Antique harmonizes with modern at Tsao & McKown's renovated Wheatleigh hotel in the Berkshires
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 1/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
"We normally work in a very modern vocabulary," says Zack McKown, a partner with Calvin Tsao in the New York firm Tsao & McKown Architects. But, McKown adds, the duo's refurbishment of the Wheatleigh hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, was "more about bringing a modern sensibility to a historic property." Built as a private residence in 1893 by Peabody & Stearns, the 22,000-square-foot quattrocento-style villa passed through a number of hands—including those of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—before Susan and Linfield Simon purchased the property and converted it into a hotel in 1981. Four years ago, the Simons decided it was time for a full aesthetic overhaul and tapped Tsao & McKown for the task.
"It was a great starting place," recalls McKown, who could see that the building, although timeworn, had wonderful bones. "Susan and Lin had already built up an incredible staff and an incredible restaurant, so the renovation was a matter of putting the last piece of the puzzle into place." Remodeling was completed over the course of four years while the hotel remained operational. "They were eager to complete the project quickly," says McKown, "but they understood that some things—such as custom work—necessarily take time." And, indeed, are worth the wait. The unhurried process allowed the architects to observe the building and its relationship to the 22-acre Frederick Law Olmsted grounds through the passing seasons. The verdant Berkshires landscape largely influenced the color and materials selection and the overall aesthetic tone. "We designed from the outside in," explains Tsao.
Architectural modifications focused on streamlining overscale and unnecessary embellishments such as heavy moldings and false columns. "We consciously simplified," says McKown—a strategy that extended to the decor as well. "Susan and I requested a soft, warm look—more Armani than Chanel," explains Linfield Simon. "We didn't want the architecture and the decoration to conflict." Tsao and McKown struck a calibrated balance between old and new, mixing antiques with custom furnishings and accessories, many modeled after pieces the architects had amassed during their travels. The effect is as if a single family had lived in the property continuously, each generation adding a few elements of its own. "This conceit allowed us the freedom to mix in a way that made sense," says McKown.
Although each guest room features different furnishings, all share a common sensibility, the unfussy elegance that is the firm's hallmark. The owners, who collect contemporary American ceramics, included original pieces in every room. "It's serious art," says Linfield Simon. "It's part of what makes the Wheatleigh unusual."
Guest bathrooms were designed to appear original to the building, with handblown glass light fixtures, limestone floors, painted plaster walls, and marble-topped vanities. The sculptural antique soaking tubs, 6 1/2 feet long and 30 inches deep, were imported from London; each required the assistance of cranes and four laborers for placement.
"The Simons wanted to do something lasting, imbued with quality and comfort, sensitivity and intelligence," says McKown. "They set the standard very, very high." And Tsao and McKown clearly achieved it.