Pictured Above: The Bucks County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects presented two awards to the RCFA firm, one for the project above; a preserved farm that has been in the same family for generations, including a tree that was planted by the parents of the current owners.  Photo Credit:  Contributed, RCFA, Doylestown, PA.

Creativity Comes Full Circle – Art in Architecture

By Anthony Stoeckert

Arts News Now Features Writer Anthony Stoeckert talks personal history with Architect Ralph C. Fey, unearthing Fey’s core appreciation for the area’s arts and history, reflected in his architectural designs throughout Bucks County, PA.

When Ralph Fey was deciding where he wanted to establish his own architectural firm, he decided there was no place like home.

Fey grew up in Doylestown, and he’s Bucks County through and through. He graduated from Central Bucks West High School, where he played football under legendary coach Mike Pettine, and he participated in music and theater in New Hope. And after studying architecture in Syracuse, London and Vienna, then plying his trade in Princeton, he established Ralph C. Fey, AIA Architects in Doylestown, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year.”

“When it became time for me to start my own firm 25 years ago, I had to decide where that would be, and when I thought about where I wanted to spend the rest of my years, because firms are regional, I said, ‘I think I want to be back in my hometown of Doylestown,’” Fey says.

Pictured Above: L-R: Greg Fredrick, associate RCFA, Ralph C. Fey, Connor Trask, designer RCFA, and Dexter Chen, RCFA architect.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

Fey has certainly given back to his hometown. About 10 to 15 percent of his firm’s work is for nonprofits, and some recent projects include work for a cancer support center and designing seating for a local baseball team.

“We are often reached out to, and we are known to, provide services for our community and for nonprofits,” Fey says. “And I look at it as my ability to give back to the community that raised me.”

Fey has made a significant impact on the Bucks County arts scene through his work on the New Hope Arts Center’s building. His efforts with the center began when he joined a nonprofit that was established by the late Robin Larsen.

“Robin felt that young artists needed a voice, so Robin started this nonprofit and raised money for art shows,” he says, noting these show would take place in all sorts of spaces, from buildings that were under construction to warehouses.

Pictured Above: The New Hope Arts Center when operating as a garage and gas station at 2 Stockton Street, New Hope, PA.  Photo Credit: Historical archives from Ralph C. Fey Architects.

Then, about 20 years ago, Larsen founded the New Hope Arts board (Fey is one of two remaining founding members) and started looking for a permanent home for the organization. That eventually led to the purchase of a building on 2 Stockton Ave., which had previously been a barn, foundry, stable, gas station, and fencing academy. New Hope Arts originally set up shop in the second floor and leased its space before buying the building.

“We took the other first-floor space and created what we call the A Space, where a different artist is featured every month,” Fey says.

The building had history and aesthetic beauty, but it needed work, as its heating system was outdated and it lacked air conditioning—not exactly an ideal environment for works of art. Over the years, Fey’s has firm improved the heating system, made repairs to the roof, and replaced windows, which he says were falling out into the sidewalk.

Pictured Above: The New Hope Arts Center’s canal side rear view when operating as an auto service business.  Photo Credit: Historical archives from Ralph C. Fey Architects.

“The big vision, of course, was to always provide a building that wasn’t just a renovated barn, but one that would serve the community and the artists, the way most public places are supposed to, which means they have to have accessibility,” Fey says.

Accessibility was essential not only to accommodate visitors, but also, Fey says, because grants for nonprofits are often tailored toward buildings that offer accessibility. So New Hope Arts applied for a state grant, totaling $113,000, that added an elevator and ramp.


“We saw this as an opportunity to not only put the elevator in, but to actually replace the stairs and to actually spruce up the lobby,” he says. “When you have a handicap-accessible building, your doors have to be a certain width and railings have to be a certain size and ramps have to be a certain pitch—and none of those things existed.”


Fey and his team have also brought out the building’s beauty by peeling off layers of sheet rock and plaster to expose the stone on the inside and working with local craftsmen and builders to ensure that features, such as new stairs, are aesthetically pleasing.

Pictured Above: Renderings for the future of the New Hope Arts Building, reopening to the public on June 15th, 2023 after six months of renovations and restorations.  Photo Credit: Ralph C. Fey Architects.

As he began his work on the Arts Center, Fey committed to making his contributions pro bono, because of the pride he takes he takes in Bucks County.


“I was raised Doylestown; New Hope was my backyard,” he says. “My music teacher, my theater group, all the things that I was part of in the arts was more focused on New Hope. So New Hope was always, and continues to be, a very important part of my life and my firm’s work.”

