Mid-Century Modern home saved from wrecking ball.


The Design Phase: Transforming Rustic Living to Contemporary Lifestyle

Our Harding Township project is in its design phase. For this home full of rich history in Morris County, New Jersey, we’re transforming rustic living into a contemporary atmosphere for the owners, who are from New York City coming with a sophisticated taste and appropriate budget.

Our common vision is a modern renovation, while paying tribute to the property’s artistic heritage. We are collaborating as well with a landscape architect right from the beginning in order to achieve a complete design for the property.

Modern renovation honoring Robert and Rowena MacPhail’s family history

Artists and educators Robert and Rowena MacPhail designed this unique mid-century modern style home during the 1950s. With the help of the stage tech crew from Millburn High School and from local craftsmen, Robert built the home during weekends and vacations over the course of eight years. It sits on a wooded, almost five-acre site in Harding Township. He and his students felled black walnut trees from the property and used the beautiful wood for the floors, cabinets, trim, and furniture.

Rowena continued to live in the house after Robert’s passing, and when she also passed, her children finally decided to put the house on the market. Initial interest was mostly from builders who wanted the property for the land value in this affluent community, and the family resisted. When a couple from New York showed interest in purchasing the home with the intent to preserve the character of the home, the MacPhail children Wendy and Peter welcomed the buyers who wished to preserve the home’s artistic integrity.
They created a scrapbook of their family history for the owners, providing wonderful insights into growing up in this home.


Their father Robert was a silversmith and glassblower who taught high school art. Their mother Rowena taught K-12 art and designed silver jewelry, produced fabric design via silkscreen and worked with clay. Neighbors Joyce and Edgar Anderson were fine woodcrafts people. This family and many more in the community became friends. Together, they’d go sledding and tobogganing.

After hiring an architect who offered “’not-what-they-wanted’ designs,” Robert and Rowena boldly took on the project themselves. Their artistic skills and love for nature came into play. They gradually filled the home with their friends’ art. Woodland creatures (raccoons, opossum and deer) would sip from the stone pool.

“Because our parents valued the beauty of their natural surroundings, the appreciation flowed into their house,” write Wendy and Peter.

The home provided rustic living for the MacPhail family. In the scrapbook, the children playfully remind the clients that a ladder (not stairs!) led to the basement. In the beginning, the home sported plastic-covered window openings (awaiting glass installation). Running water came late to the home, so for a time the family showered under a hose in the backyard.

Modern renovation adds to the home

The new owners are seeking to expand the small home and installing energy efficient comforts. Our design incorporates a new garage with roof garden. The side of the garage is designed as an open lattice to create a welcoming entry court.

The proposed main level plan includes an addition to the right side of the house for two bedrooms, a bathroom and a new kitchen. The house currently has two small bedrooms and a study. The new plans will add a master suite and convert the original kitchen into an entry area.

While the contemporary renovations are exciting, our design honors the artistic and environmental heritage of the home. We will re-use some of the walnut cabinetry and re-purpose other aspects of the house.

Contemplating Wassily Kandinsky’s artistic influence

Landscape architect Theodore Hoerr of Terrain Work, in developing his design proposal, considered who the artists who built this house might have been inspired by at the time, judged by the design they created for the house.

Upholding the home’s creative history, Theodore and myself take inspiration from the 1950s era. One inspiration that Hoerr drew from: Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract artwork, in particular Composition VIII.. Kandinsky was famous for analyzing the geometrical elements in every painting – the point and the line.



Theodore Hoerr’s landscape plan and rendering showing outdoor living area.

Our design for the house showcases similar Russian linear trend forms. The layering of triangular shapes that form the roof plan are reminiscent of geometry from the period.

The landscape plan brings in some of those same kind of elements. When I first saw Theodore’s proposed plans, I felt he had come up with something that was really inspired.

Remembering the MacPhail’s deep appreciation for nature, our designs for the residence will create an integrated connection between house and landscape. While the home provided rustic living for the MacPhails, these updated designs offer contemporary living for the new owners.


While the footprint of the house is expanding substantially, the new additions are designed to complement the original character of the house.

The original house had the triangulated forms mainly in the front section of the house. Our additions continues the theme around the whole house, creating a pinwheel like plan. Our rendering below shows the new garage extension with roof garden. We decided to create a screen like wall on the side of the garage to make a more welcoming entry court. The main entry to the house is up the stairs to the left, and then back to the porch under the extended roof.

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.