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How Architects Reconfigure Historic Homes for Modern Lifestyles

It's all about striking a balance between old and new

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Any Downton Abbey fan can tell you that the way some people lived about 100 years ago is different from the way we live today. At the turn of the 20th century, domestic staff was much more commonplace—an expectation, even—in grander homes. A house essentially functioned in two ways: as a place for living and entertaining for the owners, and as a workplace for the staff. "Everything is more compartmentalized in an older house," says architect Gil Schafer of G.P. Schafer Architect, "There was the staff, and then there were the people who lived in the house. There was a lot of effort made by the architecture to separate the two."

Just look at the floorplan of Dumbarton Oaks, a Neo-Colonial brick mansion in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood now owned by Harvard University as a research library. Each of its reception rooms—the living room, dining room, and library—connect to a wide gallery hall. These rooms were used by the owner of the house and their guests. The kitchen, by contrast, is accessed obliquely via the dining room. It’s located in a self-contained wing, comprised of other areas dedicated to staff, like a butler’s pantry and a servant’s hall.

The separation of the kitchen from the other areas of the house is apparent in smaller homes, too. Frank Lloyd Wright’s George Barton House—constructed around 1903 in Buffalo, New York—may not have a network of staff rooms, but it does feature a kitchen tucked away from the living and dining rooms, behind the staircase. Staff could only access the kitchen through a single door off the dining room, and another door leading outside.

Herein lies a big problem that faces modern families living in an older house: The kitchen is no longer an area for staff. In fact, many families spend the majority of their time together in the kitchen, and do not want it hidden behind a network of walls and hallways. So, how do contemporary architects approach a sensitive renovation of an older home?

"That’s what our clients [who are renovating an older house] want to have right away: a bigger kitchen," says Schafer. "We always hope there are some old servant’s rooms, areas of the house that are anachronistic now, that we could transform into a combination family room and kitchen."

Sometimes, addressing the location of a kitchen means more than knocking down a few walls. Peter Pennoyer, principal at Peter Pennoyer Architects, has completely rearranged a floorplan in the name of kitchen satisfaction: "Once, I took a kitchen that was behind a stair—it had no hope of being worked into the house—literally picked it up and moved it to the middle of the house to overlook a solarium. Sometimes, you have to be willing to flip things totally."

When Schafer undertakes a renovation like that, he embraces the room’s past rather than trying to erase it: "Sometimes, if we’re renovating a room into a kitchen, we might give that kitchen architectural elements that would have traditionally been found in the room we transitioned it away from. We try to retain the memory of the original room—and that can be kind of fun."

These renovations are all done in the name of accommodating the generally more casual lifestyle that families lead today, one that favors open-plan layouts, a style that started to percolate in the early 1930s before rapidly gaining popularity after the second World War. But just because open-plan layouts seem diametrically opposed to the formal spatial arrangements of older houses does not mean the two are irreconcilable.

"I’m a big believer in using large pocket doors to create flexible separations between spaces that can be opened and closed at will," says Pennoyer. "People don’t realize that you can have a very open plan but still have the feel be very traditional by the way that you deal with the doorways and the ceilings."

Opening up the rooms of the house, especially the formal rooms, helps to integrate them into the house’s flow, which ultimately increases the use of those rooms. "By making the connections between the informal and the formal [rooms] more open, you can draw more people into those spaces," says Schafer.

It’s a simple but smart idea to ensure the more stately rooms, which usually have the most beautiful finishes, the biggest windows, and some of the best light, rarely get used. Perhaps the reason why some people rarely use the formal living rooms and dining rooms in their houses is due to the rooms not being opened up elegantly to the rest of the house.

Updating an older house for 21st-century use ultimately seems to be about striking a balance between tradition and modernity. People who live in older homes may love them for unique charm and connections to the past, but there’s no denying that we’re all living in the 21st-century. We may obsess over characteristics unique to historic homes (case-in-point: our ode to fireplaces from a few weeks back), but we’d be lying if we said that we wouldn’t look at the kitchen and dream about how to update it.. Of course, we’d never want to do too much to the floorplan.

"I find that people still want elegance," Schafer said, clearly understanding how we feel about older houses. "They may want to kick their feet up on the couch sometimes, but they still want to have the option to live formally. They want it both ways. They want it all."