Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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Making it Modern

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

One of the bigger difficulties of buying an old house is that people lived differently then. People who bought those desirable, rambling Victorian houses of the latter 19th and early 20th century never once did things like cook a meal or wash clothes.

It’s a statement of the delightful prosperity of modern times that even ‘regular’ people live in houses and have things that would stun their counterparts of a century ago. The level of offerings in all aspects of our lives would stun them the food, the furniture and the houses we live in are beyond their dreams.

The result of this broader level of prosperity is that people who don’t really consider themselves rich can live in the houses which were utterly exclusive when built. And that brings about a few problems. The kitchens are one. In fact, if the house is old enough, it wouldn’t have even had one.

The small closets that may have been in a house were augmented by pieces of furniture that served that need. Contemporary necessities such as electrical and telephone wiring or gas fixtures have been added on, not designed into these houses.

Trying to live with history may be uplifting intellectually, but it can also get old, quick. Unfortunately, over time, many perfectly good houses have disappeared, to be replaced by a structure designed for the current “modern” living.

But there’s another way: make it work without losing the house’s unique history. This adaptive use is an important concept in areas such as the Main Line where there are a lot of houses worth saving for reasons beyond their age.

John and Robin Dziedzina moved to the Main Line for just such appeal. An engineer, he and Robin wanted a house that needed to be fixed up, and wanted to do it right. At their St. David’s house this care is apparent. Not only has the house been made livable in a way that preserve its heritage, they’ve decorated it to enhance that appeal.

The house in question was designed by Frances Gugert, a Wayne architect who later joined with David Knickerbocker Boyd, a more widely known local architect. The house was built in the style called “Scottish Baronial,” and according to Dziedzina fits the lay of the land well.

It was built in 1907 in for Edward Laurent, a Philadelphia candy maker who also had a house at 39th and Spruce. Originally it was a summer place. This poses particular difficulty for today’s dwellers. “Because it was only used in the summer, it wasn’t used the way houses are when you live in them full-time. Also, people such as the Laurents had cooks and servants. If they wanted to eat al fresco, it was the servants who had the long trek from the kitchen, not the family.”

The Dziedzinas did a lot of research to find out if anyone famous had lived there, but didn’t find anyone. Much of the information they found about the house came from the archives of local newspapers from the time of its construction.

There have been five previous owners. When the Dziedzinas bought the house it was, in their terms, an adequate Main Line house, although it needed some work. One nice thing was that the previous owners had been good stewards. “They took care of the infrastructure: plumbing and things like that.” This was important to its survival over the decades. “It had really good bones,” Dziedzina said.

Another valuable factor was that many of these houses, built for wealthy people, were very high-tech for the times. For instance, in the Dziedzinas’ house the massive beam which traverses the entry hall is really a steel I-beam surrounded by wooden pieces, making it appear to be a solid piece of 200-year-old tree.

“When we moved in the basics were there. The walls were painted white, to sell the house, I guess. It was latex paint so nothing had been done that was unfixable,” he said. “In fact much of it was painted on walls covered with canvas, so when we peeled off the canvas the paint came with it,” John said.

“The floors had wall-to-wall carpeting from I would guess the 1960s, which had protected the parquet floors,” he said. “That was a real advantage because it protected the floors for decades. We didn’t even know these beautiful floors were there.”

The Dziedzina weren’t in any hurry. “We’ve lived here for 23 years and had done the work piece by piece until it was perhaps two-thirds done. Then we added some things. These old houses weren’t designed for modern living,” he said.

“Today you do a lot of living outside. Behind the house there was a cinder-block garage that had been stuccoed, but just didn’t fit. “It was always an eyesore,” he said. The carriage house had been sold off, so it wasn’t available. “When we would entertain outside, or even just barbeque, we had to journey out past the garage where we’d sit underneath the trees,” Robin said.

“We tried to figure out what could be done with the garage to make it more appealing, but there was not way for one thing it wasn’t tall enough to ever meet pleasantly with the main house’s style.”

The solution was to raze the garage and redesign the outside at the rear of the house. In doing so they wanted to make it fit both their life styles as well as being consistent with the style of period of the house.

So they designed it to ‘fit’ with the architectural style of the rest of the house and connected it with a breezeway. “In bad weather it’s nice not to have to run from the garage to the house,” he said.

Beside the garage is a new stone-walled terrace, which curves much like the front porch of the house, yet allows for modern entertaining. How they did it was important. The stone for the house had been quarried at the R. H. Johnson Quarry near Conestoga Road. The house’s stone has a brown tinge, which Dziedzina says comes from exposure, because areas at the back of the house opened up when the old garage was removed were originally gray but are now gaining the brownish tinge. The new garage is also local stone, and the structure was designed to fit with the rest of the house, including the same tile roof and metal downspouts. “Even the beadboards and the rest of the interior are of the standard of a carriage house rather than a garage.

But Dziedzina isn’t trying to hide the modern structure. In spite of the fact that with a couple of decades of patina the difference won’t be very noticeable, except for the date stone placed prominently on the side of the garage.

It matches the one on the house, except it says 2000 instead of 1907. The date stone may keep Mainliners of the next century from getting confused and writing solemn chronicles about the discrepancies between garage and house. “Stewardship is important,” said Robin Dziedzina. “Now when I look at this house I’m proud of it, it’s the way it should be,” she said.

Not only that, it works for today. It’s a house for today’s life and maintains its heritage.