to describe these sorts of things. Early in their career or late in their career. I mean, Furness (Frank Heyling Furness, 1839-1912) kind of did what he wanted. And yes, he was interpreting for individual clients, but you see a Furness house and you know it’s a Furness house.
Trumbauer (Horace Trumbauer, 186-1938) you don’t. Trumbauer especially, over the span of his career. If you look at the late 19th century ones and into 1928 there’s a gigantic stylistic range. So, when I work on Trumbauer what I’m looking at is not the style per se. That’s the easier thing to pick out. What are the devices, the expressions that he uses that make you realize, even if you don’t know it’s him, that it’s him? What kinds of balance points? What kind of cubic volume are you dealing with?
A lot of architects have very specific signatures in that way, even though stylistically they’re expressing them differently. We’ve done a couple of John Notman houses and, that’s obviously mid-19th century, so it’s much earlier than Trumbauer and earlier than Furness, but you can always spot them. He’s got these fantastic cubic volumes. No matter what you do to it and no matter what wallpaper you put on it, they feel different than the punctuated space that Furness did. He compresses you down and then he blows the space up, and then he compresses you down and then he blows it up. That kind of rhythm, sometimes almost jarring rhythm of scale, is something that points, to me, to his work. That paired with unusually scaled ornamentation and moldings is quite pronounced. Although, if you look at Trumbauer, that proportion of scale and the balance and the symmetry is absolutely the same whether or not he’s doing a Queen Anne house or a Georgian house or a French house. You can tell right away.
Part of the reason this is such a fun, exciting field. All of my friends who do contemporary work say, “oh, you just do the same thing over and over,” and I think no, it is so varied. It’s like you have to speak 17 different languages. It’s not just about me and what I want to express. What was there historically? What caused that person to build that? What do we have left? What can we use? What do we love? What makes us happy, still, in 2015? What’s going to make us happy 50 years from now? Try to capture that, because there’s a lot of continuity there. I think the only way for houses to have these long, long lives, which they should, is for people to be aware of what makes sense, feels good, is balanced, brings harmony, and all of these other things that sound very flowery and poetic, but you know it when you’re in it.
I was trained as an archaeologist and I always thought I would be, and then I found myself massively unemployable. Instead of going in the opposite direction, I just keep broadening it and broadening it into something that I knew and loved and want to pursue anyway, which was design and architecture, but incorporate those things that I know about. It allows me to do things that aren’t simply decoration, not that there’s anything wrong with decoration. But, you go ten steps beyond that, you really dig around, you really find the clues, you really say, “wait a minute, there’s a funny seam in that wainscoting, that shouldn’t have been there,” and all of a sudden you’ve discovered, “wait, that was a doorway to a scullery, to a something else.” You start to see social history unfolding that way too. All of these houses absolutely express the social history and class structure of the 19th century and early 20th century.
Barbara Eberlein’s lecture and tour, Design Adventures in Architectural Archaeology, sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and DesignPhiladelphia, will take place at 1831 Delancey Place on Tuesday, October 13th at 6:30PM. Advance registration is required. See event details HERE.