Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Maycroft, North Haven, NY

Architect: James Merrell Architects, P.C., Sag Harbor, NY; James Merrell, AIA, principal in charge

Contractor: Wright & Company Construction, Bridgehampton, NY

Landscape Architect: Edmund D. Hollander Landscape Architect Design, P.C., New York, NY

 

 

Awards
Restoration & Renovation

Winner: James Merrell Architects, P.C.

Reimagining Maycroft

By Gordon Bock

What do you do with a huge old house that is so neglected and architecturally unremarkable it's dicey to restore, but that looms so large in the local history it's a shame to raze? That's the choice James Merrell Architects of Sag Harbor, NY, faced when taking on Maycroft, a rambling Victorian summer estate in nearby North Haven on Long Island's eastern tip. Finding a middle path between reconstruction and demolition not only re-energized the building for another 100 years, but it also earned the firm a 2010 Palladio Award.

When principal James Merrell, AIA, first examined the all-but-abandoned Maycroft in 2003, he found a house that sent a stylistic mixed message. Built in 1885 as a retreat for James Herman and his wife Mary Gertrude Aldrich (the source of the name Maycroft) the house was immense – some 15,000 sq.ft. of living and service space – but architecturally didn't make sense. "If you looked at it with a critical eye, it was kind of weird compositionally," says Merrell. "It didn't add up like a coherent architectural expression would."

What Merrell discovered when contractors peeled back claddings and finishes was that Maycroft was actually two houses: an unpretentious but oversized Stick Style-ish house overlaid with swankier features in a later makeover. Shortly after completion, the owners started adding turrets, a slate roof, modest interior paneling and other interior finishes that didn't exist in the earlier cottage interior.

Such costume changes are not uncommon in the history of many vintage houses, but for Maycroft the switch became the source of an architectural conundrum. Though the house had been barely modified since the 1890s renovation, it had also been run on a shoestring. Around 1917, Mary Aldrich promised the property to the Episcopal Church, and after she died in 1924, the Archdiocese of Long Island became the new owners. For many years Maycroft was home to a school run by nuns (during this time it even gained a chapel). Through the 1990s the building also housed a summer camp for kids – until finally it was put up for lease and left in disrepair. "Every architect the current owners consulted recommended demolishing Maycroft," says Merrell. "Even our local historical building consultant – the guy everyone loves to hate because he doesn't want anything to change – basically admitted there really wasn't a great argument, structurally or architecturally, for saving the building." But over most of the 20th century Maycroft had become a beloved landmark; people in Sag Harbor had gone to school, church and camp there for generations. "It still vibrated in the communal memory," says Merrell, "but it was more substantial in people's minds than in reality."

"One of the things we care about here is context and history," Merrell continues, "and I'm interested in ideas about regional setting, so we bring those underlying values to our work." As examples, he points to some of his office's recent projects in Sag Harbor. "They're small commercial buildings, but are influenced by potato barns and farmhouses – the vernacular forms of this area. They're not period pieces but they're ideas about a context. " The firm is also immersed in the subtleties of the built environments of Eastern Long Island, a traditionally rural landscape of potato and onion farms with fishing ports that attracted the summer houses of the wealthy by the late-19th century. Since the 1980s, an influx of suburbanites looking to escape development, but expecting its schools, shopping centers and museums, has been added to the mix.

When built in the 1880s, Maycroft rested on the highest knoll of meadow northwest of Sag Harbor, giving it a 270-degree survey of the inner and outer harbors. It was a very prominent location, but over the last 100 years, the surrounding land was developed. "All of a sudden, the front of the house was now looking not at its 1,200-ft. harbor front and dock, but right at the closest neighbor," says Merrell. "So it became pretty clear that Maycroft should sit where it would make sense for the next 100 years." To make that a reality, Merrell moved the structure about 100 yards on the same lot to a new foundation, reorienting the house about 260 degrees. That process set in motion a cascade of discoveries and the course for much ensuing work.

Lifting the building led the firm to take down the brickwork on all of the many fireplaces, which, being coal-burning, had very small flues and therefore had to be rebuilt to be usable for wood. Then asbestos was discovered in the interior plasterwork, and that had to go as well. However, in the course of pulling off the ceiling plaster and some simple false beams, the original ceiling finish of exposed stained floor joists and upper floor boards popped into view. Stepping back a bit, it also became clear that the floor plan of Maycroft was a collection of small, similarly sized rooms – many of them for servants and now-obsolete services – with no dominant "great space" or memorable major experience. Conversely, the windows were a hodgepodge of shapes and placements, with no consistency or alignment, only adding to the jumble of the façades.

As Merrell and his colleagues started to research periods that gave rise to Maycroft, and to better understand the building itself, they hit on a notion they could apply to dealing with the schizoid design and the shortcomings of so many of its features. "We realized that, prior to Modernism, interpretation – and reinterpretation – were key tools in architecture," says Merrell. "Architects really were interpretive artists." With that inspiration, they proceeded to create conceptually new aspects of the house while steering clear of pure invention. "On the floor plan," says Merrell, "we basically merged five rooms on two stories into this double-high core, so now the house has a balcony great room and a library with bays for the views. That's an idea in the spirit of Victorian architecture that didn't exist in the original house."

Once the firm had the floor plan re-conceptualized, it went back and rethought the windows. Through its research, the firm learned that Maycroft was built at a pivotal time in window technology, when newly affordable large expanses of glass were paired with sash filled with small decorative muntins – what trade literature of the day called "cottage windows." "After we had articulated that big expanses of glass were important for views, and lots of little glass was important for contrast, we did some 50 window studies to refine a kind of a window language that would help us bring order to the house, and also opening it up to views," says Merrell.

Reinventing the interior spaces – as well as the fact that there were little to no original interior finishes – led Merrell and his team into the realm of interior design. "The design of traditional decorative surfaces is a reach for us," says Merrell, "because we typically think in more minimal, modern terms. But when you have a house like this with large wall surfaces, there's a need for richness and complexity – it's what the period was all about."

The Maycroft of today has not only returned to its original use – it's the weekend summer house of the new owners, who spend a lot of time there – it has also in many ways surpassed its earlier limitations. "On the one hand many things are different, but on the other, this isn't pure invention – the silhouette is the same," says Merrell. It's as if the idealized Maycroft of summer memories has turned into reality, and a pastiche of a house has finally come together as the elegant retreat it was always intended to be.


Gordon Bock shares information about historic buildings and his upcoming lectures, classes and workshops at www.gordonbock.com.

 

 

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