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Charm, Character and Warmth

A New York City firm specializes in contemporary homes in the Classical tradition.
By Will Holloway

A dozen blocks east of the SoHo office of G. P. Schafer Architect, Bernard Tschumi's BLUE Residential Tower rises 181 ft. on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The canted blue spectacle could hardly stand in starker contrast to the Classically inspired residences that Gil Schafer III, AIA, designs. That the two have completely different approaches to architecture is not surprising – until one learns that Tschumi was a design critic of Schafer's at the Yale School of Architecture and that Schafer worked in Tschumi's office after graduation.

Background
Gil Schafer was born in Cleveland, OH, and grew up in rural New Jersey. His grandfather and great-great-grandfather were both architects; the latter immigrated from Scotland in the 19th century, and, by way of Canada, settled in Cleveland, where he carved the entry portal of the city's Old Stone Church. After growing up in traditional houses – and having decided to be an architect from a young age – Schafer went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, completing a major called "Growth and Structure of Cities" at nearby Bryn Mawr (the two schools, along with Swarthmore, maintain a consortium that allows students to take classes at any of the institutions). In 1985, Schafer headed to Yale, where, at the time, it was thought that if you were serious about architecture, your interest should lie in Modern design.

"Before I went to Yale I didn't really understand that there were camps of architecture, or that there were certain ideologies that would lead you one way or the other," says Schafer, whose instructors included Robert Venturi, Josef Kleihues, Frank Gehry, Thomas Beeby and Tschumi (Schafer received the H.I. Feldman Prize, the school's highest honor for studio work, for his work in Tschumi's studio). "I think it's great to be exposed to different kinds of architecture. [Current Yale dean] Robert Stern talks a lot about how important it is to have a pluralistic point of view, and I would agree with that. The great thing about the Yale education is that it teaches you a fundamental way of thinking about architecture regardless of style or character – to think clearly about what you are doing and to have a clear sense of your approach."

After receiving a Masters of Architecture in 1988, Schafer accepted an invitation to work in Tschumi's New York office. "I was on the path to doing that kind of work coming out of school, but it just didn't really resonate with me," he says. "It was a great experience, but it seemed very theoretical. One of the great things about Yale is that it makes you want to build buildings, and not just be theoretical. I quickly realized that I wanted to work at a firm that was actually building things."

Classical Revival
In 1991, after working for a few other New York City firms, Schafer began at the firm now known as Ferguson & Shamamian, where he would remain for almost a decade. "That was my second master's degree, in a sense," he says. "I was lucky to work with great people in the office like Richard Cameron, Donald Rattner, David Mayernik and a number of other talented Classical architects who had already taught themselves." Through Cameron and Rattner, Schafer soon became involved with the recently founded Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture, which would later become the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.

"The ICA was a unique kind of thing to have as a resource, and it certainly created an immediate sense of community," says Schafer, who would become president of the ICA in 1999 and later serve as chairman. "I don't know if that exists in quite the same way if you are a Modernist – it certainly made it a lot easier to be a Classical architect in New York. You didn't have to rationalize why you were doing Classical architecture, you just did it because you liked it and it was engaging." Schafer did some design work when he was involved with running the institute, but G. P. Schafer Architect officially launched in 2002 when the first employee was hired. Over the past six years, the firm has grown to 15 employees and has completed some 25 projects.

Early Recognition
While at Ferguson & Shamamian, Schafer started drawing plans for his own house, a Greek Revival near Millbrook, NY. He had looked for an old house in the area; unable to find one to his liking, he began imagining an old-feeling house that would fit the character of the region. To accomplish this, Schafer studied both the pattern books that guided the original Greek Revival architects and the survey drawings of vernacular Greek Revival houses. The 3,000-sq.ft. result, which received a Palladio Award in 2002, was successful because of its focus on craftsmanship and details, such as old floors and hardware, while at the same time providing for contemporary usage – a consideration in all of the firm's projects.

