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Gilded Age Redux

A Connecticut firm specializes in re-creating the grand residences of the 19th and 20th centuries.
By Dan Cooper

Paging through Wadia Associates' portfolio, one is struck by the grandeur and obvious love of historicism present in all of the firm's work. Renowned for sensitive additions, restorations and new homes built in traditional styles, Wadia Associates designs and builds mainly in the tony coastal areas of Greenwich, New Canaan and Westport, CT, as well as in Long Island and the New York environs. The firm's projects immediately conjure up images of Gatsby-esque mansions in both their scale and opulence.

Surprisingly, architectural historicism was not the passion of Dinyar Wadia, the firm's founder, when he emigrated from India and graduated from Columbia in 1969; he was bound and determined to be a Modernist. He had begun his own practice, setting his sights on New Canaan, the location of several iconic Modernist houses. In 1975, he approached a banker friend, Peter Raymond, for financing. "I told him that I wanted to build a Modernist house like Philip Johnson," Wadia laughs. "Raymond's office was on the second floor, and he opened the window and told me to jump out, telling me that the result would be far less painful! He then informed me that Modernism was not selling in town, and that he had houses designed by Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer and others that were just sitting on the market with no interest in them. He said, 'If you want to sell houses in New Canaan, build Colonials!' so I went down and looked at this house that was for sale. It was the ugliest Colonial I had ever seen, but I decided I could improve upon it, and I worked on the roof pitch and other exterior details. But inside, I made it functionally modern."

Forsaking Modernism
The house sold, and Wadia's career progressed. Although it was pragmatism that caused him to accommodate the market's demands, he developed an abiding respect and passion for historicism. "I had a falling out with Modernism," he says. "I went to see a Mies van der Rohe house and I was disillusioned, for the quality and the finish failed to live up to what I thought I'd seen in its design. I went to Boston and saw the Old City Hall [a massive, ornate Second Empire edifice] and was enchanted with it. This, along with other great 19th-century buildings, reinforced my love of historic structures."

Wadia's stock-in-trade mirrors the fashions of the gilded age of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He is often called upon to enlarge or re-create the grand homes found on the Connecticut and Long Island shores, and specializes in replicating the existing construction when additions are called for to enlarge a pre-existing structure. The firm is equally adept at designing new dwellings, and ensuring that they are indistinguishable from the homes of decades past.

Traditional Transformations
In Greenwich stands a Wadia project that originated with a late-19th-century Queen Anne home on a peninsula graced with spectacular views of Long Island sound. Wadia greatly expanded the entire footprint of the home in a spectacular, yet remarkably sensitive manner. While the façade retains only its living room and porch, all of the elevations are a Turn of the Century fantasy, replete with turrets, porches and towers. To take advantage of the ocean view, the firm chose to use sheets of glass instead of traditional windows on the rear elevation. The master bedroom, inspired by the Doge's Palace in Venice, features a grand sleeping porch with sliding glass pocket doors to protect the main chamber from the elements. The vast entry hall and stairwell are decidedly Colonial Revival, and feature a beamed ceiling and portico with a fanlight that overlooks the waterside loggia.

In Watch Hill, RI, Wadia created sensitive additions to a sprawling Tudor Revival house originally designed by John Russell Pope. The first story and the crenulated tower are composed of hewn stone, while the second story and gables are half timbered with brick nogging. The house had fallen into disrepair, and the gallery that spanned most of the rear elevation was decrepit. Wadia replaced the wood posts that supported this gallery with stone piers, and then designed three additions to the house, using carefully selected materials that matched the original. The additions included a kitchen/master suite, a family room that overlooks the swimming pool and a garage wing that connects the main house to the guest house. The transition from old to new construction is imperceptible, and Wadia considers the observer's inability to discern one from the other a great compliment.

By judiciously studying not only the materials, but also the scale and proportion, Wadia and his firm have created additions that are in keeping with the spirit and the architecture of the original structure. In Greenwich, a 1902 Tudor now displays a new half-timbered wing with a façade that matches the older section of the house. In New Canaan, the firm recently designed a new wing on a 1929 Gothic mansion. Although the wing is out of the sightlines of the front elevation, the architects still went to great lengths to create a seamless transition, and the Indiana limestone selected was power-ground to match the texture and patina of the original. The addition features a great room with an interior inspired by Castle Duart, and the exposed trusses and arches shelter a library and billiard room. Continuing the Gothic theme, a connecting hallway with iron-sash windows leads to the main house.

