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Inside Jobs

Southport, CT-based Mark P. Finlay Architects takes an inside-out approach to residential new construction, restoration and renovation projects.

By Nancy A. Ruhling

"What happens inside the house is the most important component of an architectural project," says Mark P. Finlay, AIA, president and founder of Southport, CT-based Mark P. Finlay Architects. "The exterior styling is the easy part."

To get his inside-out insider's view, Finlay "walks" through the house in his head, looking out through the windows of his mind to see a clear view of the landscape. "The common thread of all my projects – whether they are residential or commercial, new construction or renovations/restorations – is comfort," he says. "Deep down, the planning strategy is the same."

It is this interior to exterior primary principle that has guided Finlay throughout his career, which started when he was only 14. His family was moving from Chicago to New Canaan, CT, and it was he who helped his non-architect father draw up the design for the new house. "We did it on graph paper," he says. "My parents bought a severely sloping and wooded site, so we came up with a basic Colonial design that adapted to it."

The young Finlay found himself fascinated by the building process, and as soon as the last brick was set, he went to work for an architect in New Canaan. "I lied and said I was 16," he says. "I was actually 15. I worked there every day after school and full time during the summer, throughout high school and college. I learned so much at an early age."

When it came time for college, there was no question that he would study architecture. After earning an associate degree in architectural engineering from the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, Finlay went on to get a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Kentucky. During his last semester, he studied in Paris and Venice. He then worked for Roche-Dinkeloo in Hamden, CT, before opening his own practice nearly three decades ago.

Finlay has made a name for himself designing what he calls "brand-new old houses," as well as doing historic renovations and creating additions to some of the most noted historic buildings in the country. His transformation of the Olde Pink House in Savannah, GA, into a commercial concern, for instance, earned him the Historic Savannah Foundation's Historic Preser-vation Award in 2008.

The 1789 pink stucco Georgian mansion had been the headquarters of the Confederate Army. Finlay was commissioned to design an addition that looked like a carriage house. Its ground floor is a public bar that opens onto the street. In addition, Finlay tripled the size of the kitchen and added a function room on the second floor that accommodates patrons of large parties.

The full-service firm prides itself on craftsmanship, attention to detail and the ability to translate clients' dreams into bricks-and-mortar reality. "There's no style I specialize in," Finlay says. "I like being a good chameleon. I love the challenge of diversity, and I believe that the best architects know how to conquer all styles." The firm also specializes in clubhouse design for golf courses, which Finlay says is a natural extension of his residential work "because most of the old clubhouses started out as houses."

Finlay, who sees himself as an artist/pragmatist, says it's important to leave a legacy because "we're creating art that's occupied by people."

The Invisible House
Nestled in the waterfront woods of Kiawah, SC, is a new 7,500-sq.ft. Shingle Style house. But you can't see it, and that's the whole idea. "It's virtually invisible," Finlay says. "The challenge was to keep the volume and scale of a big building, but not make it look large and overpowering on its one-acre site."

The two-story house, which Finlay built as a seasonal home for a couple with several grown children who often visit, blends traditional and contemporary features. "It was to be a family house, one the husband could also use as an escape," says Finlay. "To give it a new-old look, we incorporated Colonial details from the iconic architecture of Old Charleston."

Finlay began the project by looking to the view of the 10-mile-long marsh for inspiration, deciding to design a "transparent" house where every room offers a glimpse of the marsh. "You can see through the house both ways," he says. There were several elements, natural and man-made, that restricted his options. Local laws required the first floor to be 12 ft. above grade. Finlay used short sets of steps – one inside and one outside – to create a graceful front entrance to the house. He also worked his design around the mature live oak trees that define the property. The house doesn't tower because "it's not higher than any trees, and the second floor is built into the roof," he says. "Low eaves also reduce the scale of the building."

A separate guest house in the same style and an octagon-shaped kitchen wing make the house look as though it "grew" over time. And slightly over-scaled furniture, comfortable to a fault, mitigates the high ceilings, making the spaces cozy. Finlay sees the art in the architecture of the view his grand design exploited. "Because your view out of the house is north, the sun is never in your eyes," he says. "There's always a lighted backdrop, so it's like a changing painting."

High in the Colorado Sky
When he was designing a log vacation house in Beaver Creek, CO, Finlay turned to what he calls "WPA Western parkitecture" for inspiration. The three-story, 10,000-sq.ft. log and stone house with a shake roof is defined by intricately assembled, mammoth Montana logs three to four feet in diameter that were culled from standing dead trees.

"I wanted it to look as though it had always been there," he says, adding that he didn't move or cut down any of the Aspen trees, "and the owners wanted it to be compatible with their 21st-century lifestyle, which includes a lot of skiing and golf."

This turned out to be a monumental task because not only did local laws restrict the square footage and footprint of the house, but the entire design also had to be contained within a 100-ft. circle on the 1.5-acre site. "We had to set up a crane in the middle of the site and get everything dropped in," says Finlay.

