Elegant Solution

All houses have a story. This house has a saga. Call it the Three Ages of Architecture: modern, postmodern, and contemporary. The end result is a 4,600-square-foot house with six bedrooms, a home office, and a playroom, its upper story cantilevered over a picturesque Westchester County ravine. In the summer, from the road, the house seems to float in the trees—unlike its hulking neighbors. But it took the work of two sets of determined architects, first in 1958 and then in 2010, to make it look this easy.

“When I do these projects, we first want to preserve and respect a building that has some architectural significance,” says Peter Gluck, the house’s 2010 architect. “We don’t want to do the normal architect’s thing of adding your own gewgaw on the side of it. Instead, I try to really become familiar with the guy’s work.” Gluck had previously done additions to a house by Mies van der Rohe, a house by a follower of Frank Lloyd Wright, and a lovely eighteenth-century farmhouse. In each case he treated the house’s history, rather than its neighbors, as the context. “What interests me is the original idea. We’re cognizant of the fact that the house is going to change, and we make them so they can change.”

For the Mies project in Weston, Connecticut, Gluck decided to go back to the Japanese houses that inspired the modernists, creating a pavilion with sliding doors that stack and disappear. For the farmhouse, he created a set of obviously twentieth-century outbuildings, with the profile of sheds and rooms added over time. Here the history was early modernism, which according to Gluck meant, not to put too fine a point on it, “Simplicity and a relationship to the outside and to the landscape. No longer little shit windows with curtains, stairs climbing up a central hallway.”

In 1958, the architect Ladislav Rado moved his wife and two children into a home of his own design in Armonk, New York. It was a two-story, flat-roofed house that set open-plan living quarters atop a two-car garage, with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors pointed at the woods. Rado, a Czech émigré who practiced with the better-known Antonin Raymond, furnished the house with Bertoia chairs and Nelson lamps, plus metal-base furniture from his own line. The influence of Japan, the location of Raymond’s primary practice, was evident in sliding shoji panels and grass-cloth walls, plus the overall sparseness we now associate (positively) with midcentury modern houses.

By 1983, however, all those elements combined to make an interior that was, in the words of the New York Times’ Home section, “no longer up to date.” When the Rados moved out, the new owners brought in decorators. “Today, the interior is softer, more cluttered, fussier,” Suzanne Slesin wrote. “Now there is a profusion of indoor plants, new lighting, ornate antique pieces and lots of upholstered furniture.” A few years later, an addition was made to connect the downstairs bedroom to the main living space: a half-round stair tower, a form immediately recognizable as son-of-Michael-Graves, and one which brought the house decisively down to earth.

In 2008, Howard, a recently-separated surgeon with three children, was looking for a house. When he saw this one, he says, “I made the decision in ten minutes. It was the only house I looked at.” Howard liked the open plan, the wooded site, and the light on four sides. It wasn’t huge, and the living room was the center of the action. He didn’t know that the stair tower was no longer up to date. He moved in and painted the house an unfortunate shade of green. Two years later, he had plans to marry Janet, a psychoanalyst (hence the desire not to use their last names) with three children of her own.
It would have been easier and cheaper to leave, but he wanted to stay put.

It sounds like the premise for the ultimate renovation reality show: how do you get six teenagers, two adults, and two dogs into a midcentury modern house without destroying the reason you bought it in the first place?

Enter Gluck. “We met with two architects before we found Peter,” Janet says. “It was too small a project, they didn’t want to do it,” Howard says. “We felt like we got dumped,” Janet says. But Howard, who rises at five o’clock in the morning daily (and hence had no problem with the existing curtain-free glass in the master bedroom), loves Internet research. He started looking for architects who had added on to a modern masterpiece. “I wanted someone to preserve the original intent of Rado, since that’s what attracted me to the house,” Howard says. “Talking about putting in another level—the historic integrity would just be washed away.”

He found Peter Gluck and Partners, an Upper Manhattan design-build firm. Gluck and the project architect, Stacie Wong, drove up to see the house, then invited Howard and Janet back to the office to see their work. The firm has recently completed a number of ground-up houses with five-figure square footages, as well as award-winning institutional projects like the East Harlem School, and it might have passed on this project, were it not for the beauty of the original house and Gluck’s rapport with the clients. “This was an extremely good early-modern house, and in the 1980s the owners hired a decorator to warm it up and basically destroyed the house,” he says. “It was not only gratifying to renovate and to respect the original intention, but to add to it to cope with a more modern program.”

