There is something magical about walking into a traditional Pennsylvania farmhouse home. The sandstone and granite walls feel solid and expansive. They stand like broad-shouldered guards defending against not just the cold but also the ills of the world. The inviting and gently winding central staircase unfolds with delightful secrecy into the warm depths of the home. Elaborate strap hinges and beading around the windows hint at simpler times when everything was handmade with dedicated precision by expert craftsmen. And, of course, each etch in the warn wooden flooring speaks of decades of lives lived and unknowable stories of the past.
It’s hard to experience a home like this and not get carried away by its charm. Frequently, homeowners who grew up in this kind of home come to us wanting to carry on that tradition into their own growing families. Others have simply fallen in love from a distance. Regardless of their personal histories with these homes, the masterful architect behind this style, Richardson Brognard Okie, is so infrequently talked about that few homeowners know anything about him or understand the intricacy of his work.
This lack of understanding means homeowners are not able to identify what parts of this style they want to capture in their own new homes. Since many homeowners come to us wanting to design in this colonial revival style, we are going to explore Okie’s history and architectural signatures so that you can better acquaint yourself with the craftsmanship and detailing of his homes. Doing so will likely give you deeper insight into how to approach the design of your new colonial revival home.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF R. BROGNARD OKIE
Richardson Brognard Okie (1875-1945) was known as an architectural artist and master builder. Colleagues praised his work saying it epitomized the American way of life because his buildings were of the highest quality — a result of his unrelenting desire for perfection — and yet were still modest and unassuming.
Born and raised in Camden, New Jersey, he moved to Philadelphia after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1897 with a degree in architecture. Okie had always had a close connection to the countryside and, after his move to Pennsylvania, this seems to have translated into a deep appreciation of the region’s copious farmhouses.
Early in his career, Okie was known to travel around the Pennsylvania countryside hunting for early Dutch buildings with his son in tow and a ruler in hand. When he found a particularly distinctive structure, Okie would pore over every detail of it, measuring everything he could and collecting castoff hardware. This is how he became fluent in the language of these iconic homes.
Okie’s fluency in Pennsylvania farmhouses eventually paid off spectacularly. Some of his more notable clients included the Pew family, the DuPont family, the former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Owen J. Roberts, and the former United States Attorney General, Philander C. Knox. He was also commissioned to restore Betsy Ross’ house and William Penn’s country home, Pennsbury Manor.
HOW TO SPOT AN OKIE HOUSE
Due to his thoughtful designs, there are signature details in Okie’s colonial revival homes that make his buildings easy to identify. “Okie is unique in that he created his own architectural vocabulary that, from the naked eye, looks very simple,” says Period Architecture’s associate principal architect, Patrick McDonough. “But, when you study his drawings and details, you get a better appreciation of just how much time and ingenuity he put into his houses.”
Stepping inside an Okie home is where you will be able to spot the most unique elements of his designs. Pay attention to the millwork, mantelpieces, and staircases. Okie infused these three elements, in particular, with his own signature style.
Okie had fun with the millwork in his homes and used these details everywhere. Look closely and you’ll notice: intricate beading on window shutters, door frames, walls, cabinets, and even stair banisters; distinctive semicircular doorstops behind every door; and creative zig-zagging woodwork holding up bookcase shelves known as saw-tooth shelving. The beading, in particular, is something that makes Patrick chuckle. “If you speak to any millworker today who’s working on an Okie house, they will complain about the beads. Okie put beads on everything. He is notorious for putting single beads, double beads, and sometimes even triple beads in his homes,” he says.
Many of the mantelpieces in Okie’s homes were inspired by the historic mansions in Germantown, PA. You’ll notice that he uses bolection molding and a decorative design technique called punch and gauge to intricately decorate his mantelpieces.
The staircases are the heart of every Okie home. “He used staircases almost like hallways,” Patrick explains. Most modern houses use a staircase to simply get someone from one floor to the next but, in an Okie home, the staircase strategically and seamlessly connects every section of the house. This means the main staircase will likely bring you to a half floor, servant’s wing, balcony, and second-floor landing all in a short distance.
Of course, Okie’s attention to detail doesn’t stop with the interior of the house. The exteriors of his homes also have classic signatures from unique shutters and fieldstone walls to precisely scaled porches and dormers. In addition, Okie was also consistent in the orientation, nestling, scale, and form of his homes. While these elements are not unique to him, paired with the interior and exterior elements outlined above they can become an excellent indication of whether you are in the presence of an Okie home.
A mark of a good architect is a conscious understanding of the best orientation of a building. Designing a house to get the best southern exposure not only gives it the best views and ventilation but also allows warm sunlight to enter the house for most of the year. Okie had an innate understanding of orientation. Most of his homes have large, southern-facing double-hung windows and Dutch doors to maximize the amount of sunlight and air entering the house. He would also align all the doors inside the home so that, when windows were open in the summertime, fresh air could filter through and cool the entire home.
Positioning a house at a high elevation point to get good views is a modern concept. Well before Okie’s time, home builders would build at lower elevations and try to embed their homes into the land to get the most protection from harsh weather conditions. Okie embraced this practice and did so with amazing ingenuity. He would nestle a home into the side of a hill in a way that managed to protect the home while still delivering beautiful views. It was this nestling technique, and the variety of elevational changes it caused, that forced Okie to engineer his unique staircases.
SCALE AND FORM
Okie had no interest in creating hulking mansions. Instead, he would create spacious, overlapping wings that unfolded into the landscape. Each wing was designed in a slightly different way so that the entire home looked like it had evolved over time.
HOW OKIE INFLUENCES OUR WORK TODAY
Okie never just recreated an old farmhouse. He studied the past and then infused it with his own creativity to make a unique design.
It’s in this way that Okie influences our firm’s work the most. Today’s residential styles have evolved drastically since Okie’s time, so when a homeowner asks us for an Okie-style house we need to find novel ways to blend historic farmhouse charm with the more modern living styles of our era. This means we, too, never just recreate a historic house. What we do is transform serpentine back hallways into more open living areas, rework staff quarters into cozy guest bedroom suites, and creatively hide modern elements behind old-world design. In other words, we are using history as inspiration and adding our own twist to create something new, unique, and tailored for each client.
In a word, Okie’s biggest focus was always on simplicity. He wanted each of his homes to have a vernacular feel. And this is yet another of the many ways he has influenced our work. We’ll let you in on an architectural secret: things that look simple are usually inordinately complex to design and build. Yet we understand and share Okie’s dedication to aesthetic simplicity, and commit ourselves to it for every project we touch.
Long before we started our firm in 2010, we each had a deep appreciation for Okie’s work. His dedication to detail and cohesion has been — and continues to be — a major source of inspiration to each of us in how we approach our designs. Now that you, too, have a better understanding of Okie’s work, we hope you’ll feel empowered to embrace your new home project with confidence.
OKIE HOMES ADAPTED FOR TODAY
If you’d like to see our Okie work in action, take a look at the homes listed here. This list includes a mix of original Okie homes that we delicately modernized for the needs of today’s families and homes that we designed from scratch in the Okie style.