In the spirit of Renewal
By J. Chambless
John Rosecrans of Renewal Dynamics, Inc.
By Richard L. Gaw
Most people, when they
see that something is broken, consider it obsolete or tired or well
beyond its worth.
Then they throw it out.
If it's small, they toss it in the trash, but if it's large, say, the size of a dilapidated barn or a neglected carriage house, they make a call and suddenly, that which stood standing for decades and even centuries has been bulldozed into extinction, in order to make way for something else.
Right in the middle of this Age of Expendability, however, architect John Rosecrans has made a career out of not being one of those people. Instead, as the tag line for his three-year-old company reads, he is saving the past for the future.
He took a dilapidated carriage house in Kennett Square and converted it into a multi-use space.
He saw an unused garage in Pennsbury and expanded – and extended – its life.
He is currently redesigning an historic home in Chester County that is situated on seven-acre former working farm.
Rosecrans, the president of Renewal Dynamics, Inc. in Kennett Square, is devoted to the restoration and adaptive re-use of historic, unique and forgotten structures throughout Chester County and beyond. Some of the many local projects completed by Renewal Dynamics, Inc. have included the adaptive re-use of a barn along Route 1 in Chadds Ford that became the tasting room for Ten Gallon Hat Winery; the conversion of a barn into office and retail space in the Willowdale Town Center; and the re-purposing of several barns into private residences.
“Most of the projects that we work on are structures that people don't know what to do with, and most are simply looked at as something to tear down,” Rosecrans said. “In our region, we have some very talented architects who can restore historic structures back to what they originally were, but my passion can be found in the structures that no one wants anymore.
“I look at these places as becoming anything – retail, restaurants, commercial space, and residences. The space is amazing, and I want to keep that structure in place for future generations to appreciate. I have always asked, 'Why are you tearing this down when you can do something with it?'”
From the time he was old enough to explore, Rosecrans has been in love with structures that no one seems to want anymore. Born and raised in San Diego, he enjoyed visiting closed-down dairy barns, where he would run through the stalls, and with his scout group, walking through abandoned haciendas, whose former glamour had begun to wither and decay.
During a short stint living in Alaska, he would join his family on visits to hunting cabins near a military base that were used by enlisted men.
“For some reason, I never wanted to visit the finished hunting cabins,” he said. “I wanted to see the ones that were falling apart.”
“My love of architecture has always been around those unwanted, forgotten structures. When I was a young boy, I had the Dr. Seuss book that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would fill it in with “architect.”
He took his boyhood interest to Oklahoma State University, where he earned a degree in architecture, and when a lot of his colleagues were beginning their careers in Chicago and New York, Rosecrans came to southeastern Pennsylvania, where he helped create architectural reports on historic structures. One one assignment, he was asked to measure the attic of an old house in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. He had never been in a structure that old before, and it stirred something inside of him that reminded him of his early fascination with neglected and abandoned structures.
In 1988, Rosecrans moved to Chester County.
“I have been blessed to be able to be in Chester County, and come across these structures,” said Rosecrans, who also serves as the Chair of the East Marlborough Township Historic Commission and on the Historic Architectural Review Board in Kennett Square. “Some have been honored by the development that's happened around them, but some have not. I've been called in years ago to look at some properties where developers were coming in and unfortunately they weren't giving the needed space around the barns.”
Often, his work to give a barn new life, or help save a crumbling carriage house or warehouse, is an uphill battle, fought against the grain of modern development that has too often buried the past.
“If you look around Kennett Square, there have been an amazing amount of structures that have been lost in the name of progress, or because it would cost too much to keep them,” he said. “You're losing more than you would have spent, simply by keeping these structures alive. Maybe George Washington didn't go there, and maybe [architect] Frank Furness didn't design it, but these are structures that gave people and towns memories.”
The work Rosecrans does to preserve, renovate and re-purpose historic and forgotten structures dovetails with his role at Dimensional Dynamics, Architects and Planners, where he has been the president and owner since 1998. Dimensional Dynamics works with the faith community to renovate and design churches throughout the United States by leading them through the processes of planning, designing, and construction of quality, functional facilities to meet their ministry needs and financial abilities.
The work he does for both businesses receives its direction from client input, and thus, every additional stage in the process is impacted by the client's budget.
“When you're dealing with an existing building, your limitations are already in place,” he said. “ I've never had a client who has tons of money tell me, 'We want you to design something fabulous. It's always, 'We're trying to make this work within this budget. What do we need to do?'
“I ask my clients to tell me everything they want to have done on this property, because I want to make sure that whatever we do does not interfere with making their dream home or business happen in the future. It is being able to say to the client that this is not overwhelming. It is achievable, and we don't have to do it all at once.”
Most architects create their projects on a tabula rasa basis – a blank page or computer application that's waiting to be filled. In contrast, Rosecrans works from the blueprint of history in the attempt to retrofit his vision into what are often structures badly in need of repair.
“When you deal with an existing structure, you don't know what you're going to encounter,” he said. “We can do documentation, put everything in a computer and begin drawing, but until you start ripping apart and digging, you just don't know what's really there. It's an unknown that sometimes creates additional phases in the restoration process.”
Rosecrans can easily point to his own home – a once neglected barn on a large property, located on the outskirts of Kennett Square – as a primary example. When he first came upon the barn in 1993, he saw that every remnant of its former purpose was still evident: decades' old bails of hay, rusted tools and machinery, and a damp and persistent sense that no matter how large the dreams and vision Rosecrans had for its renovation, it was still a barn.
In his mind, however, the work began: He broke down the space and began to design an 8,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home with an in-law suite. A week later, his wife Lora walked through the cavernous and musty old space, turned to her husband, and said, “John, this space is amazing.”
They purchased the barn later in 1993, and have lived there ever since. Over the years, project by project, the Rosecrans' have expanded their living space, room by room, square foot by square foot, renovation work that also includes radiant floor heating and new foundations.
In his role as an architect, Rosecrans loves getting his hands dirty in discovering the unknown. He revels in the unlevel, in the imperfections that history leaves in its wake. For instance, the living room floor of his home dips slightly, and it's become a design element that gives the home character.
“Lora and I jacked the floor up about three inches, but there was still a dip,” he said. “I put a desk in one area and realized that the desk was sloping, so I thought that if we put the taller knick knacks on the downward side and the shorter knick knacks on the upward side, then visually, the desk will appear to be level. It really does, and that is just so much fun.”
Rosecrans may be sightly sentimental toward the preservation and re-purposing of historic and neglected structures, but with it, comes the practicality of seeking methods to make these buildings viable for today's use.
“The biggest joy I get is to see these structures being used by the client for what they had intended them to be used for,” he said. “I get to enjoy seeing them walk through their re-purposed space and tell me, 'This is more than we anticipated...and it works perfectly.'”
Inc. is located at 237 Kirkbrae Road, Kennett Square, Pa. To learn
more about Renewal Dynamics, Inc., visit “renewaldynamics” on
Facebook, email firstname.lastname@example.org,
or call 610-444-8680.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.