When architect John Milner took a call from China two years ago, he was puzzled. Why would a Chinese developer be contacting a Pennsylvania firm best known for its work in new traditional design and historic restoration?
Less than a week later a 10-man delegation from Dalian, China, arrived at the offices of John Milner Architects in Chadds Ford. Through an interpreter, the developer told of his intention to build American-style houses in Dalian, a city in Northeastern China. He wanted to see examples of traditional American architecture.
Milner took the group on a whirlwind tour of Philadelphia’s historic buildings as well as new homes he had designed. “They were completely taken by the architecture, the moldings and the woodwork,” he says of their visit to Mount Pleasant, a Georgian mansion in Fairmount Park that he helped restore.
At the end of the tour, Milner was taken aback when they asked him to come to China “to be part of our architectural history.” Developer Hao Chen Chung wanted him to design period American houses for a historic residential area in urban Dalian. The emphasis was to be on quality construction, something that holds great appeal in the Chinese market.
“I was concerned that we might not be able to convey to them the style or the details that are so familiar to us,” says Milner, who has taught architecture at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. A former student at Penn who has done landscape architecture in Dalian had recommended him.
The commission was unusual: Milner’s firm was not only to design two sample houses but also furnish one of them—in a style consistent with a high-end traditional American home. The houses would be built as part of a seven-block lakeside site being developed by Hao in his native Dalian. Milner would also create prototype designs for additional houses.
Since then Milner, who had never been to China, has traveled to Dalian several times each year. He has watched his designs, which were inspired by Georgian and Federal architectural styles, take shape through the workmanship of Chinese builders and craftsmen. Just as he does on a daily basis for clients here, he scrutinized every detail for conformity to the drawings.
“They told me in the beginning: We will build exactly what you draw. And if you don’t think we’re doing it right, we’ll tear it out and start again,” says Milner, who has nothing but praise for their workmanship. “They followed our details completely.”
The houses are designed with all the features of the finest American homes: comfortable family room, large eat-in kitchen, palatial master bath with sunken tub, paneled library, wine cellar, and finished basement with home theater. Each room is finished with the distinctive architectural detail that defines a period home. The only concession to local custom is a Chinese-style kitchen adjacent to the eat-in kitchen.
The exterior designs are all brick or cut stone. “They did not like our Chester County stonework,” Milner says. “They prefer a more formal style.” Wrought-iron fencing surrounds the houses. “Our client is very partial to Georgetown and the Embassy district in Washington. He likes that style and that density.”
To decorate the sample, Milner consulted with Haverford interior designer Barbara Gisel. He raided local vendors such as Baldwin’s Book Barn for books for the library and Somerville-Manning Gallery for prints and artwork. Most of the furniture was custom made in China. Few Chinese artifacts were included in the décor. “They wanted an American house,” Milner says.
Like most Chinese cities, Dalian is developing at a rapid rate. Unknown to most Americans, this northern port city of six million was occupied in turn by Russia and Japan for decades during the 1900s. The Milner houses will be part of a community of single-family homes called Southern Hill 1910. The Japanese laid out the site in the early 1900s, and some of the original houses still remain. The seven-block property overlooks a lake and a botanical garden.
“Our client was interested in stemming the tide of demolishing single-family houses and moving everybody out and putting them in high rises,” says Milner, who has been instrumental in restoring some of our own area’s most historic structures.
The first sample was opened late last year and has received high praise from the Chinese design community for its classic lines and solid construction. Both samples have sold, as have a number of the other houses. In a country where developers are known to sacrifice design and quality for speed of construction, Milner seems to have found a kindred spirit.
Of his dealings with the Hao development team, he says: “We don’t speak the same language but we all know what we’re talking about somehow. We get along great.”