"There are different kinds of rooms now that people want to live in more informally, such as the big eat-in kitchen and the family room," says Schafer. "We try to figure out ways to make those rooms fit within the form of the house in a way that doesn't seem odd. We open up the flow between rooms more than it would have been in the original houses. If you are going to have a big part of life in the kitchen, you want to open up the circulation from that part of the house into the main part of the house so that they really tie together. We work hard to create that sense of flow through the house and through the rooms, which right away makes it feel more contemporary."

"There are the rules of Classical architecture," he adds, "but if you look at old houses, the rules are always broken. Sometimes things are imperfect, which actually makes them have a little bit of charm, which is important. If it's too pure, it doesn't have any charm, and it isn't very much fun to be in – it's too serious. We want our houses to have charm, character and warmth, but without being gimmicky about it."

Not long after completing the Greek Revival house, Schafer undertook the renovation of the parlor floor of an 1850s townhouse in New York City's Greenwich Village. The previous occupants had done a Modernist overlay over the original interior, but Schafer wanted to tell a different story – that of a Greek Revival townhouse. The 900-sq.ft. space with 13-ft. ceilings had originally been a double parlor, so Schafer considered having a living parlor and a dining parlor, separated by a columned screen. "It didn't function well because you would have had to put the living parlor in the front and there was no room for furniture, so a decorator friend of mine suggested I make it one big room," says Schafer. "Around that time I went on an ICA tour to Chicago to see David Adler's work. That was really interesting and exciting because Adler clearly understood all of these different languages and was able to be inventive with it and to overlay things and mix things in a very skillful way.

"I was obsessed with the symmetry of the fireplace, but after seeing Adler – although he loved symmetry, he allowed himself to be inventive – I loosened up a bit. We arranged the furniture to be more loft-like, and we used a large bookcase to balance the mass of the fireplace."

The renovated townhouse, with its scagliola fireplace, grained doors, custom-made furniture and high-style moldings, received a Palladio Award in 2004. "It was fun to think about the decoration and integrating it into the architecture," says Schafer. "We try to integrate decoration, landscape and architecture in all of our projects – we are always thinking about these things holistically."

Recent Projects
More recently, the firm has just finished three farmhouses in the Hudson Valley – a stone Federal, a Greek Revival meets Virginia Palladian and a clapboard Colonial Revival. Other recent projects include a new stone barn on a rural summer estate in Connecticut, the renovation of an 1830s Greek Revival barn in Dutchess County, NY, and the renovation of a 1930s Colonial Revival house in New England. Restoration projects include an 1843 Greek Revival Sideyard house in Charleston, SC, and a Charles Platt-designed house in Nashville, TN. "In all of them, we have the same priorities," says Schafer. "We want the houses to be comfortable and feel like they've been there a while, have a sense of light and a flow between the rooms and the indoor and outdoor spaces."

To meet those goals, Schafer relies heavily on the team he has assembled over the years, which includes associates Aimee Buccellato, Kevin Buccellato and Laura Shea. All three are products of the Classically oriented program at University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. "Notre Dame has been great, not only for our office but for traditional offices in general, because the students who come to work from there understand the language from the get-go," says Schafer. "Firms may have their own particular approach to how the language is used, but these students have an immediate understanding. I know it's true for every traditional firm in the U.S. because they all go there in March trying to get those students to come work for them."

Aimee Buccellato graduated from Notre Dame in 2000 and went on to get her masters from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2005. Her work at G. P. Schafer Architect has ranged from a small potting shed to a Landmark façade restoration and a large Colonial Revival farmhouse. She's currently working on the stone barn in New England. "We were asked to design a pool house, but it evolved into something much larger," she says. "It's on a beautiful estate with wonderful existing antique buildings, so the question was how to introduce a new building on the property and have it feel right. That's something that we as a firm really focus on – what's appropriate for the place – not only for those people living there, but also for the larger context. So we thought the most appropriate thing to do was to introduce this large stone outbuilding that essentially could have been there from the very beginning."