Although the house is large, it is designed as a series of what Finlay calls "little destinations" that "can puff up or puff down for two or 30 people. The owners didn't want it to feel big; they wanted the ability for guests to have privacy when hosting a number of people. This plan is flexible for every scenario."

The garage, for example, includes two bedrooms that can be used by guests, and a door on the lowest level that leads to a heated back deck and a convenient ski down to Bachelor Gulch Village.

Finlay notes that although it was designed as a seasonal house, the owners have become so fond of it that they come for year-round recreation.

A Different View
There are views, and then there are views, and a new three-story house at the mouth of Connecticut's Southport Harbor provides a variety of them as it waves to the waves in a gentle, undulating S curve.

The house, which replaced an old brick Colonial that was unremarkable except for being the residence of late actor Jason Robards, was designed for entertaining: The owners, who have made it their primary residence, love to host large gatherings of family and friends.

"I had designed another house for them, and their mandate to me was to make the rooms in this one 10 percent bigger," says Finlay. "I'm not very good at math – the rooms are a little bigger than that, and we ended up with 17,500 sq.ft." Although the house sits proudly on seven acres, it is surrounded by other homes, so Finlay strove to create a design that was intimate and private. He reserved the central section of the first floor for entertaining and devoted the side wings to non-public rooms. "I used the view in and of itself as entertainment," he says. "It's a see-through house, and the view is very dramatic as you walk through. I angled the wings on the right and left to capture different views. A house that just addresses the water straight on provides only a one-act show."

The placement of the wings also makes the house look as though it evolved over time, with each generation of owners altering its footprint to suit their lifestyles. The repetition of old-style motifs also places the house in the past. The large volutes that define the front face of the exterior are used throughout the house to create a subliminal salute to times gone by. The central stair nook, which harks back to the work of McKim, Mead and White and H. H. Richardson, contains a volute motif on the bench that matches that on the seat in the master shower room.

Past to Present Tense
When Finlay was commissioned to design additions to a ca. 1885 Shingle Style house in Rye, NY, he tried to put himself in the shoes of the original architect to re-create its 19th-century ambience while adding updated features.

The 10,000-sq.ft. waterfront house was in bad shape; its only inhabitants were raccoons. The new owners wanted a garage, family room and another wing. Under Finlay's plan, two covered, columned porches were added, and an open area on the lower level was enclosed so it could house a lap pool, wine cellar, television room, spa and exercise room. The added square footage is all the more impressive because there wasn't much space to work with – the property is only 1.5 acres. Added to that, the client changed in the middle of the project – but the new owner went along with Finlay's grand, understated plan.

"Basically, we doubled the size of the house," says Finlay. "There were tricky zoning requirements, and since it's right on the water, there's nowhere to go. I let the main house dictate the style. I wanted the finished project to look like it had never been touched."

Back to its Roots
The Federal-style house called Mount Fair has an impeccable pedigree. The main house, originally built in 1829 by Benjamin Brown, burned down in 1845. His son, William, erected the present building in around 1848, on the foundation of the original house. A century later, it served as the home of the first dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and subsequently won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

When new owners bought it and 70 surrounding acres as a vacation home, they envisioned remaking it as the working farm it had been back when the Brown family bought the land between 1747 and 1760. Aside from a kitchen that had been added in the 1950s, the home had remained relatively untouched since it was built, but it needed a lot of work. The owners also wanted to make sympathetic additions that would carry the past forward in an elegant and graceful manner. "Because of its National Register designation, everything we did to the outside and the inside was monitored," says Finlay.

The clapboard house with a copper roof and brick chimney and base was renovated and restored, and the old kitchen addition was removed. New old-style additions containing a kitchen, mudroom, breezeway, garage, hunting room, exercise room and indoor pool were designed to look authentically old school. The original ice house and spring house were turned into two-bedroom guest cottages with full baths. A new barn complex that includes a modern horse barn, hay storage shed, various farm buildings and a 3,015-sq.ft. caretaker's cottage complete the picture.

"The wife is a real horsewoman, and she wanted to be close to the horses – close enough to see them out her kitchen window, but not close enough to smell them," says Finlay. To accommodate her wishes, Finlay sited the barn on a hillside so that it peeks out at the main house. Inside the simple wood-sided and copper-roofed structure he paired a red-brick floor with fir planking to create a space that is every bit as elegant as the interior of the main house.

The kitchen is a prime example of Finlay's melding of time periods. The cabinetry, painted a soft shade of grass green, is paired with honed granite countertops, a central island with a soapstone top, a butted-plank backsplash and antique floors and beams that match those in the rest of the house.

While the project progressed, the owners bought more of the surrounding land, eventually accumulating some 400 acres to create the largest and best preserved antebellum farm in Albemarle County. As the estate grew, Finlay expanded the master plan, adding gardens, greenhouses, a caretaker's cottage and an indoor riding ring and turning one acre into a solar field to power the estate.

"They have three grown sons, and wanted to create a real farm homestead that would be passed on to new generations," says Finlay. "The idea is to make it self-sustaining. And they love it so much that it has become much more than a vacation home."  

Nancy A. Ruhling is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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