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Vintage Vernacular

Nashville architect Eric Stengel designs a vintage farmstead on 2,000 acres in rural Tennessee.

Project: Time Out Farm, Cornersville, Tennessee

Architect: Eric Stengel Architecture, LLC, Nashville, TN; Eric Stengel, principal

Contractor: Phipps Construction Co., Nashville, TN

By Nancy E. Berry

A master at pairing artistry with function, Nashville, TN, architect Eric Stengel was approached in 2001 by an elementary school classmate and his wife to look at a 2,000-acre parcel the couple had recently purchased and wanted to use for their favorite pastime – fox hunting. The property in question was a defunct hog farm in Cornersville, about an hour south of Nashville. A true diamond in the rough, the land offered gently rolling hills, pastureland for grazing horses, and extensive woodlands for the hunt, but was in serious need of restoration after decades of housing hogs. The couple had a vision of restoring the land, building a main house and horse barn – both large enough to accommodate several guests and visiting horses at one time – as well as adding a caretaker's cottage and guest house to the property.

An eighth-generation Nashville native, Stengel was intrigued by the idea of working on such a large project just outside his hometown. He took on the extensive design program single-handedly. Although most of the land was undeveloped, what had been used for the hog farm had been destroyed. The first order of business was to restore the land to its natural condition. Over the course of a year and a half, the land was revitalized: twin ponds used for water runoff were cleaned and relined with clay (the material removed was air dried to use as soil conditioner for agricultural land), derelict farm buildings and cabins were demolished and fencing made from old drilling pipes was removed when a Geiger counter detected that the pipes were radioactive. "Once this transformation occurred, you would never know that this was once a hog farm," says Stengel.

While the initial stages of cleanup were taking place, Stengel began working with the clients. During several interviews with the couple, he learned they wanted the structures to reflect the region's vernacular farmhouses, and they wanted the buildings to have a cohesive look – similar in design and materials. They also requested siting the house on the property to maximize privacy. Stengel spent months driving around the countryside with the homeowners looking at historical farmhouses. "I like this exercise with clients as well as when they bring me pictures of what they like," he says. "This gives me a clear picture of what they are looking for in the design."

After months of research, Stengel began drawing. "The design is probably my least academic – it's loosely based on the 19th-century Tennessee farmhouse vernacular," says Stengel, noting that it is fairly primitive and edited to reflect the region's buildings. "I think of it as progressive vernacular – if it [the design] is too heavy-handed, it loses its authenticity." Stengel and the homeowners wanted the buildings to relate to each other and the landscape. To create a similar look, he took almost a village compound approach, using the same materials on all the structures, including horizontal cedar lap siding, green standing-seam metal roofs and double-hung windows. The detailing was kept simple with the use of cupolas and white exteriors trimmed in black.

Because privacy was such a high priority for the couple, Stengel sited the house and barns a mile and a half onto the property. Once the design and placement of buildings were decided upon, Stengel, who opened his practice in 1991 and worked alone for 15 years, began the task of drawing the plans and elevations on his own. (Stengel felt it was important to learn every aspect of the design and construction process before hiring anyone else; today, he has two Notre Dame graduates working in his practice.) "I created hundreds of drawings for the house and outbuildings," says Stengel, who even went as far as to design covers for fire hydrants on the property. Once the designs were in the works, the clients called Phipps Construction of Nashville to act as general contractor on the project. The caretaker's cottage – a modest-sized structure set into a sloping hill – was the first building erected and sits on the main road that borders the property. The detailing follows the design program: a Tennessee vernacular farmhouse with horizontal lap siding and a green metal roof; unadorned square porch posts support the front porch roof. The cottage accommodated sleeping for 12 while the main house was being built. Adjacent to the cottage are 700 acres of cornfields the couple leases to a local farmer.

