Wissahickon Trails Headquarters

Wissahickon Trails Headquarters, Ambler, PA. Courtesy of Wissahickon Trails.

As part of a collaboration between Daedalus Design Build and Kate Cowing Architect, LLC, Kate was the lead designer for the adaptive reuse of this late 19th century barn as the headquarters of Wissahickon Trails, an environmental group.

Designed by Horace Trumbauer in 1891, the Four Mills barn served as one of two barns on the estate of Charles W. Bergner (later the estate of Senator Edwin Vare). It appears to be one of Trumbauer’s earliest commissions and was clearly a “gentleman’s” barn as it includes elegant detailing such as a terra cotta date plaque at the upper gable end.

Founded in 1955, Wissahickon Trails (previously known as the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association) is a non-profit dedicated to land and water conservation around the Wissahickon Creek. With their mission to “inspire and engage diverse communities of people to protect, steward, and enjoy the land and waterways of the Wissahickon Valley,” the Four Mills Barn, adjacent to the Wissahickon Creek, is a perfect location for this organization’s headquarters. Wissahickon Trails first renovated the barn for their use in the 1980’s.

The first design for Wissahickon Trails was minimal. There were offices and restrooms on the first floor and a classroom constructed in the loft, leaving most of the second floor unused and unfinished. Since that time, the organization has grown, and their needs have expanded. However, it was changes in the creek that were the ultimate impetus for this project. With climate change, the creek now regularly breaches its bank, and the barn has recently been deemed to be within a flood plain. During Hurricane Isaias, the flood waters reached the first floor. The headquarters suffered significant flooding in the offices. Due to this new environmental issue, the 1980s construction had to be abandoned and demolished.

The jumping off point for the redesign of the Four Mills Barn was to move the public space to the first floor and the offices to the second. The entirety of both floors was incorporated into the design; expanding the headquarters from approx. 4300 sq ft to 6400 sq ft. The design celebrates the building’s original use as a barn.

The reception area and public restrooms remained on the first floor along with a new education space. This level has been designed to be resilient to flooding by the use of FEMA-compliant wet-floodproofing techniques. Only materials that can withstand flooding and can be easily cleaned and dried afterward were allowed. Despite the concentration on floodproofing, the original barn remains seemingly unchanged. The original barn windows and doors remain and in the public areas, the barn ceiling beams and posts are exposed.

The demolition of the 1980s classroom left one large loft with exposed framing close to two-stories high. In the new design, the loft framing remains visible. Features of the barn such as the ladders and the heavy timber framing remain exposed. Original exterior door openings became tall windows. In the conference room, which is an L to the east, the east wall has been replaced with a full window wall and an exterior balcony overlooking the creek.

This innovative design for the Wissahickon Trails headquarters has achieved two goals. It has allowed this historic barn to remain in use despite environmental changes that may have otherwise rendered it obsolete. It has also brought the staff up from the dark depths of the first floor into the treetops overlooking the creek that they work to protect.

Related Projects

Byberry Friends Meeting House Complex

Byberry, a very early Quaker Meeting, was established in 1683, and received the first acre of the current site as a gift in 1694. The…

Byberry Friends’ Meeting House Addition

Founded in 1683, the Byberry Friends’ Monthly Meeting (Quakers) have been worshipping at their current site since 1694. The current meeting house, constructed in 1808,…

The pegasi on opening day of the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair.

Pegasus at Memorial Hall

While with Materials Conservation Co., Kate Cowing was the project manager for the conservation of the Pegasus Sculptures at Memorial Hall. The two colossal bronze…

Scroll to Top