Monday, September 27, 2010

The House that Straddled Time

By Beth Herman

It's either in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley or in your wildest dreams, depending on how much Ketel One you've had to drink the night before, but for a noted NYC expat/physician, this place is really home.

For Winchester, Va.-based Chuck Swartz and Beth Reader of Reader & Swartz Architects, creating a place to retire for a client whose lifetime interests included opera and what some might consider colliding collections of pop art, rare books, skeletal remains, insects, an imposing statue of bad-boy Greek character Actaeon and antique scientific oddities presented a design challenge largely unparalleled in their 20 years in practice together, but one the firm truly embraced. Ultimately receiving an AIA D.C. merit award in the historic resources category, the architects’ efforts to integrate 300 years of art, objects, books and furniture, including a 1959 Eames chair and Mies van der Rohe daybed, into slightly more than 3,000 s.f. of a late 19th century “street side farm house,” known as vernacular Victorian, resulted in a home that’s rich, tactile appeal rivaled its intellectual brio.

“When you see these things,” Swartz said of his client’s eclectic though erudite taste, “it’s not an ego collection for him. He actually reads these amazing books and knows all about them. And all of the objects – he knows who did them, who they were related to. He lives in the history of Western culture.”

Upstairs, Downstairs

Originally four apartments, Reader & Swartz Architects, who also credit Lodge Construction, Inc.’s craftspeople and project manager Earl Burroughs, began by converting the structure into two spaces: lower and loft. The smaller, bottom living space of 939 s.f. went to the homeowner’s caretaker who maintains the precisely landscaped, vibrant grounds and gardens that further define the space. Primarily a renovation, the only addition to the premises was the inclusion of another library, in fact a third library, commonly referred to as the “secret” library due to its windowless location, which houses some of the homeowner’s estimated 4,000-book collection under unusually creative circumstances.

“In this case, the library is the room and the room is the library,” Swartz explained, noting the shelves go from floor-to-ceiling on all four chocolate brown walls in the 13x13x13-ft space. When the door - which is backed by more shelving - is closed, it disappears, and a highly mobile library ladder runs the entire perimeter of all four walls to access any and all books. A 1920s art deco Murano glass light fixture hangs from a coffered ceiling, and isn’t electrified, holding candles instead. The room is actually lit by a minimalist fixture above this one, which shines down on the glass. “We’re taking an old light fixture and thinking of it as an object rather than a source of light," Swartz said, which is exemplary of other repurposed entities throughout the home. “Everything is looked at for its properties and thought about a lot,” Swartz noted. “So if something is beautiful and (the homeowner) loved it, we figured out how to have it make sense in the building.”

In the garden library, which overlooks a rather formal Karesansui rock garden, black Corian bookshelves are traversed by tapered, vertical, floor-to-ceiling pieces of wood, almost like airplane wings, which add precision and scale to that room’s collection of books. The remaining library, called the main salon, is a large, pale green room with floor-to-ceiling glass, a barrel-vaulted ceiling and mirrors at each end. On one wall is a changeable wooden apparatus, thought of as kinetic or interactive sculpture. “The verticals are set, but all the horizontal pieces can be unscrewed very quickly, almost in IKEA fashion,” Swartz explained, adding the whole composition can be moved around to accommodate the client’s glassware, antique medical objects, sea shells and more. “He calls it his Wundercamera,” Swartz quipped.

The Butler with the Candlestick in the Kitchen

In tandem with the home’s robust personality and old/new functionality, the kitchen needed to have its own voice. The last thing the team desired was to default to a “subdivision-type” kitchen with little dignity. “We wanted the space to be the way a really old kitchen would be, where it’s a room with things that are worthy,” Swartz explained. In this respect, plastic laminate “caskets” were designed to hold base cabinets and wall cabinets so that everything looks like built-in furniture. While the cabinets themselves are modern, they’re made of red oak providing a grain that, at closer look, permeates their black veneer. Visible joists were covered with black milk paint, with a floor on top of them so that the wood is visible. White subway tile on the walls flanks concrete countertops, and glass blocks from an old building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, separate the kitchen from a bathroom but allow light to shine through (as well as down the staircase when the bathroom is in use). A high-design Italian light fixture from the 1950s punctuates the space, with nearly all of the home’s light fixtures - such as the main salon’s Vassilakis Takis colored lights on stalks display - offering some kind of pedigree, according to Swartz. “The kitchen actually has an old feel without any particular reference to time,” he affirmed.

Lie Back and Think of England

Recalling the homeowner’s English roots and dry sense of humor, Swartz said a problem arose when the mechanical system had to be placed outside, up high, in plain sight of the bedroom. A resulting abstract steel pyramid design, in a kind of homage to artist Sol LeWitt whose actual work can be found in other places inside and outside the building, was cut by computer to form what is affectionately called “mechanical lingerie” or the “secular steeple.” In short, it camouflages the mechanical hardware and reflects the rooftops of Great Britain. And where the loft itself utilizes floor-to-ceiling glass to appreciate the view of the gardens below, the façade of the first floor caretaker’s unit - in a nod to history and for privacy - is clad in something resembling Victorian-era pressed metal, similar to what’s seen on ceilings in old stores or in restaurants.

The overall structure, which Swartz said is not a restoration but in sustainable terms a reuse of an old building, is compared, by the architect, to a chef who might find some less contemporary thought-of foods, such as venison or cornbread, and use them in a whole new way. “It doesn’t have a static view of either architecture or history,” Swartz said about the home. “It’s a serious building, done with an open-minded sense of humor. It’s not trying to be old or modern or opulent or minimalist or anything. It’s more of a celebration of life.”


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Anonymous said...

Ugh? Seriously? How can you possibly think that? This is an incredibly cool house with finally some thoughtful, interesting design and great attention to detail. Good thing there are some people in the world who want a distinctive home that represents their personality and don't settle for the status quo.

Anonymous said...

But sometimes the "status quo" is more attractive than some crazy mish-mash Beetlejuice house (love the reference, Anon 4:29!). This poor old house suffers from multiple personality disorder. If you like it, that's fine, but don't try to convince others that this is a beautiful house by society's standards.

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