An American Style: Three State College Houses by A. Lawrence Kocher

by Jacqueline Melander

The Kocher House

All faculty members hope to leave an impression on their students.  A. Lawrence Kocher left an architectural impression that is still visible in the Highlands.  Kocher came to Penn State in 1912 as a graduate student in Architectural History and Design.  He received his Master’s degree in 1916, became a full professor in 1918, and served as head of the Department of Architecture until he left the University in 1926 to serve as Director of the McIntire School of Art and Architecture at the University of Virginia.  

During his tenure at Penn State, Kocher promoted a spirit of experimentation in the architecture of American country homes.  He wrote that American architects “are making the past their servant instead of their master. . . Having started by imitating the European we have reached the place where we are venturing to be original, local and native… America is proving a melting-pot for styles rather than a fertile field for transplantation…”  

Kocher demonstrated that spirit of experimentation in the design of three revival-style residential properties in the Highlands neighborhood of State College:  the J.W. Henszey house at 320 East Hamilton; the E.C. Woodruff house at 234 West Fairmount; and his own home at 357 E. Prospect.  Built in 1921-1922—at a time when much of the Highlands was still considered “country”—each of these houses reflects historic antecedents; each is original, local and in some respects native; and each could be said to show a spirit of buoyant experimentation, or as Kocher described modern design, as fluid, as capable of endless variation, as the colors on the artist’s palette.” (60: 394) 

357 E. Prospect Ave.  Perhaps because of his interest in the work of English architect Edward Guy Dawber (1861-1938), Kocher chose a picturesque English Cottage for his own home at 357 East Prospect. In keeping with the traditions of English Cottage architecture, the front facade of Kocher’s simply styled and well-proportioned house has a two-story gable, a rounded front door, and above it, small casement windows in a shed-roof dormer. The house is faced with richly colored, locally quarried stone. 

Kocher had written that modern houses are for modern families, describing them as “a kind of garment which must adapt itself to the personality and habits of the wearer.” (60:392) He modified and personalized his house to reflect his interest in the skills and traditions of early craftsmen by incorporating architectural elements that he had collected from three demolished Pennsylvania homes: a doorway (used for the rear entrance of his house and now gone) from the Dr. Constans Curtin home, Bellefonte (c. 1806); a second-floor bedroom mantel from the Hetherington house, Milton (1803-04); and a living room mantel from the William Diller House on South Queen Street, Lancaster (1804). 

The J.W. Henszey property at 320 East Hamilton and the E.C. Woodruff property at 234 West Fairmount–are representative of larger American country or suburban houses described by Kocher. One built in brick and the other in stone, they represent examples of modem Colonial country houses that, according to Kocher, “are more free than elsewhere from the restraint of tradition…(and) take on a grace and adaptability not attained” in the original versions. (60: 393) Each house was located on an oversized lot at what was then the undeveloped edge of State College with “rooms laid out in such a way as to extract the up most in outlook and relation to the landscape, existing plantings, or proposed arrangement of grounds.” (58: 4(9) 

320 E. Hamilton Ave.  The Henszey residence was built “out-of-town” on of what had been early Centre Furnace ironmaking industry landholdings.  Mrs. Henszey, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Hamilton, was a grand-daughter of ironmaster Moses and Mary Irvin Thompson of Centre Furnace. 

Kocher provided the Henszeys with a 2-story, six-bay brick Colonial Revival home with decorative keystones over six-over-six windows, a slate roof with three pedimented dormers, and an entry way with a copper-hooded semi-circular portico and classical columns. But contrary to the symmetry of earlier houses, his design also included a large two-story wing with matching architectural details at a right angle to the front facade. In 1926 Kocher wrote, “For three decades we have endeavored to fit an evolving plan to a stereotyped and inflexible shell…only recently have we at last accepted the principle of picturesque irregularity for the Colonial façade.” (58: 403) 

Noting that “the country house cannot be designed with success without a recognition of the enhancing value of its surroundings,” (58: 409-410) Kocher located the Henszey home at the end of a farm road lined with locust trees–now called Locust Lane.  The landscape plan for the Henszey house was the work of a prominent Penn State faculty member and department head, John R. Bracken.  The back of this large property is still heavily wooded “with native trees and key tree masses.” It is a good example of Bracken’s naturalistic style.

