If You Built It…

If You Built It…

Feature by: Maia Cargas // Photography by: Steve Stoltzfus

What is Architecture?


According to Hunter Johnson of Tono Architects, “Architecture is building places that somehow can elevate the soul or impact you in some way.”

A walk around downtown Lancaster with Hunter reveals a deep knowledge of the structures and spaces that make up our historic city. Hunter’s firm, Tono Architects, is located at 114 East Chestnut Street in a renovated building dating back to the 1850s. Much like the concept of architecture in general, Hunter describes their helm or con as a work in progress. Through the application of reclaimed materials and innovative uses of common materials, the space at Tono projects an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere. Warm and bold colors dominate the palette, creating a strong and comfortable environment conducive to clients and the creative genius that occurs between the walls at Tono.


The name Tono was applied to the firm when it originated in 2001. Hunter was seeking an iconic, symbolic name specific to the nature and actions of the firm. The word autonomy came to the table, the idea of architecture being sovereign and specific instead of general and utilitarian. Hunter adds, “Architecture to me is all about the place it is built, the people for which it’s built, and the users or inhabitants; it’s not utility. It’s something more elevated than that.”

Hunter fondly recalled a college professor who spoke about making a mark on the land. Competing with a multitude of restraints, the professionals at Tono try to infuse or instill as much of a responsible tactic as possible. They seek organic and harmonious creations as they help and educate clients. They see the art of architecture as a process, not a product. Architecture is not stagnant; it is always changing and evolving. “In our current economic climate a lot of people are talking about rehabilitation and adaptive-use renovations, as opposed to new construction. Fundamentally civilization has been built over and over.” The same space morphing into a series of numerous lives over a span of time constitutes true sustainability.


Hunter continued to speak of the change in downtown Lancaster in the past ten to fifteen years. The area has almost doubled in size since 1994. This growth has coincided with a new perception of Lancaster. A swift momentum has clearly developed and generated a transformation of the urban environment. Big moves such as the Clipper Magazine Stadium, the new Lancaster County Convention Center, and the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square have certainly played a fair role in the expansion. This detail brings to light an important question, is it the big moves or the grass root moves that have been the driving force for such revolution?

The Barnstormers’ stadium is certainly a valuable and purposeful space that also serves as a useful gathering place. Baseball games are obviously the main attraction, but many events such as concerts and winter entertainment are also held in the arena. The spacious Convention Center boasts two ballrooms and a contemporary hotel composed of 300 guest rooms. It is important to consider the use of modern meets-old in this integrated complex. The fusion of modern method with historic structure proffers the possibility of a stunningly original finished product. The builder managed to accomplish a favorable preservation of the original Beaux-Arts architecture of the 19th Century Watt & Shand department store building, designed by the first professional architect from Lancaster, Emlen Urban. Existent neoclassical architectural style meets urban sophistication.

“Architecture is not stagnant; it is always changing and evolving.”

As for the more grass roots development in Lancaster throughout recent years, Gallery Row (concentrated on Prince Street between Walnut Street and King Street) is an excellent example. Hunter elaborates on the bold statement of the iconic Gallery Row that inhabits the historic district of downtown Lancaster. The conglomeration was created by a series of private developers who formed the phenomenon piece by crucial piece. Suddenly the concept of “First Friday” came to life, attracting a range of people into the city to enjoy a broad compilation of art and culture. The reactivation of historic buildings on Prince Street managed to bring life back into the streetscape.


Contrary to the nearby historic Victorian homes, Pennsylvania College of Art and Design at 204 North Prince Street establishes a street presence and street scale with a gallery on the street level. Lancaster County’s art & cultural district proudly hosts this eye-catching edifice that incorporates stimulating lighting and an inscribed marquee.

After mentioning the architecture involved with the local art school, Hunter explains the force behind the facade of the Mexican burrito eatery Senorita Burrita at 227 North Prince Street. Tono architects managed to meet a specific budget and create an attention-grabbing storefront that would leave no mark on the historic building if removed. Hunter further explains, as the Andy Warhol mentality expresses, “No press is bad press.” Before continuing on our architecture adventure, Tono’s main man notes the attractive and charming restaurant Effie sitting proudly across the street. Also, the idea of a Prince Street entrance to the Chameleon Club is discussed.


Hunter paves the way to our next location of interest: Binns Park at 100 North Queen Street. He elaborates on the scale, texture, and existing complementary elements (such as the brick) that compose this positive plot. The park is infused with cool dynamic elements such as an involved fountain, a working stage, and appealing gardens. “Look what’s happening now; you’ve got that fountain working on a hot summer day…You’ve activated it…children playing, and their parents or grandparents watching them. You have a place to eat and great activities.” Free movies every Thursday from June to August are one summer tradition at Binns Park. The Lancaster Symphony Orchestra accompanied by a mammoth fireworks display, free to the public, will grace “Lancaster’s living room” this summer.

When questioned about the era of architecture in which we are currently living, Hunter asserts that it is difficult to pin down a specific descriptive era. Much like modern music genres, architecture eras and sub-eras cannot really be classified and summed up until we can look back and see the whole picture.


Years down the road Tono Architects may play a significant role in the classification of architecture, post-modern or hyper-modern, who is to say?

Before parting, Hunter relates the spark that fueled his desire to pursue architecture as a career. It was in seventh grade when “shadow day” rolled around. He was unable to shadow his father because he was an FBI agent. An addition was being added to his parents’ home so Hunter asked the builder if he could shadow him throughout a workday. A love for creative building was born. Though not profound, the day was diverse, and Hunter gained a fondness for architecture. He realized “That’s what I want to do; I want to build stuff, put things together, and see the idea come about.” Coincidently, Hunter also bought his first drum set from the builder’s nephew, spawning a lifelong hobby of music.

You just never know what a seemingly small endeavor can foretell. Look for Tono creations in the Garber Scale & Calibration building in Lititz. If you are lucky, perhaps you will even catch a song from Hunter’s former band, “The Traveling Pillsbury’s.”