First Impressions

From Public Street to Front Door

Recently I met with a prospective client at their house for an initial consultation. Arriving at the address, a corner property, I was confused how to enter; should I be entering on the street of the address, or go around the corner? The front of the house lookedlike the back, and from the direction I was coming, I couldn’t see an entry door. I continued driving towards the corner and finally saw the door, hidden in a corner setback of the house.

The clients, aware of the problem, stated that one of their priorities was to create more curb appeal and make clear where to enter. This moment of confusion reminded me the power and importance of that transition from street to dwelling.

Most commonly the home entrance faces directly onto some type of a public thoroughfare like a street or public path, and a visitor expectsthe entrance to be clearly signaled. Some entrances are scaled large and grand, signifying the owner’s desire for public prominence.Others might be more subtle, offering privacy for the comings and goings of the household.

Usually the entrance offers some kind of overhead protection from the elements, and whether the door is centered on the front facade or asymmetric, these type of entries make a clear statement about what might be expected when you walk through the door. There might be a double height foyer that creates a sense of having arrived somewhere special, and encourages the visitor to pause or a single story height that is more cozy.

The landscaping between street and house adds to the overall feel of the approach. A straight sidewalk with formal rows of plantings and paving focuses attention directly on the door and creates a very different feeling than a path that wanders through a more garden like design. There are however other factors that might require the front door to in fact not face the street. This was the case when I designed a house for a client who wanted to use Vastu principles, which required the entry to be oriented in a particular direction, in this case sideways to the street. (Vastu is an ancient Hindu approach to harmony in home and architecture, with some similarity to the more familiar Chinese Feng Shui.) And along with the use of a canopy and low retaining wall distinguishing the entry area, any visitor would find themselves comfortably ushered from street to this house.

The front door facing the street is easily the most common design for a house entrance, but a variety of circumstances could determine that the door face another direction, such as those imposed by the Vastu principles applied in the design of the house below.

Regardless the style, the grandeur, the orientation of the house, a clear point of entry from the street is the first essential step to welcoming visitors.

I sometimes refer to split levels and ranches as “The Other Mid Century style”. They may not quite call to mind the classic mid century modern houses that have become so desirable, but with a little imagination, they do offer a great opportunity to create a modern home for this century.

I grew up in a 1958 split level house in suburban Philadelphia, and I remember even as a child recognizing the distinctively different feel from my friends’ traditional colonial houses. The more open plan, cathedral ceiling in the living room, and the 50’s decor seemed so cool by comparison. And the half flight up to the bedrooms and half flight down to the playroom seemed so easy compared to the conventional three level configuration.

Split levels and ranches became popular during the post WWII suburban expansion and reflected a desire for a more modern style home. The splits worked well on sloped or smaller sites, offering an open layout, yet more compact than a spread out ranch. In some homes, the arrangement allowed for cathedral ceilings in the living room since there was not a second floor above.

Somewhere along the way, split levels became something of a pariah. These houses generally lack both the design sophistication of a classic mid-century modern house from the same period or the character and charm of a traditional Colonial or Tudor. When found in neighborhoods with high land values, they often become tear downs that make way for more conventional Colonial style mansions. But from my experience and what I hear from local realtors, there is a growing demand for more modern homes, and these splits and ranches may be the best bet short of building a new house from scratch.

The split level modernization projects I’ve done have mostly included additions and exterior “curb appeal” makeovers. A common addition is adding a level above the one story portion, usually for a master suite and other related spaces. Addition on the back can create a larger kitchen or family room space. One project completely re-conceived the idea of a split level, and resulted in a dramatic home with the different levels intertwining in unexpected ways.




Englewood Cliffs, NJ

This client had hired an architect who completed the plans for a second floor addition. However, the client wasn’t happy with how the outside was looking, and asked us to re-design the exterior without making any big changes to the plans. The biggest design change we made was to change the gabled roofs to hip roofs, which immediately created a better resolution between the two wings of the house, and established consistent horizontal lines to the wall surfaces. The entry was given a cantilevered canopy, the bay window squared off, and the break up of materials further accented the horizontal connection between the volumes.

Tenafly, NJ

In this project, the client wanted to add a larger kitchen and family room to the back of the house, along with a new deck. This freed up space for a powder room and large pantry area at the living level. At the upper level, the space was reconfigured to provide a more generous master suite, eliminating one bedroom. A new bedroom and bathroom was added to the lower level in the area that had good window exposure. The existing entry sequence from driveway to front door was unwelcoming and included an un-needed circular driveway that was too close to the front door. Our design included a re-working of the front landscape.

This house already had hipped roofs, and our window and material choices helped to further modernize the overall look of the house.

These elevations show a different approach to material choices that I had presented, but the client opted for the black and white approach. 

Summit, NJ

The owners of this house had outgrown the space and embarked on an ambitious plan to enlarge the home and create a more modern expression. The neighborhood was full of these same style homes, but one by one, they were being torn down and replaced by the traditional style homes that developers were putting up around the state. For this project, we kept the original foundation and basic premise of the split level, and proceeded to create a modern home more in keeping with the mid-century spirit of the original. We had to submit for a variance to move the garage entry to the front of the house, and among the comments from various township departments was this very gratifying observation.

“The Historic Preservation Commission commends the owner and Architect for their proposed transformative design of one of the tract mid-century split-level homes- typical of the neighborhood- into a modern home in keeping with it’s mid-century influence. As an expression of its own time, the diagnosis is properly scaled to the neighborhood, and successfully addresses the site conditions, and utilizes material appropriate to their proposed use. We also like that the proposed design resists the common ersatz new-traditional inclinations that are becoming common in this neighborhood. No objections.”

The stair down was reconfigured to make a better flow from the new mudroom off the garage as well as new basement space under the rear addition. Setting the master suite second floor addition back from the front allowed a high ceiling area in the living room.

Scotch Plains, NJ

These owners lived in the neighborhood and were looking for an opportunity to create a modern, larger home nearby. This property met their need in terms of the location and the property size and character, and included a forlorn split level house that could easily have been a candidate for a tear down. Instead, we decided to retain some of the basic structure and proceeded to make additions and reconfigure space to create a home that took advantage of the various levels in ways that added to the interest of the architecture- resulting in a design that couldn’t have been achieved if a new two level house had been built instead of retaining the split level structure.

The two patios at the back also reflect the split-level nature of the house. The connecting stair follow the interior stair form the kitchen to the lower level dining/ living/ guest room spaces.

The lower level now has two stairs down, one from the entry foyer, one directly from the kitchen. The balcony space above acts as a private congregating space for the family, with a piano tucked in.

See this full project here.