Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Residence, Westport, CT

Architect: Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, LLP, New York, NY; Oscar Shamamian, partner in charge; Stephen Chrisman, project manager; Ben Hatherell, project architect

Contractor: Hobbs, Inc., New Canaan, CT

Landscape Designer: Deborah Nevins & Associates, New York, NY

 

 

Awards
New Design & Construction – more than 5,000 sq.ft.

Winner: Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, LLP

Classical America

By Nancy A. Ruhling

As the gravel and cobble driveway meanders toward Long Island Sound, it engages in a game of peek-a-boo, revealing, through leafy interludes, a dormer here, a red-brick chimney there, until it presents a stately Colonial-style home. The three-story, 18,000-sq.ft. white-clapboard house in Westport, CT, is an architectural ode to classic American style and was designed as a summer/weekend residence for a Manhattan couple whose five children of high school to college age are avid athletes.

"We wanted something that would fit in with the architecture of the area, which has the look and feel of New England," says Oscar Shamamian, partner in charge with New York City-based Ferguson & Shamamian Architects. "We considered stone but thought it would look inappropriate in the seaside setting and that wood would be more empathetic and would give us an opportunity to open it up to the water views with larger windows."

The client wanted the house to be "absolutely" symmetrical, so Shamamian and his team created a center-hall H-plan. The firm used architectural details developed from 18th-century English pattern books that had influenced the original architecture of New England. "It's the wood that defines the house as American," says Shamamian. "It's not the red-brick Georgian of Britain."

The house was placed near the same spot as the one it was replacing, a 1920s Mediterranean-style residence that had been altered in the 1960s and '70s. "The site has three parts, and the house is sited so that two thirds of the property is in the front and one third is in the back," says Shamamian. "This allowed us to have formal gardens and a tennis court in the front, and in the rear, a clean expansive lawn that runs to the water like an infinity-edge pool filled with grass."

The mature trees surrounding the house gave it the proper scale for the placement, adds Stephen Chrisman, senior associate of the firm and manager for the project. "It felt like the right spot, far enough from the water to allow for the great lawn but close enough to appreciate the magnificent view," he says.

During the project, the owners acquired the adjoining property, which added privacy in the suburban setting and gave them the opportunity to add a basketball court and to use the resulting open space. "The owners entertain many friends and relatives, so the house is more like a resort than an idle English country manor," says Shamamian. "It's like a dream house for kids given the variety of activities that can be accommodated by the house. The breakfast table seats up to 12 because there usually are a dozen people there. It is one of the most justifiable large houses we've ever done because it's always lively and full of people."

The large size, in fact, created its own set of challenges. The owners needed seven bedrooms – six for the family, plus a guest room. (There's also a guesthouse on the property.) And they wanted each of the five children's bedrooms to be the same size. "The bedroom size mandated the footprint of the house," says Shamamian, adding that each child's bedroom is approximately 15x20 ft. "So the second floor, where the bedrooms are, mandated the size of the first floor."

Allowing the bedrooms to set the size of the house is a convention of modern traditional house planning, Chrisman adds, and required an adjustment in thinking on this project. Rich architectural details were used to "humanize" the scale of the house. The pairing of one quoin with two clapboards gives the residence a very livable look and sets the stage for the Classical decoration that distinguishes the house. The downsizing starts at the front entrance, where an Ionic columned portico, an oval window and a swan-neck pediment crowned with a pineapple break the length of the rectangular façade into smaller elements.

The waterside façade uses its embellishments to create a horizontal sculptural effect. It is divided into three manageable segments by a pair of columned porches and an elaborate central portico that serves as the entrance from the waterside terrace. "The waterside façade is one of the more complex compositions that we've done to date," says Shamamian. "The play of the segmented architecture makes it feel connected to the landscape. One of the more interesting observations we've heard is that the general massing has the appearance of a sphinx – the head is in the center at the back door, and its paws are the porches."

Even the red-brick, crenellated chimneys, designed by project architect Ben Hatherell, present a slim profile, thanks to embedded arches and short side panels. "I'm especially proud of them," says Shamamian. "They are far more detailed than the typical Colonial variety."

