Traditional Building Portfolio



Distinct Forms

Dennis Wedlick Architect reinvents historicism while pursuing sustainability.
By Dan Cooper

Ordinarily, when we speak of the juxtaposition of old and new in current architecture, we're referring to the appearance of a structure and how its architect drew from the past while personalizing it to the best of their abilities. As the issues of sustainability and energy efficiency have moved to the forefront, those involved with historically inspired architecture have devoted much thought and effort to addressing these topics as well and have incorporated them into their work. Thus, we now are seeing the melding of new and old, not only in aesthetics, but in technology.

Architect Dennis Wedlick, whose firm maintains offices in New York City and Hudson, NY, has a portfolio of residential projects that have incorporated both historicism and sustainability. Wedlick, who spent the first 12 years of his career working for Philip Johnson, is fascinated by the blending of new and old, and paging through his portfolio, one observes his ability to artfully adapt historic references into exciting new forms.

Romancing the Past
Wedlick, who is unabashedly enchanted with the past, frequently references it in his work. "I consider my work Romantic and I'm attracted to early American Romantic architecture, such as the Gothic Revival," he says. "I like to blend architectural styles to tell a story." Mindful that one cannot simply hurl architectural elements willy-nilly at an elevation, he stresses that even though one is reinterpreting the past, they cannot be cavalier. "You have to get the details and proportions exactly right, and then be irreverent. For me, it was hugely influential to be working with Philip Johnson, who was a master historian and who treated Modern architecture from this point of view. When we were working on Postmodern architecture, we used to take magnifying glasses to really understand the proportions of an element; we were very interested in the language of the precedence. I have to make sure an architectural element is true, and by not doing this lightly, it frees me up to be creative."

It is precisely this blending of various time periods that inspires Wedlick. He cites Soane in England and McKim, Mead and White as architects who "pushed it forward or pulled it back," adding that Early American architecture carries memories and place makers. "Just enough to tell a story or recall something," he says. "It had to be sincere enough to call it their heritage, but I think that in the roots of being an American, you're not encumbered by European tradition." That some say his work is too traditional, while others say it is too modern is taken as a compliment.

When working with a new client, Wedlick favors the approach of garnering as much input from the client as feasible. He encourages them to lay out their vision, their story: "I had to learn to start out with a blank slate, hold back and not come to any hasty decisions," he says. "Everything comes from the client, their aspirations, and the house is a tale about them. I try to pursue a concept that accomplishes two different goals – being modern and historic."

Upstate Regency
Otium, a residential project at the edge of the Berkshires, references Regency architecture by way of Palladio. Equally as important as the building's aesthetics was the location of the structure and how it would interact with the environment. Wedlick began by hiring an environmental consultant, whose advice helped determine the position of the windows according to the path of the sun, the height of the trees and the prevailing winds. "Everything was designed to allow air movement throughout the structure, and to maximize the sun exposure during the winter months while minimizing it in the summer," he says.

Along with this passive acclimatizing, Wedlick elected to have the house heated and cooled with a geothermal system. "This means that there's the benefit of the system's low cycling frequency throughout the year, and the house's stone massing helps to promote this," he says. "It uses very little heat."

Otium is perhaps one of Wedlick's more striking designs. Designed for an interior decorator and a theatrical producer, the intention was to translate an Italian country home quality through Anglo-style architecture. Though the owner's affinity for Italian art is reflected in the house, its strict proportions say English Regency.

On the front elevation, two oversized columns with gracefully flared capitals that frame a gently curved central section, which is in turn supported by shorter columns. "It's only about 5,000 sq.ft., but it looks much larger," says Wedlick. "It has a castle-like quality. We call it pragmatic grandeur; we try not to design things that require too much effort, as it takes the soul out of them. Remember, the classic American homes were designed as best the architects of the time could do."

Part of the reason for Otium's austere Regency feel is the delicate yellow stone façade, and finding the appropriate material was a challenge. The local stone is not quarried for Classical construction, leading Wedlick to Indiana, where he found limestone in the same color palette for the walls. Local granite was used for the foundation and architectural accents.

Reinventing Classicism
Another current project of Wedlick's is Spring River, located in the Midwest. Here again, the architect used a geothermal system, but also created passive solar heating with a main façade that's almost entirely glass. "The key is not to be a slave to historicism, including room layout, because when you change window openings you can increase wind velocity of air through house," says Wedlick. "Most of my clients don't like air conditioning, and with careful planning, you can use convection to cool a house; I just finished a house on Jupiter Island, and as of June, they hadn't turned on the air conditioning."

The house itself is a fascinating reinterpretation of Neoclassicism. It is based upon Milford Plantation – according to Wedlick, one of the "premier Classical homes in the country" – whose traditions the owners wanted to convey within a modern house. "We've given them a very modern feeling but with a real sense of Milford Plantation," says Wedlick.