New Hope has changed since the days when Fey was taking music lessons there. It still has a thriving arts scene, but, as Fey says, it has become less Bohemian and more sophisticated, with pricier restaurants and stores.  “That can push out artists, it can create an environment that is not friendly to the arts,” he says. “So, it does take a commitment by groups like New Hope Arts to shape a center that continually supports artists, even as the community continues to grow and expand.”

“I was raised Doylestown; New Hope was my backyard,” he says. “My music teacher, my theater group, all the things that I was part of in the arts was more focused on New Hope. So New Hope was always, and continues to be, a very important part of my life and my firm’s work.”

Pictured Above: An album page from a book Fey’s mother, “Dotty” continued to maintain.  Dorothy Fey would document her son’s creative path. Her handwriting asks the question, “Drama or Architecture”. Ralph C. Fey is pictured right from his time in the Central Bucks West High School’s Harlequin Club.  Photo Credit: Contributed. Originally from the Intelligencer 1974.

Pictured Above: Another page from the Architect’s mother’s album, “Dotty” diligently documented her son’s love for the arts.  Ralph C. Fey pictured on stage at the Seoul Foreign School, South Korea.  Photo Credit: Dorothy Fey. 

Fey is also dedicated to historical preservation. Last year, his firm won two design awards from The Bucks County Chapter of the American Institute of Architects; one for a preserved farm that has been in the same family for generations and includes a tree that was planted by the parents of the current owners.

“We were asked by the second generation of the farm to redesign the family home, and we were also asked to pay homage to their parents by designing the home around the tree that their parents planted,” Fey says.


And that had to be done in a way where the house did not negatively impact the tree.


“It was a very tight site,” Fey says. “Although they own many acres, it’s preserved land and there was a small area to put the house. So, we wrapped the house around the tree—the tree became the center of the courtyard—and we used the existing location of their home to reconstruct the farmhouse. Then we used another area closer to the pond to build a tiny stone guest house.”

Pictured Above:  Photo Credit:  An award-winning design by Ralph C. Fey Architects, Doylestown, PA. Photo Credit: Contributed.

The other award-winning project was a farmhouse conversion that involved linking an existing garage on a farmhouse and adding sustainable aspects. A press release from Fey’s home notes, “the building has evolved but has maintained its roots. The rear was transformed into a wall of glass looking out into the natural tree line, and the decisive blue exterior connects the building with the sky and river beyond.”

Fey explains that communities like New Hope and Doylestown have historical architectural review boards. He is, in fact, a member of the Doylestown board.


“All the work that we do that is visible to the public has to go through a gauntlet of reviews, as it should, to be sure that it’s sympathetic to the historic community that it’s a part of,” he says. “My firm is uniquely positioned in that this is our area of expertise—to work on renovating buildings and historic communities. And also buildings in floodplain communities and to be able to suggest improvements that are appropriate and sympathetic to that historic neighborhood. So, we are very well-versed at blending and working with a building that has such a rich history as the New Hope Arts Building, and add in non-historic elements, like ramps and stairs, so that they blend in and are cohesive with the history of the building and history of community.”

His firm’s work has made its mark on New Hope through renovations to the Ghost Light (formerly, the Playhouse Inn), Logan Inn, Ferry Market, Nektar, and the Mansion Inn. Fey says his passion for combining architecture and historical preservation stems from the environment he grew up in.

“I was raised in Doylestown, which is a historic town,” he says. “I always appreciated the history of Doylestown, the history of our buildings.”

He was the kid who built huge constructions in his family basement with Erector Sets and who would build a model of the Santa Maria for a project about Christopher Columbus. (As it turned out, the model was too big to fit in his parents’ car.) And when someone would as Fey what he wanted to be when he grew, he knew the answer.

“I said I wanted be an architect, not fully knowing what it meant, but knowing it had to do with building things and designing things and making things because that’s what I enjoyed,” he says. “And I think the historic part comes because I was raised in a community where we value our buildings, we value history and value what came before us.”


He was also influenced by his travels to Europe, where buildings can stand for thousands of years.

You could say Fey’s life has come full circle, as the kid who grew up in Bucks County and loved to build things is now applying his talents to the area he loves.


“My projects are similar to my life and returning to Doylestown,” Fey says. “We give new life to our projects, we respect their history, we keep the good parts, and we add to them and keep them vital so that they aren’t torn down. It’s important that we find a use for these buildings, ones that maybe haven’t been loved in a long time. And when we find that use, we reinvest in the building, which then reinvests in our community, and that cycle is kind of like me coming back to Doylestown.”

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