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Long Island Legacy

A Long Island architect continues the traditions of the region's past.
By Dan Cooper

Many traditional architectural firms tend to focus their efforts in one field of expertise. Typically, they specialize in preserving notable historic properties, create up-market single-family houses that draw inspiration from past styles or they are New Urbanists, concentrating on re-creating cities and villages as they evolved and ensuring a human-centric perspective.

Alexander Latham III of ADL III Architecture of Northport and Westhampton Beach, NY, has built his firm upon the premise that it would not only design individual houses, but also have a positive impact on the growth of Long Island in its entirety. The firm has thus become renowned for both its historically influenced single-family houses and its New Urbanist town planning on Long Island.

This diversity produces, according to Latham, rewarding challenges. "What's so great about what we do is that in the morning," he says, "we'll be designing built-ins and sweating the details on cabinetry door panels, and in the afternoon, we'll be laying out streets and designing multi-family houses in a New Urbanist neighborhood."

A Reluctant Architect
Although Latham grew up in the lumber business with building in his blood, he originally did not intend to be an architect. "I came in through the back door," says the native Long Islander. "I wanted to be a ski bum in Montreal, but wound up going to college in Wisconsin to be a wildlife biologist. My father had gone to Syracuse University, and earned a degree in architecture, but when he came home, his father, who owned lumberyards on Long Island, persuaded him to work with him. I was mindful of my father's path, and instead of going into the family business, I struck out on my own."

After studying biology, then English and philosophy, Latham took a break from college and dabbled in the restaurant business. More than anything, he enjoyed designing and "putting together" restaurants; realizing that architecture was the field that would encompass all of his interests, he headed back to college and found his true passion.

While Latham enjoyed the freedoms of delving into Modern architecture in school, he was always drawn to historic structures. "This was in the early 1970s, and they didn't teach anything about Classical architecture," he says. "There was never a course on building proportions or moldings, for example." This focus on Modernism, with its attendant rejection of historicism, is a common reflection and complaint for those who were schooled in the 1970s and early '80s. "At that time, young architects who were interested in past styles essentially had to train themselves," says Latham. "There were whole elements that you had to teach yourself, and you had to go to the books, experiment with drawing in full scale and personally observe the actual buildings."

The Tradition of the Island
Returning from college to his hometown of Cold Spring Harbor, Latham was fully aware of the legacy of Long Island's illustrious past of Gold Coast mansions. He and his firm strive to honor this history, and spend countless hours on research; a favorite book of his, a well-worn copy of Long Island Country Houses and their Architects 1860-1940, is within arm's reach of his desk. This tome is an all-inclusive encyclopedic index of the grand homes built by great and lesser-known architects, and it provides one with a vast vocabulary of design elements during Long Island's most exuberant years.

As so much of Long Island's golden age of architecture fell stylistically into two categories, either Neoclassical or Shingle Style, Latham frequently finds himself commissioned to work within these styles' parameters. Acknowledging that in order to work successfully, Classicism has rules and theories that must be adhered to, Latham finds additional challenges and freedoms in designing in the Shingle Style. "What I enjoy about creating in the Shingle Style is that you work from the floor plan and let the form develop," he says. "You can let it express itself through the exterior, whereas with Classicism, it's much more rigid and you have to deal with both interior and exterior simultaneously. That being said, with the Shingle Style, you can dress the interior and exterior up or down: formal or informal, austere or decorative – and there's a lot of flexibility; each elevation becomes its own composition. The pitfall with the Shingle Style is that when poorly designed, it can look haphazard and have too much of a forced and heavy handed composition that doesn't reveal the style's great characteristics – asymmetry and informal elegance."

Latham notes that his concern for historical accuracy has benefited his relationships with clients: as his firm has evolved, so has the familiarity of his clients with historicism. "Our clients are much more sophisticated and aware of today's traditionally oriented design movements," he says.

Remake and Remodel
Some of Latham's most distinctive works have emerged when he's been called upon to remodel existing structures and "backdate" them to a more historical style. Many of these commissions were constructed either as simple, older homes in the early-20th century or as "contemporaries" which, in their time, strove to reject the tenets of historicism so prevalent in the area.

A case in point is a former hotel in the Long Island village of Montauk. Facing south over the Atlantic Ocean, the long narrow building was designed in a generic, double-tiered format of nondescript vernacular style. "This is on a bluff on the eastern end of the island, and it has these amazing panoramic views," says Latham. "We were called in to renovate the cottages and hotel structures as condominiums."

Latham reinvented the exterior, replacing the wide clapboards with white cedar shakes, inserting multi-light Craftsman style windows and adding shed dormers to vary the roofline. The profile from the bluff transformed a mundane, generic hotel block into a Shingle Style exterior. With a new gable that breaks up the roofline and pergolas over the balcony, the building now appears to be a resort from a past century.