Stengel designed the horse barn next. "I researched barns extensively to come up with the design of the horse barn," he says, "and I found there is no consensus as to what makes a good barn." Stengel hired Pioneer Log Systems of Kingston Springs, TN, to execute and erect the barn's framework, and Phipps Construction finished the structure once the timbers went up. The result is a handsome post-and-beam 20-bay barn – with 16 stalls designated for horses. Although the barn needs to accommodate several horses at one time, Stengel didn't want it to be on a commercial scale. There was also the question of whether or not to add a hayloft to the structure. "Haylofts can be quite a fire hazard," says Stengel, who chose to build a separate structure for hay storage.

Posts and beams fill the void of the loft. To determine the size of the 27-foot framing members, Stengel consulted a structural engineer, who suggested bolting the members with steel pegs to ensure stability. Stengel capped the steel pegs with wood plugs to give the appearance of a true timber frame. Once the members were erected, Stengel added curved knee braces and decorative through tenons. The stalls all have 10-ft.-high exterior Dutch doors. Each horse stall is naturally lit with its own dormer – eight on each side. Trusses and double rafters are covered with spruce decking. Four cupolas on the barn allow additional diffused light into the barn and promote ventilation. A dark stain was applied to the Douglas fir beams to offer a more antiquated look, while the spruce ceiling received a lighter stain, creating a brighter feel. Exterior square posts support the weight of the metal roof – the posts' tie downs are wrapped in black steel straps to resemble the binding on a horse's legs. Stengel added several service buildings to the barn complex, which include not only hay and but also horse trailer and farm equipment storage.

During the construction of the barn, the homeowner asked Stengel to design a folly for his wife as a Christmas gift. He designed a pavilion – which he believes looks like an open parasol – with a wood-burning fire pit and redwood benches. Four scissor trusses also made from Douglas fir support the massive metal standing-seam roof. The roof overhang is six ft. deep and is supported by eight posts with curved knee braces.

As with the barn, Stengel's main concern with the design of the 14,000-sq.ft. main residence was scale. "I wanted the house to be on a more human scale," he says. The house sleeps 20 people, but the owners did not want the house to feel overwhelming when the couple and their three boys were in the house alone. So Stengel created a house within a house by breaking it down into sections, or pavilions, that appear to be added over time. Built on four levels (there is a full basement and full attic), the house is configured in an L shape with a connector running to the pool house/guesthouse.

Following the design idiom of the caretaker's cottage and barn, the main house's front façade is a two-story gable with a two-story wing and wraparound porch. The wing has three dormers that break forward to accommodate window seats – an unconventional approach to farmhouse design in the region. Because this is the main house, Stengel added a few formal touches such as fluted corner posts and fluted pilasters on the dormers. The pediments on the dormers match the pediment of the gable end. The house also has a series of open and enclosed porches. "Deep porches are used as transitional spaces between the interior and exterior of the building and to protect the interiors from the southern sun while skylights and clerestory windows offer diffused natural light," says Stengel. The region can have 30 to 40 degree temperature swings in the spring and fall, so common sense came into play with window-wall ratios to reduce thermal loss. Other exterior design flourishes include radial shapes inset into the screen doors. "This is a nice composition referencing a 19th-century Carpenter Gothic," says Stengel.

The interior detailing is restrained and unpretentious. To create a casual feel to the house, Stengel chose flat recessed wall paneling and doors that reflect the simple Craftsman tradition. The doors are 7 to 9 ft. 4 in. tall depending on hieratical implications and human scale. Stengel used old-growth timber and reclaimed flooring for the interiors to maintain a level of authenticity in the house. The most formal space is the great room, which has a two-story cathedral ceiling. Stengel utilized hammer beams, which help scale down the room to a domestic feel. A fieldstone fireplace anchors the room. Gallery windows from the second floor hallways bring light into the space and create an airy openness. The pool sits beyond the screened-in porch and is framed by granite posts.

The house sits quietly within its landscape, taking in views of the woodlands and offering the homeowners complete privacy. "As with the English landscape," says Stengel, "this design approach is a picturesque notion of landscape – the house comes in and out of view as you come up the winding road." Fittingly, the homeowners have put the property into a land trust to preserve its natural beauty for future generations to come.  

 

 

 
 

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