Traditional Building Portfolio



Scale Progression

A Nashville firm takes a unique approach to a conservatory addition.

Project: Residence, Nashville, TN

Architect: Eric Stengel Architecture, Nashville, TN; Eric Stengel, principal in charge

By Lynne Lavelle

At the center of Centennial Park in Nashville, TN, stands a monument to a pinnacle of Classical architecture – the Parthenon. Built for Tennessee's 1897 Centennial Exposition, Nashville's Parthenon (see Traditional Building, October 2002, page 58) is a painstakingly accurate replica of the Greek original complete with a re-creation of the 42-ft. statue of Athena and direct plaster casts of the original 438 BC Elgin Marbles that adorned its pediments. Nashville's comparisons with ancient Greece don't stop there, however. The city's many universities and colleges earned it the moniker the "Athens of the South," a reputation which is reinforced by the city's grand civic buildings and its tradition of Classical architecture.

Responding to demand in the city for traditional residential architecture, Nashville native Eric Stengel founded the boutique firm Eric Stengel Architecture, LLC, in 1991. The firm specializes in architecture, interiors and planning, and until last year, Stengel managed its considerable client list himself. "I'd been doing it alone for a long time, because I felt that I needed to be well-educated in all areas myself before I could bring someone else into the office," he says. "But my jobs are so big now that I need assistance."

While much of the firm's business is in new construction, Stengel is regularly asked to alter existing homes, many of which have been reworked previously, with varying degrees of success. One recent project, which was prompted by a leaking skylight, grew to encompass a new 800-sq.ft. conservatory and renovated front elevation, entry hall and stair hall.

The original house began life as a one-story structure, but had grown to two levels and approximately 6,500 sq.ft. "The house had been remodeled a few times before I saw it," says Stengel. "It was not as elegant as a house of its size should have been. Like many houses built in the '30s and '40s, it had been modified every decade or two, in one way or another. It had certain circulation issues that if fixed, would make it function better and hopefully seem as if it might have been built that way originally."

Stengel began by moving a staircase and a fireplace, thus establishing a main axis from front to back. On the front façade, he addressed fundamental errors of scale with the addition of a monumental porch, Palladian details, and a new door with sidelights and a fanlight. The revised façade has the requisite five levels of scale progression. "If you skip one it's very obvious, even to the untrained eye, that something is missing," says Stengel. "It looked odd – the columns didn't stack, it just had a small, regular door and it was awkwardly proportioned in general. The monumental porch and the Classical vocabulary address the overall mass of the house much more effectively."

The clients entertain often and requested a new room in which to hold formal and informal gatherings. Stengel devised a conservatory, to be situated between two existing wings at the rear. The siting posed a challenge as the existing house bounded the addition on three sides. However, mirrored windows and doors preserve the traditional notion of a conservatory – freestanding on at least three sides. "No matter where you look, you still see the outside," says Stengel. "It became a way to create the illusion of a four-sided room. And even though the skylight is stained glass, it tells you that there is natural light on the other side."

In the spaces between the room and the house, hidden behind doors, the three "blind" sides provide space for a television, wet bar and audio/video equipment, and HVAC grilles were neatly integrated into the pedestal's side panels. Stengel's "served" and "serving" spaces were inspired by 18th-century French architecture and Louis Kahn's Trenton Bath House (1954-1959) near Trenton, NJ. "The French had a word for it, poche, where the spaces between formal rooms hold the service functions for those rooms," says Stengel. "Louis Kahn modernized the concept of served and serving spaces. Subordinate rooms take the functional pressure off the main rooms, so, for example, the presence of a dishwasher or television isn't negatively impacting on the conservatory. You get the convenience and the function without it being in the room itself. Without the poche – in a freestanding or three-sided room – I would have had to accommodate all of that in a different way, such as by using columns for storage. There's a way to solve anything. And often, there is more than one good answer to any problem."

While the room was assembled traditionally, the method for carving the parts was distinctly 21st century. Stengel emailed his CAD drawings to Vintage Millworks Inc., also of Nashville, TN, where they were used to produce CAD shop drawings. Once approved by Stengel, the CAD shop-drawing files were emailed to the production shop at Vintage's facility, where they used a multi-axis CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling machine. This ensured consistency between the multiple layers of mahogany trim and architectural embellishments.

It took one year to construct the parts for the conservatory, and less than a year to put it together. Stengel credits this schedule to his willingness to adopt new technology and his proficiency in CAD, which he has been using for 25 years. "A lot of traditional or Classical architects are biased against the computer," says Stengel. "Many believe in only hand-drawing, and urge clients to slow down and accept it. For me the computer is just a tool for production. Plus, my clients aren't the types to wait. Furthermore, giants like Michelangelo or Da Vinci made use of, and pushed for, the highest levels of technology that were available to them. I love drawing by hand, but I wouldn't stand a chance if clients had to wait two years for me to draw something, and the tool that works best for me is my computer."

At the rear garden, the conservatory forms three informal spaces: one off the master suite with a small fountain; another around a fireplace with seating and stairs that lead to the pool area; and a third that leads to a grilling area. Together, the new spaces, remodeled façade and entryway tie the house together, and satisfy the family's various requirements for entertaining. "The biggest challenge to designing this room is a time honored one – to solve many competing agenda effortlessly," says Stengel. "The family does a lot of charity work, and holds a lot of sit-down dinners in the course of that work, so that drove what the minimum size and shape had to be. In the end, the room works perfectly for the clients and they are beyond delighted." 

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