Converting a Warehouse
A rather straightforward entry stair bypasses the commercial ground floor as it leads up to the main living level. Here the couple and their two young boys enjoy an open-plan living and dining area with a kitchen that extends over the garden and is accessible from a rear exterior stair. Between the living and dining areas, an open stair occupies the original opening between floors; it leads up to the sleeping level, where there is a voluminous, skylit landing, three small bedrooms (one doubles as an evening reading room and guest bedroom), two baths, and a good deal of built-in storage. One story farther up is a mechanical/laundry room and a study area overlooking a generous, room-like roof terrace, complete with defining hedge, slate dining table, and outdoor fireplace.
“Although we were really limited in terms of space,” says Harris, “we thought it important to make rooms the clients didn’t necessarily need right away, but that would become important later as the children grow.” The guest room on the sleeping level, for example, can easily be converted into a child’s room, while the upper-level study could just as well accommodate occasional guests.
Aware of the conventions of historic preservation and architectural typology (and the pleasure of subverting them), Harris approached the project as an opportunity to take an older building and transport it into the present. In his words, “We were very careful about walking the line between things that are old and things that are new. In much of the home, especially on the main floor, our interventions are pretty invisible. But the elements we added, particularly the extension on the back and the top of the home, inflect themselves very differently.” The building envelope was stretched up and out to accommodate various program elements, and these extensions were designed and built in a decidedly modern way. The entire kitchen was built as an addition more than six feet above the rear garden. It is a thoroughly modern space wrapped in an aluminum and glass curtain wall, and its roof provides a terrace for the otherwise diminutive master bedroom. Likewise, the new uppermost level is built as an aluminum and glass box that admits light into the stairwell while providing access to the expansive, newly added roof patio.
Furniture for the Villa
Working with project architect Granger Moorhead, Harris approached the building shell respectfully. “There are too many New York homes where the first thing that hits you when you enter is the year it was renovated,” says Harris. Concrete, which had been poured over the original wood floor by a previous tenant, was removed immediately at the advice of a structural engineer. A new floor of antique hard pine was installed, running the width of the house except in the kitchen extension, where it runs front to back. Layers of white paint were hand-stripped from the open wood ceiling, freestanding partitions were removed, and completely new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems were installed. Layers of paint were also removed from the facade, and Harris had the bricks repointed only as required. A new layer of gray stucco was applied to the base on the front while, at the rear, a colorful yellow stucco was added. New windows were installed in compliance with local landmarks law.
Modern and traditional elements commingle throughout the interior spaces, surfaces, and furnishings as well. This interplay reflects not only Harris’s interpretation of the building, but also the clients themselves. An investment banker who specializes in non-profit health care finance, Tom Whalen studied architecture at Yale University (where Harris currently teaches) and sees himself as a committed modernist. By contrast, Dana Whalen, a Presbyterian minister currently on sabbatical, prefers the 18th century style she enjoyed while studying in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown quarter. What links the married couple is a shared taste for geometric rigor, smooth surfaces, and formal austerity.
Paneling used extensively through the lower and upper levels solves the practical need for storage while playing out the relation of new and old along vertical surfaces. The grid of paneling reiterates the grid of the curtain wall. The staircase between living and sleeping levels also mediates between new and old with its antique pine planks, modernist structure, and waxed steel rail. Likewise, the furnishings selected by Harris’s collaborator, Lucien Rees-Roberts, join modernist, 18th century, and more casual pieces within an elegant, straightforward ensemble.
Living Areas and Cross Sections
Unfussy and well-equipped, the living area works as well for entertaining as it does for children’s playtime. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves offer easy access to the couple’s treasured books while also providing a backdrop for works of art. Furniture moves out of the way to accommodate the boys’ sprawling train track and other toys. A baby grand piano sits comfortably in one corner. The dining area, furnished with a large wooden table and 18th-century chairs found at auction, meets the kitchen across a screen wall of cupboards.
Tucked behind the grid of white wood paneling are many different service spaces–bathrooms, closets, cabinets, nooks, and drawers–even a little room behind the baby grand that holds audio/visual equipment and other electronics. In one of the panels, a tiny door opens to reveal the original mason’s stone, hidden yet accessible to enhance its quirky aura. At all scales, Harris merges the contingencies and necessities of everyday life with the idiosyncracies of a historic building, and allows the results to come forth with a lively mix of pragmatism, possibility, and pleasure.