Getting all the elements to work together was one of the more difficult aspects of the project. Shamamian likens it to an artist creating a work out of a ball of clay. "We shaped it down, we sculpted it until we got it finely proportioned enough so that it feels approachable," he says. "It's a long essay in Classical architecture."

The symmetrical design, says Chrisman, presented its own set of limitations. "It can be more difficult to design a symmetrical house because you can't modulate the spaces," he says. "It was difficult to get all the bedrooms exactly the same size, fit them into the H-plan and then create the proper proportioned rooms on the first floor."

The advantages of the symmetrical plan present themselves at the front door, which opens to a center hall that offers an arrow-straight, clear view of Long Island Sound. The dining room and living room, which flank the center hall and open to a terrace, also offer dramatic water views. "The H-shaped plan gave us the most window exposure," says Chrisman.

The private side of the first floor, which houses an oak-paneled library and a guest suite, is perfectly balanced by the public portion, which contains a mudroom, butler's pantry, eat-in kitchen with fireplace, breakfast room and family room. The two sides are further linked by matching screened-in porches. "From the family room to the library, you can see straight across the house," says Shamamian, "so you literally can call across the space when dinner's ready. And it allows for generous circulation when entertaining large groups of people."

The second floor is reserved for the bedrooms, including a master suite with a bathroom and separate dressing rooms for the husband and wife. "Part of being symmetrical is fitting the pieces in as you go along," says Chrisman. "The wife claimed the ocean view for her dressing room and master bath. The husband was fine with having his dressing room on the side away from the water, especially since the master bedroom has three windows on three sides. And they didn't mind having another bedroom on the 'wing' because the wife often uses it as her office." As on the first floor, the two legs of the H are topped off by outdoor spaces, in this case open terraces.

The third floor, a loft-like space entered through the arches of two massive red-brick chimneys, is the entertainment hub of the house. It is divided into three sections. The central portion has a flat-screen television around which a dozen viewers can gather comfortably. One section is filled with arcade games and table tennis; the other is a billiards room. "There are tall ceilings and dormers," says Shamamian. "The zoning didn't limit use to the usual 32 to 35 ft. on roof height, so we went as high as we could to create a steep, sloping roof that is appropriate for the large size of the house. This space doesn't feel like an attic."

Interior and exterior spaces were linked with classic American motifs inspired by 18th-century pattern books. "But we didn't copy them," says Chrisman, "we continued them." The historical designs became a starting point, Shamamian adds, "to create an essay of custom Classicism. There is a set of shapes that repeat in many of the rooms, some bolder than others, depending on the hierarchy of the room." This is best exemplified in the door enframements. Those of the most important public rooms, notably the living room and dining room, are dressed in crossettes and are topped with pediments. The doors of lesser public rooms have the crossettes but no pediment. And the most private rooms, the bedrooms, are dressed down in simpler wooden frames. "These visual references help you navigate through the house," says Shamamian. "The large triangular pediments are like arrows saying, 'This way to the next important room.'"

Another major guidepost is the central stairway, which is painted white to match the rest of the woodwork and topped with a mahogany banister. "It's meant to draw your eye up the stairs," says Shamamian. "There's a gooseneck at the end that points straight toward the serliana window on the landing."

The hardware for the project was supplied by The Nanz Company of New York, NY, and bath fittings and fixtures were supplied by Danbury, CT-based Waterworks and Ridgewood, NY-based Lefroy Brooks, USA. Other key suppliers included the Old Virginia Brick Company of Salem, VA, and Charleston Lighting & Manufacturing of Mobile, AL.

The rooms, which were furnished by New York City interior designer Bunny Williams, express the casual elegance the active family requires. "The owners have a collection of art and great pieces of furniture, but this house was really built for a family in the true sense of the word," says Shamamian. "They use it as a family home to accommodate their children, extended family and their friends, and that's what a well-designed house should endeavor to do."


Nancy A. Ruhling is a New York City-based freelance writer and Huffington Post blogger.

 

 

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