Each Generation Builds on the Last at This Rural Retreat in Western Pennsylvania

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By Georgina Gustin
An architect adds a pair of rustic modern wings to her childhood home outside Pittsburgh, becoming the third generation to make its mark.

For any architect, designing a new home means grappling with the usual—and usually daunting—challenges: budget limitations, client expectations, delays, design dilemmas, misunderstandings. For Pittsburgh- and San Francisco–based architect Mary Barensfeld, a recent project meant the prospect of all those things, with a few additional factors layered in. 

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Mary Barensfeld grew up in a colonial-style home near Pittsburgh that was built by her grandfather and enlarged by her parents. In 2016, she and fellow architect Yvonne Riggie added a pair of rustic modern wings. One, a dining pavilion, includes a lounge that is warmed by a Bodart & Gonay woodstove. The entire room opens to the outdoors through a folding wall system by Hope’s Windows. 

Mary Barensfeld grew up in a colonial-style home near Pittsburgh that was built by her grandfather and enlarged by her parents. In 2016, she and fellow architect Yvonne Riggie added a pair of rustic modern wings. One, a dining pavilion, includes a lounge that is warmed by a Bodart & Gonay woodstove. The entire room opens to the outdoors through a folding wall system by Hope’s Windows. 

Her clients were her parents, and the project was an expansion of her childhood home, a place infused with memory and complicated by history. "It’s an idea and it’s a place," Barensfeld says. "It’s amazing how forceful it’s been in my life. I didn’t want to ruin it." 

Stealing the scene, an installation of some 1,500 hand-blown glass orbs by local artist John Sharvin hangs from the ceiling in the dining wing, refracting light from the track fixtures. 

Stealing the scene, an installation of some 1,500 hand-blown glass orbs by local artist John Sharvin hangs from the ceiling in the dining wing, refracting light from the track fixtures. 

Barensfeld and her two sisters grew up in the rolling countryside north of Pittsburgh, where her grandfather bought a sweep of land in the 1970s and had a gambrel-roofed, colonial-style home built on the foundations of an existing 1940s farmhouse. In the backyard, an orchard yields apples for cider, and a white bank barn, built in 1910, sits against a hillside. Barensfeld’s grandfather, now 93, lives a mile away. "My heart is in the woods between my grandparents’ house and mine," the architect says. "That, to me, is home." 

Eisler Landscapes provided plants for the yard. 

Eisler Landscapes provided plants for the yard. 

The property went through a number of expansions over the years, including in the late ’90s, when the family added a new kitchen, family room, and bedroom. But years later, Barensfeld’s parents started contemplating ways to make the rambling house more livable as they grow older. 

Working with Lancaster County Timber Frames and engineer John Schneider, the architects repurposed aged oak beams for the extensions; the new metal fasteners were painted white.

Working with Lancaster County Timber Frames and engineer John Schneider, the architects repurposed aged oak beams for the extensions; the new metal fasteners were painted white.

The architect who took on the challenge would have to meet the demands of a tricky wish list from the clients: a new gym (to help delay the potential immobility of advancing years), elevator access near the underground garage (ensuring accessibility), a new area for entertaining guests, and, finally, a design that would make the house appear from the front like the residence that has stood on the spot for years. 

Walnut shelving showcases an extensive collection of treens by 19th-century Ohio woodworker David Mills Pease. 

Walnut shelving showcases an extensive collection of treens by 19th-century Ohio woodworker David Mills Pease. 

 "There are projects where you can blow it out of the box—make it look like a UFO has landed," Barensfeld says. "This wasn’t that project." 

A coat rack by Blu Dot stands at the entrance to the new master suite. 

A coat rack by Blu Dot stands at the entrance to the new master suite. 

When Barensfeld proposed designing the additions herself, another logistical challenge arose: How would she manage the project when she splits her time between two cities thousands of miles apart? For that, she turned to friend and fellow architect Yvonne Riggie, who is based in Columbus, Ohio—close enough to be on-site and monitor progress when Barensfeld was on the West Coast. "She made this project possible," Barensfeld says. "We could tag team." 

Inside, Metropolitan armchairs by B&B Italia and Artek stools flank a Morsø stove. The Flor rug tiles are arranged in a custom pattern.

