When John Milner and his wife, Wynne, spotted the circa-1724 farmhouse just outside West Chester, they knew they had found their future home. There was just one problem: They weren't farmers and it wasn't 1724. The layout of the house, particularly the front door - pressed up against the road, far from where they and their guests would arrive - didn't make sense for their lifestyle.
Milner, principal at John Milner Architects in Chadds Ford, had a solution in mind: build an addition and, in the process, create a new "front door" off to the side of the house, with a single, less formal but more accessible approach for family and first-time visitors alike.
He's not the only one: As architects around the region are being called on to reconfigure, remodel, and expand the region's mature stock of freestanding homes, many are rethinking what (and where) a front door should be.
In many cases, they're finding that old-fashioned access point facing the street is little more than a vestigial organ. Spruced-up side or rear entrances - made inviting with garden pathways, informal but practical "arrival zones," and abundant windows to ease the transition from outdoors in - are becoming popular alternatives. In Milner's case, preserving the historical core of his house was just as important as making it work in a modern context. What he came up with was a gated garden that doubles as entry corridor and entertaining space.
"It's an outdoor room, an extension of the living space of the house. The idea is that you walk into this garden, you walk under a porch, and we have an old-fashioned, brick bake oven and fireplace." When guests are expected, the outdoor fireplace at his East Bradford Township house is lit. "You're immediately in the residential experience."
For first-time visitors, this lush entry point off the driveway provides the secondary benefit of eliminating the awkward moment of hesitation while wondering which door to approach. The old front door remains, mostly as ornament, but "it's so obvious where you enter: through the garden."
Moving the "front" door to the rear is such a tidy solution that one might wonder why it's taken so long. Paul Macht, an architect in Rydal, called builders' continued insistence on retaining the old-school front door nostalgic, if not downright "perverse."
"In typical suburban tract homes" - much like 18th-century farmhouses - "the front doors are not close to where the guests or homeowners are arriving and parking," he noted. In those houses, the outcome can be even grittier: Many residents, and even guests, find themselves accessing the house through a garage, then maybe a laundry room, and finally the kitchen.
"It's funny how people become numb to a daily sequence that's not very nice," Macht said.
In the process of building a recent suburban addition, Macht used simple techniques to redirect arrival traffic. He envisioned a patio and garden walk off a driveway leading to a few steps to a porch that runs along the back of the house. From there, guests enter a small mudroom or proceed through a set of French doors into the great room.
Macht left the front door as it was - and if the occasional Jehovah's Witness or UPS man happens to go astray, he said, so be it. "I think it was Robert Venturi who said, 'I love a building that you have to fight your way into,' " he added. After all, it's a private residence, not a retail store. "It's not so much signifying or creating a clarity of where the entry is, but creating a good functional entry for the family who is using it all the time: Where do they hang the coats? Is it a nice experience?"
Still, some do want to retain an echo of the old-fashioned, grand foyer, even in a contemporary, open-plan treatment.
Jeff Wyant and Maria Peares Wyant of Wyant Architects in Center City recently crafted such a solution by building a decidedly modern addition onto a late-1700s farmhouse. The owners of the house had been using the rear door almost exclusively, so when they added a family room and master bedroom suite, they also asked for a new main entrance in the back.
The addition turned the floor plan into an L-shape, merging the old stone house with a new wing in which thick stone walls gave way to sweeping glass panels, juxtaposing modern and rustic elements. At the seam between the old and new was the new entrance - a two-story space lined with windows from top to bottom.
"It had to have visual prominence," Jeff Wyant explained. "When lit internally, it becomes a beacon."
Inside, Wyant created an arrival zone that functions like a foyer, but without walls. Instead, a few steps down into the newly added family room on the right, and a floating staircase up to the second floor on the left, help define the entry space. Abundant windows help connect the indoor spaces to the landscape beyond.
The result of such a reconfiguration is, if nothing else, guaranteed to make for better parties, according to Alan Metcalfe of Center City's Metcalfe Architecture and Design, who applied the same principle to a 1920s stone Colonial, the Mount Airy home of Michael and Amy Cohen.
"To me, the whole center of the house was at the back," Metcalfe said. "It's really hard to use a very traditional house the way people socialize now. [When these houses were built], the kitchen wasn't important the way it is now, and nor was the backyard."
So he laid a winding garden path connecting the driveway to the new "front door," a 6-by-8-foot glass box just past the kitchen, where guests can enter a mudroom and proceed into the house. Instead of schlepping through the laundry room, the Cohens and their guests have a daily arrival experience.
"I think of it as a diurnal trip: You go twice a day at the least," Metcalfe said. So why shouldn't it be beautiful?
There's no one right answer to this front-door, back-door dilemma, but now, at least, architects are rethinking it.