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History’s Interpreter

Architect Ira Grandberg translates and updates the past.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

When architect Ira Grandberg was growing up, he spent many of his weekends touring the early-20th-century “grand homes” of New York’s Westchester County with his father, who was in the real-estate business. A lifetime later, what he remembers most about those excursions – and what he carries over into his own projects – is the unexpected feeling he got the minute he entered their front foyers.

“These were very special places,” says Grandberg, AIA, principal of Mount Kisco, NY-based Grandberg & Associates Architects. “My design goal has always been to try and achieve the spirit and energy these homes possessed. I know that sounds presumptuous, but these older homes had a personality because they were part of a fully molded environment that integrated the interior and the exterior experiences. Their high level of detailing gave these homes their unique fabric.”

Grandberg’s seven-person firm, which won a 2011 Palladio Award for an addition to a 1920s Normandy-style house in Westport, CT, specializes in highly complex residential renovations and restorations as well as the design of unique new residences. Grandberg & Associates’ residential projects have been featured in numerous national and regional publications. The firm’s design of the new Stanwich Congregational Church in Greenwich, CT, received a national award and recognition for capturing the spirit of a traditional early-19th-century New England church.

“Whether we do large or small projects, we spend an enormous amount of time figuring out the details,” says Grandberg. “It’s not unusual for us to spend 3,000 to 4,000 hours on design and construction documentation.”

Grandberg emphasizes that many of his designs take their architectural cues from history. However, “nothing I do is an historical copy,” he says, adding that his projects cannot be classified solely as period homes. “They merely convey a sense of the period they are reflecting. All our homes have their own spirit, and every single one looks different. Re-creating the past is not enough. The house has to be responsive to its owners and respectful of its environment. Once I start a house, I don’t go back to reference material; I utilize what I have subliminally absorbed over the years.”

This approach, he says, allows him to “do something fresh and exciting even within a historical context. The design of a period home must be responsive to present-day planning and space requirements. For example, early homes didn’t have the ‘great rooms’ or open kitchens that are so prevalent today. To properly scale the massing of the home is a major challenge architects working in period-style houses face. It’s really difficult to do them well.”

Grandberg, who finds Lutyens homes one source of inspiration, sees houses as organic entities within a stylistic framework that make the exterior architecture and interior spaces work as one. “I don’t believe that the interiors have to be stage settings or afterthoughts as you so often see,” he says. “The rooms themselves should be so well designed and integral with the overall architecture that they don’t need rouge or lipstick to make them work.”

After making an in-depth study of each site and conferring with the clients, Grandberg creates the floor plan. “I know what the spirit of the house will look like before I leave the site,” he says. “The organization of spaces is where the challenge lies.”

It is Grandberg’s floor plan that brings the house into the 21st century. “I was trained as a student of modern architecture,” says Grandberg, who as a precocious child declared that he wanted to be an architect and followed through by graduating with honors from Columbia University’s School of Architecture after working on a degree in art history. “My floor plans focus on circulation and site determinants. The plans are very responsive to historical precedent as well as modern inter-relationships. That’s the main element that sets them apart from purely historic reproductions.”

Grandberg sees himself as a designer and consummate problem solver. “The skill of an architect has to do with understanding people’s responses to the space,” he says. “A house is not simply a box or a façade. My job as an architect is to modulate the space and create a home that has a distinctive personality. Just like a tailor making a custom suit, I have to make sure it fits its owner and looks great.”

Grandberg hopes that his homes will be recognized for their design integrity and individuality. In addition, his professional goal is to design more homes around the country, with clients who bring challenging programs and distinctive sites.

Country Meets City
The property was in Greenwich, but the owner’s heart was in the Adirondacks, where the family had a vacation home. So Grandberg’s design for an award-winning 12,000-sq.ft. house fuses a casual style with the formal period homes of the area. The cedar and stone house, which is two levels in the front and three in the back, was carved into the six-acre relatively flat site.

“I created a sculptural, open floor plan whose cross axes are open to the views,” says Grandberg. “The house doesn’t have one defined style, and that’s by design; its undulating roof line, stonework and façade crenellations are a direct response to the floor plan within.”

The core of the house is a pair of octagon-shaped galleries connected by a hallway system that both separates and links the informal and formal rooms. “The house is very large,” says Grandberg, “but it doesn’t look that way or feel that way because of the complexity of the façade and roof lines. The interior rooms also are large, but because they are properly scaled, they feel intimate.”

Through the use of stone floors and fireplaces and post-and-beam construction on the ceilings of the main rooms, natural and man-made elements co-exist beautifully.

