City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

Historic Charm Meets Modern Design

Article by Stacy Graebner with Joel Petty Architecture

Photography by Oscar Mikols, OM Media

Originally published in Newtown City Lifestyle

A common design dilemma faced by architects who renovate historic homes is how to maintain the distinctive character of the home while making it more functional for modern living. Architect, Joel Petty has over 25 years of experience tackling this unique challenge. With over 50 historic renovation projects completed in Newtown and the surrounding area, Joel has encountered many interesting and complex problems which he sees as a creative opportunity. As he puts it “achieving the marriage between the personality of the historic home and the wishes of the homeowners is what creates the inspiration for each distinctive project.”

Modernizing the flow and function of a historic structure often requires imagination and out- of- the- box solutions. One of the most significant issues with older homes is that kitchens were often disconnected spaces located in the rear of the house. Whereas today, kitchens are often the center of the home and a focal point serving as an important circulation hub and connection point to other parts of the house. People like to congregate in the kitchen and family room area for social activity and family connection. The rooms and features inside each historic home are often as significant to its character as those on the exterior and therefore the adaptation, reconfiguration and additions to those spaces requires careful thought.

Joel’s recent renovation project is a home dating back to the 1830’s on Penn Street in Newtown Borough.  Like many homes in the borough, the home has ample charm but presented some challenges to the owners request for an open, connected plan with more natural light. The structure was narrow, and the kitchen, which also acted as the side entry, had a separation wall to the living room for the refrigerator and storage. The only staircase was the original winder which was very tight for daily circulation and far from any new code standards.  The stair was situated in the middle of the living room and attached to a powder room which had been added over the years and further minimized the light and flow from the already slim footprint.  An existing carriage house situated adjacent to the home in the rear had been updated previously as living space, but had a different architectural style was only connected to the main living space by an exterior deck. The primary goals of the project were to open-up the first-floor plan to create a family style kitchen with an open living area, add a new dining room at the rear of the house, find a place for a new stair, which could also access the existing third floor space, expand the master bathroom and bedroom suite on the second floor, and connect the main living structure to the carriage house from inside.

In order to achieve these goals, Joel proposed a stunning glass stair tower to move the primary circulation out of the main living space to improve the overall flow, connect to the carriage house as a transitional element, and allow natural light to spill into the new kitchen and open living area while providing expanded views to the outdoors as well. The new stair tower also created the opportunity for an interior connection to the carriage house, new side entry and mudroom, and the relocation of the powder room and a new laundry room to that space.  The alterations also included adding a dining room over the existing rear patio, which allowed for the master suite to be expanded upstairs. The exterior materials were selected to complement the existing trim of the house, while the large windows acted as an architectural transition between the existing double hung windows on the house and the larger casement windows on the previously renovated carriage house. Throughout the project, the interior details were coordinated with Nancy Gracia of BareRoot Design Studio, who provided her exceptional talent and eye to bring the new space to life. 

While the idea of renovating an historic home can be exciting (and we blame HGTV for making it look easy), there are many considerations that come into play including issues with electrical wiring, mechanical systems and structural settlement. Homes that fall within the historic district also need to follow specific guidelines. The Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB) reviews and provides directional feedback on any exterior alterations. As with the Penn Street project, alterations to windows, doors, exterior materials, colors and other features that affected the appearance and character of the existing dwelling and its context needed to be considered. 

Striking the balance between the client’s goals and the unique elements of each home while working within the historic guidelines and site restrictions can be an involved process. As this lovely home on Penn Street proves, partnering with an experienced and inspired architect and designer can yield final results that are stunning.


Joel Petty, AIA, NCARB has over 25 years of architectural design experience in residential, historic renovation and small commercial projects in PA, NJ and FL

Joel Petty Architecture, LLC

(215) 321-4477