In the fall of 2008, Ron and Abby Pete, the then new owners of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, contacted me to redesign the hotel’s exterior and to master plan some site improvements. I collaborated with Jeff Krieger, an architect friend of mine, with whom the Petes had also met. I became the architect in charge of design and Jeff’s office provided technical services.
The owners came to us with a strong leaning toward modern design ideas. At this juncture they were not at all warmly disposed toward traditional features even though the building had been designed originally in a Victorian style. The bold corner turrets had long since been removed, the original shutters trashed, and a hokey Colonial entrance with a swan pediment had replaced the original entrance doors and sidelights. Consequently, there was not much historical fabric to preserve or restore…and not much by way of architectural features that would happily welcome a modern intervention.
In such architectural situations, my inclination is to avoid a purist approach in any direction, and rather to design using a strategy I call creative accommodation. This approach begins with accenting a building’s positive features and minimizing its negative ones. This can often be done most inexpensively with the judicious use of color. Creative accommodation also means working in a style-free manner and pursuing inventive solutions that weave together options that at first seem mutually exclusive. Having had my office in Chestnut Hill for about forty years and aware of the traditional leanings of many Chestnut Hillers, I felt the need to walk a carefully balanced line between the owners’ modernist wishes and the community’s historical preferences.
Working collaboratively with my then Senior Associate, Monroe Buckner, and with Jeff Krieger and his staff, I developed several schemes for the owners to consider. I was delighted and frankly surprised that Ron and Abby went along with my transitional design recommendations. The scheme that was finally approved took indirect inspiration from the works of two historically significant British architects, Charles Rennie Macintosh of Scotland (1868-1928) and Sir John Soane of England (1753-1837). I had seen and photographed examples of their work during a 1973 family trip to Great Britain, France, and Switzerland. In London, I toured Soane’s House-Museum and was overwhelmed by the architect’s richly inventive detailing, his ‘modernist’ manipulation of space, and his unerring sense of scale. One of his largest projects had been the Bank of England.
As for Macintosh’s Hill House in Scotland, my encounter was, in and of itself, a memorable event—a circumstance, I like to think, of cosmic providence. I was driving through Helensburg, a small city along the Clyde River and when I stopped at an intersection, a helpful policeman told me Macintosh’s ‘Hill House,’ recently acquired by the National Trust, was just up the road. My heart dropped, however, when he said, ‘but it’s not yet open.’ Styled after dour Scottish castles, the house at first sight was a mild disappointment…gray stucco walls with a pebble-dash finish combined in places with sandstone. I was crestfallen by the building’s unexpected plainness. Undeterred, I opened a gate and knocked on the door. The caretaker listened politely as I explained that I was an architect from the States and would not be in town the following day when the house formally opened to the public. To this day I am puzzled why the man broke some rules and invited me in along with my wife and two young children. He said we were free to wander and photograph at will. This tour turned out to be one of the most career-altering experiences of my life. Never before had I seen such unusual detailing, inventive use of color, and beautifully crafted, early-modernist furniture. If Macintosh’s name is familiar, it might be because his famous Glasgow School of Art was engulfed in flames in May of last year. Its stunning handcrafted library was reduced to ashes.
Given that many Chestnut Hillers have a keen interest in architectural history, I thought it would be informative to share with readers of the C. H. Local just how the works of these two titans influenced the design of the four entrances to the Chestnut Hill Hotel, the entrance facing Germantown Avenue being the most elaborate, although all four were, at the owners’ request, designed to be similar.
What I learned from seeing Soane’s and Macintosh’s works firsthand is the value of subtle and inventive detailing such as is evident in the above photo. Illustrated is a bay window at the Hill House, which is based on an amalgam of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Japonism styles. Changes of plane of even a 1/16 of an inch in a series of stepping planes can have a powerful and nuanced effect even in the larger scale of a building exterior. I did use such stepping planes in the pilasters at the Hotel’s four entrances. Such subtle changes of plane and even the introduction of barely visible curving surfaces add grace and refinement to a building. If you palm the wood pilasters at any of the Hotel’s entrances, you will feel these sensuous changes in plane and the subtle curves and know they were inspired during my visit to Great Britain forty years earlier.
I believe the design motifs employed at the Hotel complement the existing building, satisfy the aesthetic yearnings of an historic district, and also create a warm, inviting and memorable ambiance needed to attract an anticipated upscale and sophisticated clientele. Fortunately, I was able to bring my experience working with fine woods and furniture detailing to the entrance designs and was surprised and delighted when Ron and Abby approved even the very ‘old fashioned’ silver medallions, which accent the pilasters. Those medallions had to have been the last thing the Petes were imagining when they initially gave me the assignment. Eventually, they came to appreciate where I was heading, even buying into the idea of installing new shutters and using divided lights on the ground level windows. I credit and am indebted to Ron and Abby for allowing me to execute my designs without compromise.