Design Spotlight: The Evolving Vision of a Main Line Influencer | Period Architecture Ltd

Design Spotlight: The Evolving Vision of a Main Line Influencer

While Richardson Brognard Okie was undoubtedly influential in perfecting the traditional Pennsylvania farmhouse home, Walter K. Durham arguably left the biggest architectural footprint in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Durham was responsible for building or altering well over 200 individual residences along Philadelphia’s Main Line. Not tied to a single style, his enchanting houses ranged from French Normandy, Georgian Revival, and Welsh farmhouse to Mediterranean and mid-century ranch. He defied categorization with his agile understanding of such a wide array of architectural styles.

What does define Durham, however, is his allegiance to evolve with the times, adjusting to ever-changing needs and tastes while adhering steadfastly to elements he considered essential: light, views, connection to the natural environment, and the uniqueness of each dwelling. These are surprising design requirements for a man who would gain recognition as part of a neighborhood development team, but that is just another unexpected part of Durham’s story.

THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WALTER K. DURHAM

Walter Durham (1896-1978) was an architect, developer, and builder who created custom homes for notable families in Lower Merion Township from the 1920s through the 1960s. He became known for adopting Old World and Colonial styles to create classic-looking homes while incorporating modern interior comforts and conveniences.

Born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, Durham graduated from Girard College and studied mechanical engineering and architecture at Drexel University, then known as Drexel Institute. He served in the Navy during World War I before entering the workforce as a draftsman. In 1926, he met James Irvine, a financier who was looking to develop tracts of land outside Philadelphia on the Main Line, which took its name from the former Pennsylvania Railroad line.

At the time, large country estates originally built on the Main Line as summer escapes for prominent Philadelphia families were being partitioned. As the city grew and the demand for land increased, many people began to eye the area just outside the city as a better option for year-round living. Large estates were eventually sold and broken into groups of smaller parcels.

Durham liked Irvine’s development plan and the two formed a partnership, with Irvine obtaining the land and providing the financing and Durham serving as architect, parcel designer, and builder. Over the next 16 years, they became the western Main Line’s leading architecture and development firm.

When Irvine was called to serve in World War II, Durham struck out on his own. In the years following the war, changes in lifestyle affected residential design. The introduction of new building technologies and materials, a more prosperous American public, and a rapidly growing population each contributed to new client goals and interests. Durham was quick to adjust, and his work began to incorporate more open spaces, family rooms, inside-outside living, and modernist architecture.

HALLMARKS OF A DURHAM HOUSE

While Durham’s portfolio includes an array of architectural styles, and his work evolved to adapt to changing lifestyles over the course of his career, some characteristics are constant. All of his homes exude a sense of timelessness. He believed it imperative for a house to be customized to suit its owner’s individual needs and that local tradition and the natural environment be respected and incorporated into its design.

Durham and his principles stand in stark contrast to modern day developers. Because he was a resident of the community he was developing, he respected the land and built sympathetically with local materials and traditional methods.

LIGHT AND VIEWS

Central to any Durham home is the light coming in and the views looking out. So important were these two elements that sightlines were tested before construction started by using temporary platforms. Durham is known for his “see-through houses” in which views of backyard gardens were prioritized and high ceilings created grand living spaces for entertaining guests. Windows were typically designed as long sections to allow the most amount of light to enter the space. The result is an elegant and open interior, brightened by natural sunlight, which feels connected to the surrounding landscape.

Facing south to allow the maximum amount of light into the formal dining room at the 1925 Walter Durham Residence in Villanova, a picture window frames views of the backyard garden, while French doors lead out to new flagstone terraces on either side.

NATURE AND THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT

Durham’s commitment to designing with views in mind reflects his personal connection with nature. He loved Lower Merion Township’s rolling hills, sparkling streams, and rich green foliage. He not only wanted homeowners to glimpse these glorious vistas through the many windows he included, but he also worked hard to preserve them. He would go out of his way to manipulate driveways, street accesses, and building sites to accommodate the natural environment and leave it as undisturbed as possible.