When one thinks of a Classical house, they hardly imagine an entire glass wall, a feature that more than smacks of Modernism. Wedlick cleverly positioned it behind the prominent, two-story columns of the façade, creating the impression of open space behind the row of columns.

While the Milford plan is a center hallway flanked by rooms, Wedlick in this case took two thirds of the façade and put the entry and kitchen on one section, and then the living and dining area on the other. "The order of columns changes between these two sections as well," he adds. "While Milford's wings are petite, we made them the same size as the main house, and then we played with pushing the height up by enhancing the area above the architrave; you get the sense of a smaller wing when it really isn't."

Wedlick also pushed the rotunda, which is at the rear of Milford, off to the side at Spring River, utilizing it as a connector to the wing. By utilizing the landscape and rearranging sections of the house, the design takes advantage of the sunlight and views.

Seeing Stars
Certainly the most distinctively shaped building of Wedlick's is Star House, with its six-pointed footprint. "There is no reason to build a custom house that does not distinguish itself in some way," he says. "Sometimes subtlety is appropriate, but at other times, projects can benefit from bold moves. This is one of those times." The shape of the plan was inspired by the family structure. Each family member – father, mother, daughters, son – had an equal say in household decisions. As a result, each has a bedroom wing; the parents' is a double.

Wedlick used the unusual form to take advantage of passive climate control and open up the wings to the landscape for cross-ventilation. "Sometimes, you can sneak in solutions to environmental concerns," he says. "Clients often think modifying a structure is pro-environment, when in actuality, you're improving it, and making it easier to heat and brighter inside.'

Star House's interior is remarkably straightforward – a six-pointed star formed with parallel lines. The outside walls run straight, much like the outside walls of a rectangular house. Intermediate walls offer corners that can be filled with glass for transparency and cross breezes and provide settings for focal points such as sculpture, light fixtures and plantings, as well as inviting niches in which to sit.

Playing upon the Past
Wedlick has reinvented other time-honored architectural styles indigenous to the Northeast as well. Lazy Bear Farm is a sprawling house, based upon Adirondack Camps, and the architect added a vast overhanging roof that encompasses a screen porch. There's a profusion of glass on the gable ends, which maximizes the views, and the corners of the intersecting axes of the rooflines are composed of shed-roofed rooms that are reminiscent of vernacular railroad architecture.

The Spencertown Cottage is essentially two small, identical houses facing 90 degrees apart. The corner void between them is filled by a single-story glassed in area. Once again, Wedlick plays upon historicism by making each façade three-fifths of a typical Federal exterior, almost as if they were a half-Cape or Saltbox. The front door is located far to one side, with two windows and a second story. While the viewer's eye is reassured by the clapboard finish and six-over-six window sash, the exaggerated proportion of width to height reveals that something is afoot, and that this is no typical reproduction Colonial.

Similarly, the North Redoubt Studio tells a tale of a humble mid-19th-century cottage adorned with board-and-batten siding that then had a sprawling carriage house rendered in the Shingle Style attached to it toward the end of that century. Its exaggerated shed dormer that encompasses four small multi-light windows oversees simulated carriage doors that have metamorphosized into an expanse of French doors.

Sagaponack Arc is an inventive melding of Shaker austerity and Gothic influences. Although we think of Gothicism as being highly ornate, in this example it is reflexive to the simple, clean lines of the structure, and instead of a profusion of spires and crockets, Wedlick has reinterpreted it as an organic form, much the same way as Gaudi employed parabolic arches.

Wedlick is not averse to modifying existing structures. In the Pumpkin Hill renovation, his firm transformed a nondescript ranch house into something rather different. "The owners hired us to create a retreat in the Craftsman style, and money was carefully channeled to create character and spaciousness, not square footage," he says. "We opened up the interior and added cabin-like details throughout. The process involved dismantling two walls, adding a porch and a dormer window, using tapered bungalow columns, changing the windows and installing a wood stove as the focal point of the interior."

In the Aspen Townhouses, the architect drew upon Adirondack influences as they themselves had been reinterpreted for the American West. Notable for their broad roof overhangs, balconies and rough stone exterior walls, they feature the prominent use of materials and detailing consistent with the tradition of American Rustic Architecture, reminiscent of the Great Camp era of the National Parks.

A prolific author, Wedlick has written four books on the subject of architecture. "They're all about presenting the power of good residential design and leading the reader through the concepts that create a house," he says. "I've tried to present architecture in a simple language, and also talk about buying a house, and to see a prospective house from the vantage point of an architect."

Although the economic downturn has affected many architects, Wedlick says his firm has remained busy. "About two years ago, we opened offices in Hudson, NY, to really nail down that we are rural architects," he says. "We've been in the Hudson Valley for 20 years, and we're not just residential architects – we're bringing our concepts and architecture to organizations and institutions that ordinarily might not be able to afford it, and we're assisting them with master planning and teaching facilities, which truly fulfills our mission statement."  

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