Haven: A sunny update to 160-year-old farmhouse in Chestnut Hill

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A new skylight of translucent glass was installed and what had been the porch was added to the kitchen to open up the space and create a dining room/sunroom. Pale hues also help brighten the room. ( MATTHEW HALL / For The Inquirer )

Bonnie Berch and John Landis moved to Philadelphia from Oakland, Calif., in 2007, so he could join the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, where he is now chairman of the Department of City and Regional Planning.

The couple bought a 160-year-old German farmhouse in the middle of Chestnut Hill that had lots of history but not enough sunlight for the two West Coast transplants.

"We were happy to find the house in Chestnut Hill, but found there was no place to sit and read or eat in natural light," said Berch, a native Californian.

Over its 160 years, the three-story dwelling reflected changes made to it in layers.

It began life in the 19th century as a structure made of Wissahickon schist, with a centered entrance on the street. Originally, it had two large rooms on the first floor, plus a porch in front and a small kitchen at the rear. Each level had the same two-room arrangement.

Gradually, the house became decrepit, and then a neighborhood eyesore.

In 2003, community-minded neighbors bought the house, renovated it, and reversed the purposes of the rooms on the first floor. The living room became the room in the back leading to a garden, the dining room was located in the middle, and the kitchen opened up the front of the house with the porch.

Those renovations were finished in time for Berch and Landis to buy the property. They liked it, but. . . .

"You know, we do not have winters in California, and my husband and I just found we needed more light. The dining room was squeezed behind the dark front room, which was behind the porch we never used," she says.

In addition, there was a main door leading from the porch that they never opened because a door on the side of the house made more sense.

Thus, more change was in the offing for this old house.

At Chestnut Hill planning meetings, Landis met architect Larry McEwen, who has made a specialty of bringing houses with a long history into the 21st century.

McEwen's design removed the front of the house, which was replaced for the interim with wooden paneling.

"Daniel Fleck, the contractor, did a great job of temporarily covering the front of the house and then working quickly, so we never had to move out while the work was being done," Landis says.

The old front door was removed and what had been the porch was added to the kitchen to create a dining room/sun room.

A new modern facade made of synthetic wood blends the 1800s style of the original building with a clean modern look, yet does not clash with its farmhouse roots.

McEwen designed a band of narrow windows and steel columns to hold up the second-floor bedrooms, now located above the new sunroom.

In the center of the ceiling above the sunroom area, he introduced more illumination with a skylight of opaque, translucent glass.

Since the front of the house is so close to the street, McEwen says, "we made sure the windows were higher, to allow for privacy."

In the kitchen, an island was moved, and the entire space has expanded from 250 square feet to about 460.

Further brightening the newly reconfigured rooms are blond wood floors, painted cabinetry in light colors, and dining and lounging chairs in pale hues.

Berch points to an artwork on the wall near the sunroom that is made up of a series of small paintings of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado.

"The colors of the pink and blue and purple are so clear now," she says, adding that each square of the painting depicts a view of Colorado mountains arranged in a pattern reminiscent of a patchwork quilt.

A back deck, a patio, and lovely landscaping complete a house that now lives well and looks good both outdoors and indoors.

"Now, I love our house," Berch says. "When it is a sunny day, now I often like to sit in the sunroom in the morning with my cat, Ikwa."