Because the existing house on the property is composed of 17th- and 18th-century buildings with small windows and low ceilings, the client wanted an abundance of space and light in the new structure. The center of the new building features one large room with a heavy timber ceiling and 10x14-ft. double-hung windows all along both sides. While 10x14-ft. windows were not made in the 18th century, Buccellato says the barn still seems appropriate to the property. "Gil is very passionate about doing what is appropriate, and he is extraordinarily rigorous about the study of the design of these houses and crafting them properly to the language that we are working in," she says. "With this project, we have this very modern idea – basically wiping out the entire middle of a stone barn and filling it with glass – but it still feels right.

"It's a good example of how all of these languages that we are working with are very much alive and accessible. You can apply traditional languages to the way we live today."

Aimee's husband Kevin is also a 2000 graduate of Notre Dame. His first major project was the renovation of the 1830s Greek Revival barn in Dutchess County. Most recently, he completed the 6,000-sq.ft. farmhouse in the Hudson Valley that has its roots in the Northeast Greek Revival tradition and the Palladian houses of Virginia. "The approach for all of our projects is very similar in that there is always a rigorous precedent study, which helps us to develop the language of that house," he says. "The language speaks to appropriateness on a couple of different levels. The appropriateness of the house comes out in the detailing. Is it respectful of the region? Does it connect with the particular site? How does it relate to the interiors? The synthesis of those three elements is really what makes for a great project."

To ensure harmony between the architecture and the interior design, G. P. Schafer Architect has an interiors department – led by Khara Nemitz – which Kevin Buccellato says helps the firm think more holistically about design.

"It's something that architects don't get any schooling in," adds Schafer. "But it's important, in traditional houses especially – the decoration, the furnishings, the curtains. One of the great things about having someone here who is thinking about interiors all day long is that it helps us to remember those components and integrate them from the beginning."

Aimee Buccellato notes the difference between plans drawn by an architect who doesn't do furniture plans versus an architect who does. "We always put furniture in our plans from the beginning – that's how you locate the doors and the windows," she says. "It really does start from the very beginning – thinking about the siting of the house, getting together with the landscape designers and the decorators."

Laura Shea graduated from Notre Dame in 1998 and has been with G. P. Schafer for almost four years. Her first project was a 9,000-sq.ft. stone main house with an attached clapboard barn and a stable building. "One of the things that this project taught me about this firm is that we really try to think about the mythology of the place and the mythology of the building," she says. "We think about a building in terms of the story that it would have had if it had been built at some point in history, and how it would have evolved. This allows us to have the design be informed by this mythology; perhaps there originally was a farmhouse that had wings added at different times – so the character of the wings might be slightly different. The barn may have been detached at one time, and then been connected to the building. So there is really a reason why everything in a design happens, which makes it feel appropriate to its site and to the landscape."

Shea is currently working on the renovation of the 1930s Colonial Revival house in Connecticut and the renovation of the Greek Revival house in Charleston and recently started a 6,000-sq.ft. stone house with clapboard wings in Dutchess County. She notes that the firm's holistic approach results in houses that immediately feel like home. "Our clients don't have to spend time making it a home," she says. "If we've done our job, we've already made it a home for them."

"One of Gil's strong points is his ability to make a connection with our clients immediately," says Aimee Buccellato. "The schematic-design phase in a project can be long and tortuous, but on most projects, Gil tends to nail it from the beginning. He has a way of listening to people and understanding what they need, to get a sense of their lifestyle, and our projects reflect that in the end. I think a lot of times architects can really project a lot of their own sensibilities on a place, and it becomes a house, not a home."

Schafer seems both appreciative and proud listening to his associates talk about the firm. "It's a great team, and we think about it as a team approach," he says. "Architecture is collaborative – we don't ever like to use the first-person singular in our work, because so many people contribute to what we do."  

 

 

 
 

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