Hudson Valley House
30 years ago we were looking for a house in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley.
We saw exactly one house and bought it more or less on the spot.
It was an entirely underwhelming cottage-sized house, originally a one-room schoolhouse with 1940’s extensions, sited on a beautiful 20+ acre property. The former farm had ponds dredged out of a natural wetland and what seemed to us to be a nature preserve of birds, deer, beavers, bear, coyotes, as well as fish, frogs, turtles, snakes and bats. We loved it as much as we recognized its limitations.
Over the years we did all the small things we could like add porches and terraces; convert the garage to a bedroom then a studio; add a pool and guest cabin and generally upgrade the style with whatever we thought was cool at the time (remember the Soho store Zona?). I had a wood shop to do the heavier lifting and found that this escape from NYC was really a second job; I spent virtually every weekend on some project. At some point I sold my tools to quit my second job and settled in to the status quo.
The house really began as a one bedroom, one bathroom home with no dining room, with low ceilings. We struggled to see how a family of 5 was raised there (‘in close proximity’ was the only answer we came to). We went through phases of living there full time (and commuting to our NYC apt.), renting it out, putting it on the market for sale and finally, in 2016, decided to undertake the renovation we had considered for years.
We decided to maintain the footprint of the house, more or less, to avoid new foundations and to save the trees that had matured around the house. The moves were essentially vertical.
First we looked at a “bookend” scheme (reflected in the GIF) with matching old and new parts connected by a second floor walkway. We went through a traditional/modern dichotomy but Carin chimed in what turned out to be the defining critique of the approach: "Jim" she said “just don’t do one of those ‘Old vs Modern’ contrasting additions that architects always do”. I knew exactly what she meant (probably because I was considering doing just that).
What began to develop was a set of three units, with matching rooflines and heights. The original school house had almost no head clearance on the upper floor, so we raised that roof to an appropriate height. The ‘matching’ modules began to develop as increasingly modern transformations as they moved north from the original schoolhouse. Our commitment to the original foundations worked until the north, most modern module, which to maintain the width, height and roof line was cantilevered off its existing garage structure base. The exposed, primer red steel beam is the sole gesture to a distinctly modern element.
Cladding the intentionally mismatched modules almost entirely in white, including clapboard, board and batten, flat sheet siding and white metal roofing, kept everything unified by color. And as a gesture to the myriad white farmhouses that dot the area, white was a way to blur the architectural dialog going on and presenting a single face to the road, just a couple of hundred feet away.
Our approach respected the original siting and neighborhood context of simple rural structures, revealing itself as a sequence of almost cartoon-like houses arrayed in a staggered composition. While the front is relatively parsimonious with openings, the rear develops a corner window motif to take in the precisely framed views.
Inside there was an existing ground floor that needed to be refinished and made stylistically compatible with the new work above, but it is really the upper floor that defined the new direction. Eschewing sheetrock, all the walls are clad in vertical or horizontal painted wood with sheetrock limited to the cathedral ceilings. Floors are all radiant heated and the lack of air conditioning (and all the ducts that inevitably distort interiors) the kept the volumes a faithful reflection of the actual formal ideas.
Along with the red steel beam there is a tinted square lime plaster wall enclosing the translucent roofed mudroom. It sits as a floating block of masonry within the three module composition.
Near the house we had constructed a 10’ cube guest cabin with a hip roof. It became the repository of all the fashion we loved and discarded; hundreds of objects we once loved but no longer have the room (or desire) to display now line the walls of that concentrated gallery of our design history.
Houses in communities like Stanfordville rarely go unnoticed, and then they never go uncommented upon. One neighbor said they wanted to move to the street because of the new architecture. Others have wondered why we didn’t just built a “farmhouse”. I was sure I couldn’t convince them that it IS in fact a farmhouse, or more like a discussion in form about the 'idea of a farmhouse'.
Our ‘new’ house has changed our lives. As Carin returned from her Rome Prize she abandoned commercial work in favor of her own work, and she now has a full studio in which to work. I now have an upstate office I occupy about half the time, hoping for more upstate work to use the office as a base. And each of us consider the still tiny house to be a palace compared to our memory of the tiny cottage we absorbed.
Because the original house was so brilliantly sited we have never had water issues, pests are nearly non-existent and our views are protected and seem to landscape themselves. It is a paradise for a pair of New Yorkers and a place we plan to keep forever. The only downside is that it has given us a taste for change and we are now renovating the pool and considering a ‘barn’ for even more studio and work space. And being our own clients has reminded us of just how difficult it is to be a good client!
In all both humbling and energizing.