Traditional Building Portfolio
Palladio Awards

Project: Waterfront Estate, Palm Beach, FL

Architect: Fairfax & Sammons Architects P.C., New York, NY; Anne Fairfax, partner

Landscape Architect: Charles Stick Inc., Charlottesville, VA

Interior Designer: Mlinaric, Henry & Zervudachi, London, U.K.



Restoration & Renovation

Winner: Fairfax & Sammons Architects P.C.

Twixt Sea and Lake

By Eve M. Kahn

In Palm Beach, FL, a waterfront house's footprint has been likened to an H, a crab, a butterfly and a tortoise sunning itself with legs splayed. A media mogul's retreat, the multi-wing, three-building compound seems to have been built and expanded over the past eight decades or so. But in truth, it dates back to 1970, and started life as a French-inspired, competent, slightly unresolved design by prolific Palm Beach architect John L. Volk. In the 21st century, the site has benefited from the crisp thinking, elegant detailing, deep and broad scholarship and innovative Classicism of Fairfax & Sammons Architects.

"It was crying out to be de-Frenchified on the outside, and the inside was very generic, with high ceilings but no detail," recalls partner Anne Fairfax. "We've turned it into English overlaid on fantasy Regency. It's not too serious, but not frivolous either. It's a tranquil getaway spot."

The 17-year-old firm has never received a Palladio Award before, despite sterling credentials in the Classical Revival world, partly because the partners have been too busy to submit projects for consideration. Fairfax and Richard Sammons, who are married to each other, helped found the Institute of Classical Architecture, and Fairfax currently heads the institute's board. Now with 30 staffers in three offices (New York, Charleston and Palm Beach), the firm is handling commissions scattered from the Hamptons to Panama. They have also just taken on their first major non-residential project – a university campus in Andorra. While this award is icing on the cake of an already extraordinarily satisfying career so far, Fairfax hopes "it is the first of many."

The Palm Beach house is not typical of their work – but then, there is no typical Fairfax & Sammons look. The office has, with equal flair, interpreted precedents as diverse as Jacobethan coffers, Villa Rotonda sightlines, Adamesque garlands, Shingle Style wraparound porches, Georgian quoin stacks and Anglo-Caribbean deep eaves. Even before the media mogul closed on the purchase of the Palm Beach property, the architects were figuring out how to apply their virtuosity to the site.

"We spent a night there early on, to observe the light and the views," says Fairfax. "The house is right between the ocean and a lake with a bird sanctuary along the shores. There's a constant flight of birds back and forth all day." John Volk's plan, however, did not maximize the vistas, breezes or quantity of shade. A mansard-roofed service and garage wing protruded like a claw, plate glass filled the window frames, and a treeless motor court was paved in what Sammons describes as "three-ft.-square concrete slabs with Astroturf 'growing' in the joints in between." Volk did respect traditional architecture during his long career (1924-1984), and gave the house columns, but they were cylinders without entasis. "The '70s were not his best phase," says Fairfax.

The firm set out to better integrate the interior and exterior while adding Classically proportioned details plus some unexpected flights of imagination. "We entasis-ized the columns, got rid of the mansard and extended the eaves, so it feels more like the tropics than like Northern France," says Sammons. Spherical finials and a pineapple are posted along hipped or ziggurat roofs covered with concrete shingles from Hendricks Tile of Ashland, VA. Doric columns, linked by Chippendale-Regency metal railings, support two tiers of loggias with coquina stone flooring around the pool. More Doric columns flank arched, trellised breezeways on the pedimented, hip-roofed pool house. Along the edges of the property, a triton-wielding stone Neptune, commissioned from British sculptor Andrian Melka, gazes across holly parterres and allées of coconut palms. (The architects collaborated on the plantings and terrain with Charles Stick, a landscape architect in Charlottesville, VA.)

Yet more Doric columns support the front portico, which shades a fanlight-topped entry door. The Adamesque fanlight's semicircular shape recurs in black marble inlays on the foyer floor and echoes twin foyer windows that Fairfax describes as "coved, eared, Lutyens-esque oculi." More circles appear in loops of bronze faux rope on the staircase railings and matching cage-form chandelier (fabricated and installed by France's Ateliers Saint-Jacques). Just beyond the stairwell is the crossbar of the house's H footprint (or the crab, butterfly or turtle torso, if you prefer): a formal living room. Fairfax & Sammons striped the walls with Corinthian pilasters inspired by Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia, and modeled the overmantel after Robert Adam's 1760s chimneypieces for Harewood House in Yorkshire. (Dick Reid, the renowned sculptor in York, England, carved the woodwork just before his retirement in 2004.)

Despite the room's scholarly underpinnings, Fairfax says it "never gets too serious," thanks to pale upholstery, window treatments and woodwork paint. The London-based interior design firm Mlinaric, Henry & Zervudachi "gave the décor a 'wow' Classical style knocked down just a bit," she says. Fairfax has worked with the Mlinaric office half-a-dozen times and plans on more collaborations. "They're very schooled, a joy to work with, and a perfect marriage for what we're after," she says.

The light Mlinaric palette unifies the interior, and the grandly proportioned doorways and vaulted or beam-striped ceilings never feel intimidating. Even the owner's master bathroom soars without seeming off-putting. "It has a really complicated geometry, and it's a very pretty place to be in," says Fairfax. "There's a round skylight and some arced panes of milky glass in the handkerchief dome underneath a monitor that turns the whole dome into a lightbox without subjecting anyone to direct Palm Beach sun."

Fairfax has been strategizing to help clients avoid direct tropical sun for decades; she grew up in Hawaii and practiced there for years in the 1980s. She has long admired early-20th-century masters like York & Sawyer, Warren & Wetmore and Bertram Goodhue, who occasionally built in Hawaii while blending Caribbean, Mediterranean and Asian traditions into new architectural hybrids. Operating a branch office now in Palm Beach and realizing half-a-dozen projects in the Caribbean and Latin America has a special resonance for her. "I'd always hoped to be hired for tropical work," she says. "It's amazing that has come true."  



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