Wadia Associates is equally adept at reproducing Georgian architecture in a most convincing way, as evidenced by a massive new Georgian Revival home in Greenwich. In keeping with the tenets of the style, the front elevation is more restrained, while the rear is an ornate creation with formal bedded gardens leading down to the main grounds. A matching, treble-arched pavilion overlooks the swimming pool and gardens as well.

Design Process In the firm's New Canaan offices, much care has been spent on every detail, great and small, such as metal balustrades in the shape of calla lilies, each formed in a slightly different shape, and the second floor gallery with hand-shaped wooden columns that mimic the peristyle of a Greek temple. "I spend more time here than I do at home," says Wadia, a self-professed workaholic, "so I wanted to make my office look as nice as possible. I've had clients call on a Saturday and be surprised when I answer the telephone."

Even though the majority of Wadia's clients are in a rarified economic stratum, the firm employs a pragmatic approach to construction and design expenses. "Clients hate surprises," says Wadia. "To avoid sticker shock, we've come up with a process that gives them a realistic cost estimate before they or we have spent a lot of time in preparation."

At most architectural firms, the typical design process entails a prospective client relating how their dream house would appear. The architect then renders mockups and a proposal and presents these to the client, who is invariably surprised at the expense. This process typically results in a scaling back in both their desires and budget. "This wastes a phenomenal amount of time and money for both the client and the architect," says Wadia. "Instead, we teach them to manage their expectations and offer options upfront. We give them a spreadsheet to take home and tell them to list the rooms they want, and then we add the spaces, such as laundries, hallways and additional bathrooms. We then plug in the average cost per square foot. Then we'll have a meeting and can tell them what their house would cost. They might be happy with this, or they'll say 'Oh my!' and cut their 10,000-sq.ft. house down to 6,000 sq.ft. Up to that point, the process only takes two or three hours of everyone's time."

 Another advantage that the firm possesses is its intimate knowledge of the zoning in the communities where it frequently works. "We know the rules through and through," says Wadia, "so we're realistic about what variances a client might obtain in Westport, Greenwich and New Canaan. We know that they won't be able to build a 60-ft.-tall chimney, and what they can get away with as far as square footage or changing the setback. If you, as a builder or architect, aren't familiar with the rules and regulations indigenous to these towns, you can lose a huge amount of time in meetings and inspections."

The New Necessities
When asked what clients who are used to top-of-the-line comforts are currently asking for in their new homes, Wadia says that while kitchens were the big thing a decade ago, the focus has now moved on to additional rooms, such as the lowly mudroom. "What used to be a few coat hooks in the garage has been transformed into a critical part of the family's lifestyle," he says. "It must have at least a half-bath, cubbies for shoes and a closet for sports equipment. Often the laundry is located there, too."

The firm is also frequently asked to design recycling rooms. "These are situated on the kitchen level, but all the recyclables then slide down to the grade of the driveway, so that the recycling truck driver can simply stop by and empty the bins," says Wadia. "These rooms are typically tile floored, and have drains so that they can be hosed down for cleaning."

Master closets are also on the must-have list. "They should have a three-way mirror with superior lighting, a jewelry safe and a fold-down ironing board," says Wadia. "There is often a washer and dryer in this area as well. In fact, the two separate laundries are very popular now, with one located on the ground floor and the other in or near the master suite." Audio-visual rooms are also specified, even if the clients themselves are not technophiles. "It's become one of those standards for resale value," adds Wadia.

Wadia also insists on custom-made mahogany windows. "They don't rot, unlike many of the production windows currently available, and our clientele wants an authentic appearance," he says. "They don't want to see the screens, either, so we now incorporate pull-down screens that retract into the header of the window; it gives a very clean and historic look."

Lightning control systems are also typical of a Wadia design. "These used to be thought of as a luxury, but if you've got a 10,000-sq.ft. house, it's a pretty big target, and should it be struck by lightning, think of all the wires that have to be replaced and the walls that have to be opened up to get to them."

Wadia has striven to address all facets of the building process, and along with his architectural team – which is responsible for the conceptualization of projects – the firm will also act as a general contractor and provide construction crews. Wadia Associates' holistic approach also extends to interior and landscape design; in 2008, Wadia's landscape design for his own house was recognized with a Palladio Award.

The firm will also work with other architects and build to their specifications or sub out their designs to other crews in an effort to remain flexible and serve the market to its fullest. "I insist that when you're considering designing and building in our market, you must give us a call before you look elsewhere, and you will be impressed by the quality of our work," says Wadia. "Then we have done our job."  

 

 

 
 

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