Repurposing an empty nest

Children grown, a Rydal couple who always loved their house adapt it for enjoyment now and later.

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Exterior of the Zucker's home in Rydal, with the new addition on the right side of the house. The original structure used to be a barn. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )

When Eli and Nancy Zucker walked into a 19th-century bank barn-turned-carriage house in Rydal with their three young children in tow, they knew they had found just the right place.

"We love old homes," Nancy says.

These two city natives (he was raised in the Bronx, she in Philadelphia) were wowed by the grounds, too. "We adored the 1 1/2 acres of trees, grass, blueberry and raspberry bushes, and apple trees," she says.

Forty years later, they love it all still.

After raising two sons and a daughter there, they did what many empty-nesters do: They thought about first-floor-living for their golden years.

"It was 1995, and we were getting the itch to move," says Eli. "We had a Shore house with no stairs, and we loved that."

They looked at ranches and Cape Cods, but the search proved fruitless. Every house they saw would need work to make it their own. The character and location of the Rydal house were great, but selling it would mean updating it.

"We decided that if we had to spend the money on improving a new purchase, why not renovate the house we have always loved?" Nancy says. So they stayed.

The property's provenance already was a tale of many incarnations. Built in 1840, the structure first was the barn for the grand residence next door. Animals were housed downstairs, feed upstairs. Mark Twain is said to have slept in the main house, his horse in what ultimately became the Zucker house.

In 1928, the building was converted to a carriage house, for the help working at the main house, and a garage. During World War II, the entire property was a victory garden.

In the 1950s, it became a private home. The Zuckers moved there in 1970.

As the two raised a family, the house's second floor featured their modest-sized bedroom, the boys' bedrooms and playroom, and a sitting room. Their daughter lived in the third-floor attic, which the previous owners had turned into one large bedroom, one tiny one, and a bath.

There was no basement, and central air-conditioning was not an option. Every summer, with his sons' help, Eli, then a family physician with a practice in Hatboro, would lug seven room units down from the attic.

The Zuckers replaced windows. They updated bathrooms. They decorated. In 1995, they redid the kitchen.

Of course, the month they decided not to move, the hot-water system failed. Contractor Joe Ash, who had worked on old houses before, replumbed the whole place and put in a new heating system and foam insulation. A 17-foot basement had to be dug for the new pipes and tanks.

The Zuckers' plan for "aging in place" required an architect. Friends suggested Phase II Designs in Jenkintown. Jay Leistner and his associate, Peg MacDonald, worked on a design that features a master-suite addition - a spacious bedroom trimmed in warm maple, a gracious bathroom, a sitting area lined on one wall with window seats, and generous closet space.

Nancy asked for a screened-in porch off the suite, where she now enjoys her mornings.

"We really live so much of the time in the bedroom suite. In the spring and summer, we sit in the porch or patio, and in the winter in the sitting area near the gas fireplace," she says.

At the front of the house, which is above ground, massive windows in the sitting area bathe the room in light. Outside the master suite, a patio and retaining walls were installed.

"We carved out this area that capitalizes on the fact it is set into the hillside, so it is very private and yet you can look out onto the cascading hills," says Leistner.

Two more patios were added - one out front running the length of the house and one out back. Because the Zuckers added rooms on one end of the house, Leistner suggested opening up the rest, for balance: "They didn't need a house that was a collection of separate rooms."

A bridge of sorts connects the addition to the main living spaces and incorporates an office and a powder room.

On the other side of the passageway, walls came down. First to go was the one separating dining room and living room. "We were always jammed . . . during family dinners," says Nancy.

Next was the wall between kitchen and TV room. "We had the ugliest TV room," says Eli. "It was dark and had an acoustic drop ceiling."

A wall separating this room from the laundry room was pulled down, too. A carpenter exposed the original barn beams and built shelving for Eli's many collections - antique mortar and pestles, old pharmacy implements, scales, and bottles. (His 300 kaleidoscopes are in his new office.)

Leistner and his team rearranged furniture to complement the new open spaces. And they looked to the future, installing wheelchair-accessible doorways in the addition.

"I am so glad we stayed and that we used an architect. It made all of the difference," says Nancy.

"This is a great way of living," adds Eli. "This feels like a whole new home. I couldn't want more."

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