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Builder sticks to architectural details in creating authentic reproductions

Saturday, August 25, 2001

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bill and LaVerne Vorhaben's first chore upon relocating here from New Jersey three months ago was finding a permanent place to live. Other than knowing they wanted to build somewhere close to their daughter's home in Moon, however, they weren't sure where to start.

"My goal is really to re-create the old-style house," says Don Horn, whose most recent home is the Lightfoot House, a reproduction Georgian Colonial in Pine. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette Photos)

So like many people about to build a house, the couple jumped in the car and started driving around recent developments, looking for new construction (and a builder) they liked.

Cruising around the Oak Haven plan in Pine one Sunday, Bill passed a house that "jumped right out at me."

Constructed of red clay brick, the 1 1/2-story Virginia Colonial was a cut above every other house in the neighborhood.

"It was very authentic," recalls Bill, who made careful note of the small sign on the corner of the property touting "housewright" Don Horn.

Don Horn, housewright, can be reached at 724-443-2090 or by e-mail at horndon@nauticom.net.

Exploring the nearby Pine Timbers plan a few days later, the Vorhabens happened upon the Lightfoot House, a 2 1/2-story Georgian Colonial with many of the same characteristics, most notably sophisticated brickwork and a perfect sense of proportion. The couple also was struck by the many 18th-century English architectural details lacking in most modern houses, such as pedimented dormers, belt course masonry and double-sash windows with six-over-six panes.

Surely the same person had constructed both homes, they reasoned. But just to be sure, "We got out of the car and, like fools, knocked on the front door and asked the woman who answered who built her house," Bill says.

"When she said 'Don Horn,' we decided right there and then that's who was going to build our house."

Sure enough, within a few weeks the couple had hired Horn to design a formal Georgian to grace a four-acre wooded lot in Bell Acres. When it is finished next spring, the 2 1/2- story house -- a composite of several Williamsburg plantation-style homes -- will feature a brick exterior with dormers and a painted clapboard "hyphen" connector.

"There was really no contest," says Bill. "Don's attention to quality and detail are without parallel."

A 30-year veteran of the construction business, Horn is a find for lovers of 18th-century English architecture. Lots of people build Colonial-style houses. Horn, however, is the only one who's made a reputation building painstakingly authentic reproductions of Colonials like those built in Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1779 and now home to a community of perfectly restored and reproduced Colonial-era buildings.

Fine detailing is the hallmark of excellent architecture, and Horn's homes brim with detail. For instance, most of his houses feature solid, molded Cushwa exterior brick from Redland Brick in Williamsport, Md., instead of the much more common (and cheaper) extruded bricks. They also boast jack arches above the doors instead of soldier courses; tooth-like modillion block cornices; and paneled front doors with decorative crowns.

On houses with a water table brick course, which makes a house appear as if it were sitting on a pedestal, Horn typically marks the separation between floors with a change in the masonry pattern.

The Lightfoot House, for example, features a Flemish bond (headers and stretchers in a row) above the water table and an English bond (alternating rows of headers and stretchers) below. Brick pyramid steps with rounded nosing and a three-sided rise lead up to the front door.

Horn's love of 18th-century details extends to the inside. Along with antique heart pine or cherry hardwood flooring and 9-foot ceilings, living and dining rooms are embellished with chair rails and raised paneling while elegant, four-piece crown molding dresses up the ceilings. There are also 7-inch-tall baseboards and 6-inch-wide windowsills, all painted in historically accurate Williamsburg colors like Benjamin Powell House Red and Weatherburn's Pale Blue.

His signature detail is the masonry fireplace. Each house has at least three (living room, dining room and kitchen) that are both wood-burning and, for 20th-century convenience, piped for gas. Crafted from hand-made bricks shipped from New London Brickworks in North Carolina and laid by Horn himself, they sport paneled wood overmantels.

Some custom builders will include such details for an additional cost, but for Horn, they're standard fare.

The dining room in the Lightfoot House has Don Horn's signature detail, a masonry fireplace. It is crafted from hand-made bricks shipped from New London Brickworks in North Carolina.

"My goal is really to re-create the old-style house," he explains.

One of 16 children, Horn grew up in the Mount Troy section of Reserve. He began his construction career as a bricklayer in 1971, when he joined with eight of his brothers to form Horn Bros., a general contracting firm currently based in Ben Avon. Though he'd taken the occasional architecture course in college, it wasn't until he visited Colonial Williamsburg in 1976 that he started thinking seriously about 18th-century buildings.

"It was a revelation," he says. "I never forgot it."

It took another 10 years, however, before he made that leap of faith and, working weekends and nights for a little more than a year, built himself and wife Sally a brick Georgian. It turned out to be a fortunate move. The interest it created was incredible -- and totally unexpected.

"I thought, 'This is something.' "

So in 1988, he did the unthinkable and went off on his own.