Inside, Metropolitan armchairs by B&B Italia and Artek stools flank a Morsø stove. The Flor rug tiles are arranged in a custom pattern.

They tackled the design challenges together, eventually devising new wings on either side of the house—one housing the gym, a small kitchenette, and a soaring bedroom suite, the other a dining pavilion with a lounge area. Altogether, they added 2,400 square feet to the existing 5,440. 

Caesarstone counters run along the bathroom walls (below). 

Caesarstone counters run along the bathroom walls (below). 

From the front, the extensions, erected by Denny D’Angelo Contracting and Palumbo Contracting, blend in with the old structure and the existing roofline. From the back, they open up to the orchard and native meadow through huge steel-frame windows that allow sun- and moonlight to fill the spaces. 

The property has been in Barensfeld's family since the 1970s.

The property has been in Barensfeld's family since the 1970s.

"I think we were successful in keeping the white clapboard and brick front, and then when you walk around to the back, it’s completely different—it’s all glass," Barensfeld says. "We call it, kind of jokingly, a mullet, because it’s all business in the front and party in the back."  

Lancaster County Timber Frames created water-jet-cut steel baseplates to fit the footprint of each timber beam. The shelving is walnut and the floor is basalt tile.

Lancaster County Timber Frames created water-jet-cut steel baseplates to fit the footprint of each timber beam. The shelving is walnut and the floor is basalt tile.

They also called it "Run-on Farmhouse," a fitting handle. "You’re trying to add these spaces, but when you start to put pen to paper, you realize what’s possible and what’s not," Barensfeld says. "We needed wings. We needed to put a lift in. It created this run-on effect. It’s hard to make something like this compact." 

Behind the house is a large meadow with a white clover path. The grasses are a mixture of pasture grasses, wildflowers, and milkweed, an important host plant for monarch butterflies.

Behind the house is a large meadow with a white clover path. The grasses are a mixture of pasture grasses, wildflowers, and milkweed, an important host plant for monarch butterflies.

For Barensfeld, one of the major accomplishments of the project evolved from the place itself. Years ago, her parents salvaged some 200-year-old white oak timbers from a deteriorating cabin on a neighboring property and stacked them on their land, figuring they’d come in handy someday. 

A pair of teak Adirondack chaises from Gloster face a white clover lawn. 

A pair of teak Adirondack chaises from Gloster face a white clover lawn. 

Barensfeld decided to make those beams—which she’d played on as a young girl—the load-bearing structure of the additions, one that also reveals the character and quirks of the wood. "The timbers are used in a totally modernist way, as structural components, except they happen to be antique logs," says Barensfeld’s father. 

A pre-existing deck off the living room was built around a 70-year-old silver maple tree.

A pre-existing deck off the living room was built around a 70-year-old silver maple tree.

Reusing them required driving giant bolts through the old wood, which felt "like a desecration," says the architect, but turned out to be one of the visual elements her parents like most. 

In the lounge, a Theatre Two-Seater sofa joins two U-Turn Swivel Chairs, all from Design Within Reach. The rug is by Scott Group.

In the lounge, a Theatre Two-Seater sofa joins two U-Turn Swivel Chairs, all from Design Within Reach. The rug is by Scott Group.

In another nod to the region’s native materials—and her family’s roots in the steel industry—Barensfeld incorporated steel to connect some of the beams or to support the structures. "It was one of the most rewarding things about the project," she says.

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A barn built in 1910 is part of the family homestead.

A barn built in 1910 is part of the family homestead.

So, Barensfeld adds, was finishing a job that makes it possible for her parents—and for her—to extend and deepen their connections to home. "That’s the house where I grew up. It was an emotionally charged project, wrought with a lot of psychological potholes," she says. 

The family presses apple trees from the hundred-year-old orchard for cider.

The family presses apple trees from the hundred-year-old orchard for cider.

"Having your family as clients brings up little relationship things. But it was a great project—and they were great clients."  

Each Generation Builds on the Last at This Rural Retreat in Western Pennsylvania - Photo 17 of 18 -
Each Generation Builds on the Last at This Rural Retreat in Western Pennsylvania - Photo 18 of 18 -

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