Shore Decor Project Story

Long Island, New York Home (Click on images to view larger)

This Long Island waterfront home was a three-part project, with the three parts executed over twenty years. What makes it memorable is that I was part of a fabulous team that worked together so well starting in 1984, again with additions to the team in 1989, and then again in 2003.  Lots of creativity and synergy with the client and the team helped make a beautiful estate.   I’m very lucky to have these clients, a couple which placed their trust in me not only with this project, but also with many other projects over the years.

The clients owned a late-nineteenth century house they had purchased in the 1960s. In the seventies, they decided to purchase the equally old house next door to use as their guesthouse. These homes were originally built as summer homes with no kitchens. Everyone was expected to eat at the local Inn and there were only a few year-round homes in this area. There was no insulation and minimal plumbing.

The project started in 1984 when Bill Taylor of Taylor Brothers Construction and I were hired to oversee renovation of the guesthouse on the property. The house had asbestos siding, a badly built one-story addition as a kitchen and an outside staircase leading to the second floor. An old photograph of the original house was discovered, showing it to have been a beautiful Victorian shingle style house with a wraparound porch. We used this to realize the makeover. We started by removing all the exterior cladding and interior sheetrock, exposing the original studs of the house and starting over with new materials, new electrical and plumbing, new everything! We kept all the original details and replicated them exactly on the doorframes and trim. The only thing we were able to keep were the original floors, even though they needed a lot of restoration work.

To add light to the downstairs, we decided to make all of the windows and interior door openings match in height, using as a reference the full height of the few existing first-floor floor-to-ceiling windows. New French doors, leading to the porch that now fully wrapped the house, helped to open up the house to the outside. Incidentally, French doors do appear to have originated in France at the end of the Renaissance, but really becoming popular in the nineteenth century. French doors were first used as large windows that reached down to the floor and opened onto small balconies, to allow more natural light and air to flow from room to room.

Existing split doors on the front and back entrance were salvaged, providing great airflow through the house. Inside, a new kitchen was created within the original house structure. An existing staircase from the living room to the second floor was expanded to the third floor’s former attic, with the attic space opened up to create a large one-room recreation area. This new spacious room could also be used for an overflow of guests, as we were able to add another bathroom to this floor. The one bathroom on the second floor was divided into two, allowing for better access for the occupants of the three bedrooms located on the second floor.

By the late eighties, the client’s main house was now in bad shape. It was literally collapsing inward, the floors were sagging, and the ridge beam had actually broken. Sadly, it was determined that the house would have to be demolished. The client wanted to continue the guesthouse’s motif of a large outside screened porch. An article in the New York Times about the design of houses with porches led the client to hire Chris Schmitt of Schmitt Walker Architects in 1989, joining the first two team members, Bill Taylor and me.

Chris designed a house that complemented the existing guesthouse and the other nearby older houses yet stood on its own. Covenants for the neighborhood required the new house to not exceed the footprint and height of the to-be-demolished house, and at the same time use a similar vocabulary of materials, detailing, and colors as could be found on the older houses in the neighborhood.

The design concept: a “T” configuration that allowed for a two-story living room with the screened porch wrapping on three sides. The house was originally designed with a large curved screen porch that opened onto the generous back yard with its orchard and salt marsh beyond. Due to the property restrictions, the designed porch had to be made into a smaller rectangular area.

Inside, the house’s central element is a massive fireplace opening onto the living room on one side and the dining room on the other, while also becoming the organizing device for the upstairs. The open relationship of these two spaces, and how they open onto the screened porch, makes the house ideal for entertaining. The dining area was deliberately designed to be larger than usual for further entertaining. To one side of the dining room is a spacious kitchen and breakfast area that also opens onto the screened porch. This kitchen was designed to facilitate catering for parties and dinners.

The clients had been living in Asia, where they developed a great fondness for wood as the principal material in their home. Here the floors are all antique recycled heart pine from South Carolina, the walls and ceilings are all western red cedar with cedar trim, and the exposed beams and roof trusses are hand crafted of New Hampshire oak.

Upstairs, the top of the stairs on the second floor is a balcony area that serves as the client’s library/office. It opens into the master bedroom with vaulted ceiling, and with exposed oak trusses similar to the living room. From the master bedroom and library/office on the second floor there are long vistas down the coast towards Long Beach.

Twelve years later, in 2003, the client wanted to add a pool and create privacy landscaping while linking the two houses conceptually. Enter again the same team, Chris Schmitt, Bill Taylor and myself. Added to the team was Hank White of HM White Site Architects for the landscaping. This phase involved addressing local and state regulations because the house was so close to protected wetlands. Hank developed a comprehensive site and landscape plan that reconciled the many environmental regulations while addressing surrounding property privacy edge conditions, wetland and adjacent tidal marsh habitats and of course satisfying the client’s needs. The landscape design showcased the unique qualities of the property’s upland wetland forest habitat.

To the client’s surprise, the local town’s building department discovered that a non-existing road splitting the properties had been decommissioned in the early sixties by the previous owner. The discovery of this decommissioned road, and the resulting changes to the building setbacks made it possible to build the originally-designed curved screened porch on the new house. This discovery also secured our ability to put in an aboveground swimming pool between the two houses. It’s not often that I applaud government officials, but I have to say in this case, we got to work with some very dedicated people, not only at the Town Planning Board, but also the Wetlands Commission, as well as the Environmental Control Board, to name a few. Having to coordinate all these people, along with the team was not the nightmare I envisioned it to be!

The landscape design that emerged created a sense of unification between the guest and main house. It preserved the unique qualities of the property’s upland wetland forest habitat. Selective editing of invasive and client-introduced non-conforming plantings, native choke cherry and red maple groves set within wetland meadow grasses were showcased as a landscape theme between the two sections. A root barrier was inserted at the fragmites reed grass edge to halt its further intrusion and allowed the new perimeter of native viburnum, bayberry, switch grass and wildflowers plantings to wrap and frame the pool and two-house setting. Other native grasses, flowering shrubs and trees were judiciously introduced to reinforce a series of distinctive outdoor rooms that defined the property’s different exterior uses. An outdoor lighting scheme highlights the property’s clarified path network and the irregular character of the mature cherry and maple trees, extending one’s connection to the diverse waterfront setting into the evening hours.

The client now enjoys a beautiful two-house retreat on the water in a natural setting not usually associated with being so close to New York City. We were lucky to have a wonderful client who so astutely chose us to work together on an evolving project over the years: it is so rare that that happens: a dream team, a great client and a great memory.