Equally as impressive, but on a smaller scale, Latham was commissioned to update a large, shed-roofed 1970s contemporary house. He ingeniously expanded the structure and its roofs, converting it into a Shingle Style residence that belies its earlier origins. The main shed roof, which housed the garage and the right-hand portion of the living area, had another roof added to enlarge it. Other touches, such as a series of ornate brick chimneys, complete the façade. The house's original entry was a very modernistic, courtyard affair, and Latham enclosed this, adding gabled and shed-roofed dormers in the appropriate manner of a late-19th-century elevation. From the street, the dwelling looks to be a careful reinterpretation of the Shingle Style, revealing nothing of its fairly recent past. True to many of the high-style shingle houses in the northeastern part of the country, Latham incorporated a large, central Palladian window and Tuscan columns, as the style often melded Colonial Revival elements.

In another example of transforming a modest structure into a prominent residence, Latham started with a modest, rectangular wood-framed structure. The architect expanded the structure with additional wings and gables and a sweeping veranda. By attaching a similarly-sized wing, with an ornate brick chimney that bisects the gable end, the finished effect is of a much larger, earlier dwelling rather than an insensitive addition.

Long Island's communities can have fairly restrictive building codes, and the firm has devised solutions that will satisfy both clients and local governments. For a sprawling estate that required six garage bays, Latham explains, "We were limited by local codes to a 1,000-sq.ft. footprint per outbuilding, so we designed a pair of matching, triple-bayed carriage houses that act as a pavillioned entrance. One of the structures has guest quarters on the second floor, while the other features a gym."

A Diverse Portfolio
In the village of Lloyd Harbor, NY, Latham was charged with converting a Tudor Revival carriage house, once part of a grand estate, into the village meeting hall. "We've now overseen two different renovations on this building," says Latham. "The first was a conversion of the lobby, while this one involved not only designing doors that are weather-tight and easily accessible for the public, but also preserving the original, massive swinging carriage doors to maintain the historic appearance of the building."

Other work included finishing the raw space on the upper floor and creating a meeting room. "Lloyd Harbor was home to a huge, historic oak tree, known as the "big oak," which fell recently," says Latham. "We supervised the harvesting of its lumber, and subsequent milling. The lumber provided the paneling for the new Oak Reading Room." Latham also ensured that the original slate roof was preserved.

One of the hallmarks of Latham's interiors is a fascination with built-in cabinetry and finish work. The architect and his firm often expend extra effort designing custom profiles and pieces that create a distinctive touch. "We use a local cabinetmaker, and he will grind his own custom molding knife profiles for us," says Latham.

In one home, the architect designed a custom secretary desk with an abundance of pigeonholes to be fitted in an alcove. It appears to be an heirloom-quality antique until the viewer becomes aware of it being a built-in and integral to the library wall.

Latham's kitchens also reveal his firm's efforts in creating well-designed cabinetry with flourishes that set them apart from the typical. He also searches out uses for extra space in unusual areas; in one project, the architect created a large, semi-circular shoe cabinet at the base of a stairwell landing.

Perhaps it is Latham's heritage in the lumber and construction businesses that accounts for his foresight in constructing wood roofs, a mainstay of the Shingle Style. Mindful of the longevity problems that many homeowners have had with cedar roofs rotting out in a short period of time, Latham combines the plywood decking necessary for stability and building code, but then specifies that the roof is built atop spaced boards that replicate the ventilation patterns of early wood roofs, ensuring that they will last for decades. "I'm unhappy with the current means of laying wood roofs that involve some applied treatments or breathers," he says. "Their lifespan just isn't acceptable."

Latham notes that a colleague sided a house in this manner, by back-priming the clapboards and attaching them to the sheathing with a stand-off stringer that allowed them to breathe. "The paint job is 18 years old," he says, "and there's no sign of peeling or paint failure."

New Urbanism Calls
As his firm developed by building individual residences, Latham became increasingly aware of the congestion and poor planning in the more densely populated areas of Long Island. "In 1993," he says, "a colleague said to me, 'We've either got to leave Huntington or change it.' So we formed Vision Huntington, which quickly grew into Vision Long Island. We specialized in planning advocacy and Smart Growth, and the organization became the go-to source for municipalities and developers seeking guidance, education, design assistance, charrettes and community engagement throughout Long Island.

"In 1994, Vision Huntington held a charrette in the Huntington corridor, then one in Brookhaven and then ultimately in dozens of communities. Now, as Vision Long Island, we entrench ourselves in the planning issues and patterns on Long Island – although we have a long way to go, we will all be better off for it."

Currently, ADL III is working on the Patio Gardens project on the Montauk Highway. The neighborhood features 18 structures designed in late-19th-century styles ranging from single- to multi-family homes sharing common areas. The uniform setbacks and elevations have re-created, in essence, a walkable traditional community.

Latham credits his firm's ability to take on both single-family residences and New Urbanist neighborhoods with helping it survive the current economic tribulations. "If we just did single-family residences, it would be a lot rougher," he says. "Over the last 15 years, we've really entrenched ourselves in New Urbanism and traditional neighborhood planning; today it represents 40-50% of our business. It's the planning and resulting multi-family projects that are helping us survive the downturn. Our diversity has really helped us."  

 

 

 
 

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