“Just like those houses I explored with my dad when I was a boy, this house has a sense of place,” he says. “It greets you and lets you completely absorb the experience before you. There are not too many houses like this.”

The house, which is not visible from the road, offers panoramic views that Grandberg’s design takes prime advantage of. The family room, for instance, serves as a sophisticated promontory with 270-degree views. One of the more impressive elements is the backyard waterfall that flows into the swimming pool. Made of rock blasted from another project, it becomes a unifying element with the stone foundation and piers of the main house. “The sound of water brings life to the home,” says Grandberg.

Turning the Clock Back
In working with period properties, the age-old challenge is creating additions that look both seamless and timeless. When Grandberg was called upon to renovate an eight-acre property in Greenwich, it had three detached buildings – a stable, garage and caretaker’s house – all in dire need of repair.

The owners, an American family with four children who had just returned from a long residence in England, had specific needs that drove the design. They wanted a large house, to be sure, but they wanted it divided into livable sections so they could have a main house as well as living quarters for a parent and guests. And they wanted it to be sympathetic to the residences they had become familiar with while living abroad.

“We spent a lot of time studying Elizabethan and Tudor architecture and discussing what they liked about these styles,” says Grandberg. “They were very keen to have access to garden spaces as well.”

Under Grandberg’s plan, a new 16,000-sq.ft. stone and hand-hewn timber English country house was built. Only the garage, which anchors one end, was retained from the original buildings. Its first floor is space for a parent; its second floor serves as a guest house.

“It might be hard to believe, but this is one of the most intimate houses I’ve ever designed,” says Grandberg. “You have to turn corners to go from one zone to another. Around each corner is a surprise.”

The 400-ft.-long drive travels through an allée of trees before it passes through a stone wall and into a forecourt. Inside, an octagonal-shaped entrance hall leads to a pair of portals. One goes to the formal rooms, the other leads to the private informal living spaces.

“All of the lower spaces have access to the gardens,” says Grandberg. “And there’s one room, we call it the garden room, that was designed specifically so the owners could sit in it at night with guests and get a great view of the property.”

To create the illusion that the house grew over time, the interior architecture and finishes, which emulate those of the exterior, are different in each room. The garden room, for instance, is paneled in limed oak, while the arrival hall is outfitted in Douglas fir. “You’d think the entire house has been there a century,” says Grandberg.

Extending the Timeline
A couple so loved their ca. 1812 farmhouse that when it came time to expand, they decided they wanted to keep it – and their fond memories – intact. That was easier said than done because when Grandberg ripped out a small addition to make room for the new, it was discovered that the original post-and-beam framing had rotted. All that could be salvaged was the front façade and two adjoining rooms.

What they did have was space, and Grandberg took advantage of every inch to create a compound that’s large enough to accommodate the extended family of grown children and grandchildren. Grandberg created an open floor plan whose sight lines offer views of the interior rooms beyond as well as selected views of the site. “We created a series of intimate spaces, the same kind that were there before the addition and the same kind the owners were used to,” he says.

Using period details, including antique fireplace mantels, he brought the house back to its early-19th-century roots. “Our details are fully representational of the period,” he says.

Grandberg’s striking use of past and present is represented in the guest bedroom. Raising the ceiling into what was the attic and utilizing the existing leaded-glass fan window, the room became special. He added a simple plate rail that skillfully lowered the ceiling to create a cozy space. Outside, the gardens are terraced to create more private spaces in the yard, which includes a swimming pool and tennis court.

“The original house was our anchor,” says Grandberg. “We captured the essence of it.”

Looking to the Past
Long used to living in traditionally styled homes, the owner of a waterfront property in Greenwich asked Grandberg to design a house that would work for her alone as well as for her children and numerous grandchildren. Grandberg designed a two-level, 8,000-sq.ft., cedar-shingle, gambrel-style house for the five-acre property. It’s like two houses in one: The lower level is for the client, while the upper level is for her visiting family and guests.

Grandberg’s design starts on the long drive to the house. “As soon as you approach the house, your eye is directed to an island that is framed by trees,” he says. “Then you turn into the forecourt.”

The front entrance is flanked by gables and a pair of Classical white columns. “These establish the traditional sign posts for entry,” he says. “The windows above are less formal and open up the entry.”

The ground floor is designed so that the client can live on that floor alone and have water views from all the main spaces. The second-floor guest spaces also take full advantage of the dramatic panoramas. A guest bedroom, for instance, includes a balcony that overlooks the breakfast room pergola.

“The home is very comfortable and welcoming,” says Grandberg. “Like all my houses, an attempt is made to not have the architecture overpower the client.”  

 

 
 

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