The project had a number of challenges. Only 1,000 square feet could be added to the original house. The clients didn’t want to spend more than $500,000, which sounds like a lot, but isn’t when adding multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, placing steel columns under the new cantilever, and re-siding the upper story. “To do a renovation the smartest way, you would touch only one side,” Wong says. “We ended up touching everything.” The firm typically serves as general contractor for their projects, which they say reduces costs by a third. In this case, one of the two Gluck employees on site was also a carpenter, and built part of the renovation himself. The architects also set an extremely ambitious construction timeline: May to September 2010. The family was in by Thanksgiving.

To maintain the separation between the parents’ and children’s rooms, which existed in the original plan, Gluck and Wong decided to stretch out both ends of the house. They expanded the master bedroom and bathroom and added closets and a dressing area on the ravine end, while adding a bedroom and a playroom on the opposite side. Downstairs, they created an office for Janet’s practice on the ground floor and a bedroom behind that, tucking the house more closely into the hillside. A big debate, since the half-round stair tower had to go, was how to connect the existing down-stairs bedroom to the upstairs. A new interior stair would have eaten up the room for closets. A fire pole was mentioned. But in the end, everyone decided that the existing front staircase—an elegant open-tread relic of the 1950s with delicate iron balusters—was good enough.

One of the things Gluck appreciated most about the house was the basic nature of its details. The windows were simply sheets of single-pane plate glass set into rabbeted wood members. When new windows were inserted, the architects imitated that detail, substituting more energy-efficient double-glazing. The main deck was the same simple story: no railings, just a slatted, Rado-designed bench on thin iron legs that stands off to the side, allowing for an unobstructed view of the landscape. The architects added another bench to match, but left the rest of the surface alone. (If they had replaced it, it would need to be brought up to present-day safety codes.)

“There is a heroicism to living in a house like this that I appreciate,” Gluck says. “Living with no curtains. Being sensitive to the seasons, to the weather. Having to give up objects because too many mess it up.” In the renovation, they wanted to make sure there were enough closets to contain a reasonable amount of clutter, without encouraging the traditional, fussy decor of the previous owners.

“Their program was that they needed six bedrooms,” Gluck says, “but we thought about how that would change. A lot of their kids are aging out. The TV room could become an eating area. The walls between the kids’ bedrooms are not structural, so they could be combined.” Gluck tries to provide similar flexibility in his institutional projects. “Structurally, they are loft buildings with no interior columns. The walls can be moved. In schools all over New York City the pedagogy is changing, but you can’t change the buildings because of the masonry structure.”

The biggest visible update is the new siding. The original house had vertical wood siding, which was painted gray. The postmodern version had also been gray, until Howard’s ill-fated paint job. But with new construction on both ends, the upstairs needed something to make it cohere. Gluck and Wong chose Cambia, a high-tech wood that is baked so that it is free of the organic material that leads to rot. A horizontal strip of Cambia now edges the roof, all the way around the house. The front is fitted with Cambia panels that mimic the rhythm of the original windows, and suggest that the whole wall could be opened up. On the back, the wood emphasizes the roof’s new oblique angle, which juts out over the master bedroom. The ground floor was united by a fresh paint job, but you can still see evidence of the house’s earlier eras in the ends of the cinderblock walls that pop out of the wood siding.

“During the moral period of early modernism, if you used wood you would have painted it white,” Gluck says, “but modern architecture moving forward has become much more rich in materials and able to accommodate emotional needs. With the addition of rooms that can be used as TV rooms, a desk space, that enclosed deck, there are retreats in the house.” Now that the dust has settled, Howard and Janet are entirely satisfied with the result. They like that they can be woken up by moonlight in the bedroom, which is still without shades.

On a sunny day they can sit inside looking at the woods and, as Janet puts it, “not feel like losers.” She also appreciates Rado’s philosophy, recovered by Gluck, of doing more with less. She moved here from a larger house her family had inhabited for 15 years, and had jettisoned a lot of possessions. “This is an easier way to live,” Janet says, “to keep things organized and flowing.”

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  • Magda Biernat
  • courtesy Peter Gluck and Partners
  • Courtesy Peter Gluck and Partners
  • Courtesy Peter Gluck and Partners
  • Magda Biernat
  • Elizabeth Felicella
  • Magda Biernat
  • Magda Biernat
  • Peter Gluck and Partners
  • Magda Biernat
  • Elizabeth Felicella
  • Magda Biernat
Magda Biernat courtesy Peter Gluck and Partners Courtesy Peter Gluck and Partners Courtesy Peter Gluck and Partners Magda Biernat Elizabeth Felicella Magda Biernat Magda Biernat Peter Gluck and Partners Magda Biernat Elizabeth Felicella Magda Biernat
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