His first project, a clapboard reproduction of the Dr. Barraud House in Hampton, Va., sold immediately. He's been busy ever since, building an average of 1 1/2 homes a year.

Some of Horn's success can be attributed to simple economics: Because so few custom builders offer them, "new" period homes are in huge demand. But Horn's houses, which range in price from the high $200,000s to $600,000, also inspire affection because they provide what the typical new house cannot: a sense of continuity with the past.

The problem with most mass-produced, modern houses, Horn maintains, is they lack both character and a sense of style. Sure, they're loaded with lots of expensive features, such as Jacuzzi tubs, ceramic floors and Sub-Zero fridges. But the "art of architecture" is largely absent.

"There's no individual character or tell-tale sign who built it," he says.

Horn's homes, by way of contrast, exude a warm aura that makes them instantly recognizable. There's no question they were crafted by human hands. Little wonder, then, that Horn has never had to advertise: Of the 20 homes he's built over the past 12 years, only three were done on spec, including the Lightfoot House.

"He's not just a builder, he's a true artisan," says Helen Croft, who lives in one of Horn's earliest Williamsburg designs, a George Wythe House reproduction in Ben Avon Heights. "There's a pride of workmanship that echoes back to an earlier time."

To keep up with a growing number of clients, Horn last November joined with younger brother Jerry, also a builder. As a result, he expects to build five houses this year and has a few more on the drawing table.

One of his latest designs is a 5,300-square-foot reproduction of the Evelynton Plantation for Kristen and Dan Klingenberg of Pine.

"There isn't anyone who can match his work or what he puts into a home," says Kristen, who first met Horn about 11 years ago, when she was interviewing builders for another house. "He's really into what he does, which is rare for a builder."

Many of Horn's designs are based on architectural plans from the Historic American Buildings Survey. Commissioned by the National Park Service in 1933, HABS put 1,000 architects who had lost their jobs as the result of the Depression to work for 2 1/2 months measuring America's "antique buildings."

Plans for the solid mahogany handrail gracing the closed stringer staircase in the Lightfoot House, for instance, were copied from a HABS house from the '30s. And Horn himself lives in a reproduction of the Dr. Barraud House.

When Horn began building his reproductions a decade ago, he had to travel to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to get copies of the architectural plans; today, many of the more than 37,000 measured drawings dating from the 17th to the 20th century can be downloaded for free on http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/hhhtml/hhhome.html. They also can be ordered through the library's photo duplication service (202-707-5640). Large-format black-and-white photos cost $18; blue and black line drawings cost $5 a sheet with a $15 minimum.

The drawings serve only as a jumping-off point for Horn. To begin with, it would be extremely expensive to completely copy a historic house because they tended to be large. The original Evelynton Plantation, for instance, contained 14,000 square feet. Furthermore, most aren't really suitable for modern-day living. Williamsburg houses, after all, didn't have attached bathrooms or kitchens. Separate outbuildings housed kitchen, laundry, offices and servants' rooms.

To compensate, most builders who construct 18th-century-style homes take a new house and then attempt to "colonialize" it. Horn's approach is the complete opposite: He takes an old house and then adds to and subtracts from it.

Housewright Don Horn copied the mahogany rail of the closed stringer staircase in the Lightfoot House in Pine from a Historic American Buildings Survey house from the 1930s. Many of his designs are based on architectural plans from HABS, a program that put unemployed Depression-era architects to work measuring America's "antique buildings."

While his houses are authentic reproductions of historic structures, they feature the latest in technology. The "wood" windowsills, for instance, are made from a maintenance-free plastic composite called TREX, while the brick mold around the windows is constructed from pressure-treated wood. The wainscoting is made from fiberboard.

Horn's style has evolved over years of careful study. At least once a year, he visits Williamsburg to take pictures, measure buildings, talk with architects and review historical plans. Most clients, however, come to him with a house (or houses) already in mind. The Vorhabens, for instance, had Horn combine the best features of several different Georgians for their new home, which they've decided to christen Brancion after the medieval town in France.

Then the collaboration begins, often via e-mail. Though Horn guides the design process, he doesn't dominate it.

"He truly listens," says LaVerne Vorhaben. "He really sees it as our home."

That's not to say, however, that Horn won't offer his professional opinion when he thinks a client has made a bad choice or even refuse to add features he considers architecturally inappropriate.

For instance, Horn typically won't put track lighting or dome lights in his house or wallpaper on the first floor. Ditto with a super-size master bath with Jacuzzi tub or cement sidewalk (they're all brick). What colonist had those?

Even the tiniest modern feature most people take for granted -- a doorbell -- is verboten. Visitors announce their arrival via a brass doorknocker.

But because Horn refuses these requests with such tact and grace, says Bill Vorhaben, his customers usually don't mind.

"You're paying him to avoid mistakes."

Horn himself makes no apologies for his strict adherence to 18th-century sensibilities.

"Either you do it right," he says, "or you're better off skipping it."

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