Building on the Past pix
Renovating a house in Bridgehampton, New York, Steven Harris and Lucien Rees-Roberts stay true to the spirit of Norman Jaffe
Alastair Gordon -- Interior Design, 3/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
In Bridgehampton, New York, stands a 1982 Norman Jaffe house that has been renovated by Steven Harris Architects and ReesRoberts + Partners.
This 1970's photograph shows four of the six Sam's Creek houses. Photography: Paul Warchol.
The first house was completed in 1972. Photography: courtesy of the Norman Jaffe Architectural Association.
Jaffe's own house, circa 1979, was the fifth one built; photography: Paul Warchol.
A drawing shows how berms and plantings afford privacy to three houses.
The 1982 house's living area has always been illuminated by two skylights. Photography: courtesy of the Norman Jaffe Architectural Association.
Today, Harry Bertoia's chairs and Isamu Noguchi's table sit in the 1982 house's entry, where slate pavers surround a sunken garden.
Lucien Rees-Roberts custom-designed the linen-covered sectional sofa and the stained-oak side table in the living area; photography: Nikolas Koenig.
Cedar clads much of the rear elevation.
Rees-Roberts selected the living area's bronze table lamp, African stool, and mohair-covered Womb chair and ottoman by Eero Saarinen. The lamp near the fireplace and the wool rug are custom.
Harris re-stained the balcony office's original cedar paneling. Against it hangs an acrylic on canvas by Ray Prohaska.
A new 1,100-square-foot structure contains guest quarters above and a two-car garage below.
In the guest suite's hallway stands a sculpture by Louis Trakis.
Part of Harris's extension to the main house, the den features Rees-Roberts's custom sectional, a Saarinen pedestal table, a bleached-mahogany side table, and a Prohaska acrylic on canvas; photography: Nikolas Koenig.
Demolishing a single-car garage allowed Harris to add the den and expand the kitchen.
The guest suite has its own cedar-clad balcony.
To some, Norman Jaffe is remembered for his mysterious disappearance in 1993—never returning from a swim off the beach in Bridgehampton, New York, and leaving just his shirt and wallet behind on the sand. But, as one of Eastern Long Island's most prolific architects, he also left a legacy of innovation that deserves recognition. While organizing "Romantic Modernist: The Life and Work of Norman Jaffe, Architect," at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton in 2005, I made a rough count of over 45 houses in the Hamptons alone as well as a golf club, a restaurant, and the critically acclaimed sanctuary Gates of the Grove at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.
Jaffe watched with dismay as houses progressively filled in the area's beachfronts and potato fields in the 1970's. (His indignation may have been mixed with guilt, since some of those houses were his.) Preservation versus development, the prevailing issue then, eventually led to the neo-vernacular craze of the '80's—as if the right gable or picket fence could offset the impact of overdevelopment. Jaffe asked a different question: How could he build on the flat, open landscape in a less invasive way, without abandoning his modernist roots?
Never comfortable with clinical Euro-modernism, Jaffe had developed his own emotional, if somewhat clunky interpretation characterized by rough stone foundations and exaggerated rooflines. This style also grew from his admiration of Frank Lloyd Wright and studies under Joseph Esherick and William Wurster at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1950's. But it wasn't until 1972, at the Sam's Creek development in Bridgehampton, that Jaffe saw a chance to build a series of low-lying houses—including one for himself—that would float cloudlike across the site, softly merged into the setting. While it would take 10 years to complete the project, Jaffe succeeded in offering an alternative to uncoordinated sprawl. Earthen berms and discreet barriers of trees and shrubs provided privacy between the six contiguous lots, all approximately 1 acre. The most radical concept that Jaffe introduced was a covenant preserving a common green along the creek. "The site is at once the base, the foreground, and the background," he once said.
The last of the houses he built—and a strong example of his style—was for a close friend, real-estate developer Tony Leichter. The generating principle was a central mass of fieldstone, around which the volume evolved in planes of cedar siding. Just inside the front door was a Zen Master Meets James Bond sunken garden with bamboo plants artfully positioned inside a surround of slate pavers. Beyond, the house unfolded in shifting levels and ambient lighting effects. Jaffe punctured the roof with skylights to create a dramatic play of natural illumination. He loved to sit in the living area and watch their light wash across the rough stone face of the towering fireplace on one side of the house's central mass. Inside it, a dungeon-style staircase wound up to the master suite.
When a New York couple bought the property from Leichter, they hired Steven Harris Architects and ReesRoberts + Partners to update the house yet retain as much of its original spirit as possible. Lucien Rees-Roberts began with cosmetic changes. He removed a wall of mirrors; cleaned the cedar paneling and gave it a light stain; repainted dark green doors in charcoal gray; and brought in a fresh bed of stones and new plants for the entry's garden. To complement the existing architecture, he designed an L-shape cream-colored sectional and two round stained-oak side tables for the living area. Then he chose sympathetic furnishings: Eero Saarinen's Womb chair and ottoman in orange mohair, a mid-century tripod lamp, a pea-green wool rug, and an African wooden stool. Abstract paintings and sculpture by local artists have been installed throughout.
The area that needed the most architectural intervention was a tight little corner consisting of a tiny kitchen, pantry, and guest room. By removing a single-car garage from the body of the main house, Steven Harris was able to expand the kitchen and add a cedar-wrapped den while maintaining the lines of Jaffe's structure. After losing that garage, Harris and Rees-Roberts proceeded to build a completely separate two-story structure housing a guest suite above and a two-car garage below, set into a small rise. "Partially submerging the garage in the earth re-creates the feel of a flowing, connected landscape," Harris explains. Then there's the structure's horizontal cedar siding atop a fieldstone base—in the Sam's Creek style. On first glance, they could easily pass as Jaffe originals.