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Project: A Pattern Book for Norfolk Neighborhoods

Author: Urban Design Associates, Pittsburgh, PA; Raymond L. Gindroz, FAIA, and Rob Robinson, AIA, partners

Client: City of Norfolk, VA



Art History

A carriage house is reborn as a residence and studio on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Project: Residence, New York, NY

Architect: Fairfax & Sammons Architects, New York, NY; Richard Sammons, partner; Anne Fairfax, partner

Interior Decorator: Ben Pentreath, Fairfax & Sammons Decoration, New York, NY

By Lynne Lavelle

The carriage house has a humble origin. It takes its name from the outbuildings on large estates where owners would store their carriages and horses when not in use. Following the invention of the car and subsequently, the garage, the carriage house fell out of favor for a time – quieter and cleaner, the car removed the need to house transportation away from the family home. But while the attached garage has taken over its original function, the carriage house endures, and has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in recent years.

Carriage houses lend themselves easily to reinvention, and as such, historic examples exist in many guises. Prior to its latest purchase, one Georgian-style carriage house located on Manhattan's Upper East Side spent more than half a century as a sculpture studio and school. Its traditional exterior, with large double doors beneath two floors of sash windows and a modillion cornice, disguised the fact that this "house" was in a semi-industrial state; it had been used for welding and stone carving amongst other things, and had no living quarters at all. However, a couple with a young family saw its potential and enlisted New York-based Fairfax & Sammons Architects to transform the cavernous interior into a 5,000-sq.ft. five-bedroom home with painting-studio space on the ground level.

The existing interior could not have been more rudimentary. "There was very little to go on," says firm partner Anne Fairfax. "We treated the building as a shell, designing everything on the interior. This included inserting a large skylight and a huge window in the core of the building to bring in much-needed light." Despite a relatively small budget, both the client and the firm were in favor of a dramatic overhaul of the 25-ft.-wide, 100-ft.-deep space. The new interior had to meet specific requirements: the husband – a successful painter – needed a large painting studio; his wife – a best-selling author – needed a quiet space in which to work. Most importantly, these elements had to be combined, as seamlessly as possible, within a comfortable family home.

The firm began by cutting out a large section of the concrete upper floors to create a double-height atrium/stair hall at the heart of the house. A skylight was inserted, as was a new leaded-glass window in the west wall over the stair. Like much of the house, the stair hall serves as a gallery for the husband's contemporary realist paintings, and it is here that the family keeps its grand piano. Pale walls balance the use of rich patterns in the fabrics and furnishings, and highlight the paintings on the wall. "Showcasing the owners' artwork was a big focus of the interior decoration," says Fairfax. "The stair hall needed to be bright and inviting, and more than just a place to pass through." Below, the studio remains almost as it was found, and operates as a successful, highly regarded atelier. It is accessed at street level by the carriage doors and connects to the living space above via an existing stair, which leads up from an entrance lobby to its right.

For the interior decoration of each room, Ben Pentreath, who headed up the firm's interiors department, Fairfax & Sammons Decoration, carefully combined new items with much-loved existing pieces, relegating those that did not fit to less important rooms, or occasionally, the sidewalk. In the stair hall, new wing chairs designed by Pentreath were covered with fabric from Hodsoll McKenzie of London, England, and a new carpet runner, also designed by Pentreath, was hand-woven in England to complement a Persian rug carpet purchased at Christie's.

At the front of the house is the Georgian-style living room/library, where the wife's published works are displayed in more than 30 languages. The room is almost a perfect square, which easily accommodated the bold fabric choices and eclectic mix of furniture and details. A re-upholstered couch from George Smith, re-covered cushions and a molded-wood chimneypiece combine to create a cozy atmosphere. And the pale palette of the walls and curtains offsets the rich textures of the furnishings and oriental rugs, and ensures that the artwork on the walls does not become "lost." As Fairfax explains, it is an easy scheme in which to introduce new pieces. "The clients weren't looking for something necessarily formal," she says. "We wanted this to be an ideal room in which to curl up with a book. Certainly with the children there, we wanted the furniture to be sturdy and comfortable, and easy to substitute. We used a lot of strong colors and English fabrics, with which we re-covered as much of the existing furniture as we could."

Fearing that it wouldn't be used, the clients and the firm decided against a separate formal dining room and instead built an open-plan kitchen/family dining area to the rear of the main floor. It is enhanced greatly by the beamed ceiling covered in decorative tinwork – one of the few original features in the house – and opens to a large terrace. Fairfax & Sammons designed the millwork, painted cabinets and countertops. Of all the elements in the house, the millwork makes the firm particularly proud. "The degree and level of the millwork is the trademark of our firm," says Fairfax. "Many of us here trained with and under decorators and I think we take a uniquely integrated approach to design in that we consider the interiors, and finding architectural solutions to interior problems, at every stage of the design process. For example, if something is needed to fill a particular space, we might design millwork, rather than leave it to the clients or a decorator to find a piece of furniture. It's something we love to do, and I think we are better at it than most."

The kitchen's understated yellow walls look inviting from the stair hall, and its antique furniture from London, England, and kilim rugs create continuity with the rest of the house. A staircase leads up from the stair hall to a balustraded gallery on the bedroom floor, which is flooded with light from the new skylight and the new monumental window. Despite appearances, the balustrading was composed of readily available standard parts and moldings. To emphasize the flowing geometry of the construction, the handrail was stained a dark mahogany color.

The master bedroom occupies the entire rear of the house on this floor, with a pair of doors opening onto a Juliet balcony. It is decorated in soft shades of pale gray with fabrics from Hodsoll McKenzie, and Robert Kime of London, England, and plain off-white linen curtains, generously cut. Above the bedroom floor is a small penthouse apartment with a garden and writing room, which overlooks the rooftop of the entire building. This room, designed for the owner as a quiet "escape," is decorated with family pieces in soft shades of lichen, with hand-embroidered curtains from Chelsea Textiles of London, England.

While the middle floors are devoted to family life, the ground and upper "work" floors are not in severe contrast. By weaving elements of all three throughout the interior decoration, the firm created a natural flow between spaces and functions, and credits this continuity to having had a strong vision of the whole from day one. "The advantage of designing and decorating together is complete control," says Fairfax. "We are very attuned to working with interior decorators. We designed the floor plan knowing that certain pieces of furniture would be purchased or used, so we really conceived the project as a single, cohesive entity – the interior decoration, the furniture and the interior architecture as one."  

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