When designing this Villanova manor in 1925, Walter Durham was highly conscious of the mature oak trees and existing rock formations throughout the property. Instead of removing these natural elements during construction, Durham preserved and integrated them into the final design.

PRIVACY AND QUIET

Durham considered undisturbed enjoyment of one’s home essential. Initially, this was not hard to achieve, as the subdivided former estates provided a substantial amount of property with each new home. But for developments that came later, when land was becoming scarce, peace and privacy required careful planning. To ensure homeowners had both, Durham positioned structures with maximum setbacks from streets and neighbors and utilized topography in a way that trees, foliage, and the natural grade of the land served as buffers to the external world.

A secret hideaway within its suburban landscape, the patio at the 1927 Historic District Residence in Wayne provides an intimate setting for garden parties, al fresco dinners, and outdoor gatherings.

A UNIQUE DESIGN EVERY TIME

Durham firmly believed that a house should stand on its own, with an individual identity unlike any other house, both aesthetically and functionally. Much like an architectural tailor, he designed bespoke homes for his clients, customized for their particular preferences, needs, and lifestyles.

At the intersection of two major paths of travel inside the Pennsylvania Provincial in Landenberg, personalized touches and custom detailing make this transitional space into a one-of-a-kind hub for connection.

LOCALLY CRAFTED AND SALVAGED MATERIALS 

As a resident of the area, Durham had great respect for its landscape, context, and history. He understood the values of the community and included historic local architectural standards in his design. He typically used locally sourced stone and reused salvaged building materials like bricks, beams, paving blocks, doors, mantels, and hardware.

During the comprehensive interior renovation and revitalization of the 1936 Walter Durham Residence in Bryn Mawr, the original cornice and doorway entablature in the formal entry was restored to its former glory.

DURHAM HOMES TODAY

Studying and understanding the local vernacular provides insight and sparks creativity in our team much in the same way it did for Durham. “What is inspiring about working on homes designed by Durham and other historical architects is the quality, creativity, and thoughtful design,” says Associate Principal, Hilary Mork.

“Durham designed and built homes using quality materials the way they were intended to be used,” she continues. “Walter Durham had the ability to work in many different styles and create homes in proportion and scale that range from country home estates to villages and cottages.”

Along with bringing consciousness of local tradition to our work, we are inspired by Durham’s methods in other ways. Similar to Durham’s driving forces, our designs focus on practical and impressive site lines, connection to the outdoors, and creating private spaces for families to enjoy. With inspiration from the architectural history of the region and respect for the surrounding landscape, we focus on integrating traditional details with modern lifestyle needs. We evolve with the times, but with allegiance to classic precedents. Like Durham, we work closely with homeowners to create unique spaces, tailored to their individual lifestyles. We are always looking for creative ways to solve design challenges, no matter the defined style or aesthetic.

DURHAM HOMES ADAPTED FOR TODAY

In addition to drawing inspiration from Durham’s design principles and methodology, we have had the opportunity to restore and revitalize several of his original homes. For a closer look, see two homes below which demonstrate examples of our Durham-inspired work.

1925 WALTER DURHAM RESIDENCE IN VILLANOVA

This mid-1920s Walter Durham residence received a whole home renovation that focused on highlighting the Main Line aesthetic for which Durham was renowned while updating the home for contemporary living. Notably, the main level was reconfigured to create an open kitchen and living area that flows through a more traditional layout. On the exterior, a new covered patio outfitted with the latest modern comforts now offers ample space to entertain and enjoy the outdoors all year-round.

1936 WALTER DURHAM RESIDENCE IN BRYN MAWR

Originally designed by Walter Durham in 1936, this Main Line residence is currently undergoing a complete interior restoration and redesign. Drawing inspiration from the formality and style of the existing ornamentation and detailing crafted by Durham, the renovated interiors will combine traditional millwork and period-appropriate details with modern features.