234 W. Fairmount Ave  When Kocher designed a large two-story stone Colonial Revival home for electrical engineering professor Eugene Woodruff and his family, he located it at the crest of a hill on Fairmount Avenue. With its many windows, the house, at the Borough’s highest elevation, has an excellent view of the Tussey Mountain to the south. 

The front facade of this rough-cut limestone house has a pair of triple double-hung windows embellished with cut stone trim at either side of a Georgian-style doorway. ”The doorway,” Kocher wrote, “is in nearly every case the center of interest, and the place upon which is bestowed what enrichment there may be.” (60: 395) The Woodruff house has a well-balanced doorway with Doric columns located at either side of a triangular pediment projecting slightly from the facade. A fan-shaped decoration in wood is located above the door in lieu of a fanlight; sidelights flank the door and extend beyond the pediment. Three windows are located across the front façade at the second level. The middle Window has sidelights repeating those in the main entrance. With a hipped slate roof, the third floor has pedimented dormers; stone chimneys with decorated tops are located at each gable end. A one-story side sun porch with balcony to the right of the entrance has a large half-circled window with stone arch trim on the front and back facade, and triple double-sash windows at the side.  It is balanced on the left of the house with a one-story porte cochere, also in stone. 

As he did in his own Prospect Avenue home, Kocher incorporated an early mantel in the Woodruff house. Plaster ornamental festoons of flowers, a basket of flowers and fruit, and classical urns applied to a wooden mantel closely resemble the decoration on the Diller and Be1tz hoover house mantels and appear to have been made from the same molds. It could be speculated that this mantel was probably also the work of Robert Wellford.

Both the Henszey and Woodruff houses are in keeping with Kocher’s description of a country house in America. These country houses are ”built around the main conception of function which with the infinite number of architectural details, elements and mannerisms…have been used as the notes of the scale in music, or the letters of the alphabet.” (58:405) Kocher noted in another article that American architects “. . . have both the inclination and the means for experiment. We consciously prefer modernity-that is to say, forms which we find congenial and pleasing in our own environment, and not those which have satisfied other men in other environments.” (60: 395)

Kocher ended his 1926 article, ”The Country House: Are We Developing an American Style,” in this way:

Are we any nearer a realization of the old yearning for an “American style?” Perhaps no nearer than our novelists to the “great American novel.” But if such a style is to be achieved it will be, not by the general adoption of any group of historic shapes and details, but by the free selection and development of styles to meet the newer and more diverse needs of modem life. Regional differences, the variety of local materials, and above all the fundamental American characteristic of looking toward the future rather than toward the past make the outlook decidedly a hopeful one. When our ruins are unearthed, some hundreds of thousands of years hence, the archaeologist may find twentieth century American architecture, even of the less pretentious domestic variety, as deeply and beautifully stamped with the spirit of an age as we now find the medieval churches of France. (60: 395)

While it is hundreds of thousands of years too soon to know how an archaeologist will view twentieth century, American architecture, these residential properties, designed by A. Lawrence Kocher more than seventy years ago, continue to richly and gracefully contribute to the architectural landscape of State College-and significantly enrich the Highlands/Holmes-Foster Historic District inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, America’s most prestigious list.

This article on A. Lawrence Kocher by Jacqueline Melander is an abridged and edited version of two articles on Kocher that appeared in Centre County Heritage, Issue 30 – 994, published by the Centre County Historical Society. It is being used with the permission of the author.  Jacqueline Melander is the former President of the Centre County Historical Society. A long-time resident of State College, she has written on the architectural history of the area and was instrumental in advocating for the recognition of the Holmes-Foster /Highlands and College Heights districts on the National Register of Historic Places.



Dawber, E. Guy. (1905). Old Cottages, Farm Houses and Other Stone Buildings in the Cotswold District.

B. T. Batsford, London. Kocher, A. Lawrence. (1925) “The American Country House.” Architectural Record, 58. 

Kocher, A. Lawrence. (1926). “The Country House: Are We Developing an American Style?” Architectural Record, 60. 

Kocher, A. Lawrence. (1921). “The Early Architecture of Pennsylvania: Part X- Mantelpieces” (continued). Architectural Record, 50.