Practice Makes Perfect
Less skillful architects might have balked at the clients’ idea: a house that’s both intimate and open? Is it even possible? Can cozy gathering spots really coexist with airy spaces that foster big-scale entertaining?
Not surprisingly, given the scope of their remarkable work, Bernard Wharton and Michael McClung, architects with the Connecticut firm Shope Reno Wharton, didn’t find the concept at all problematic. For them, a timeless house that would complement its lovely neighborhood would, of course, be accommodating on all fronts.
The green slice of Boston-area suburbia where this house sits has a rich heritage. Legendary American architect Henry Hobson Richardson spent time in the neighborhood. Wharton says that Richardson’s graceful designs and adept use of materials came to mind as he contemplated his clients’ wish list.
Having commissioned several new houses in the past, the owners were no neophytes when it came to the ins and outs of building. Just the contrary, in fact: past experiences had given strength to their ideas and raised their expectations. “We knew we wanted a home large enough to welcome our children, extended family and friends, but one that also felt warm and inviting,” the husband explains. “Let’s just say we’ve been practicing since the ’70s and finally, this time, it’s perfect.”
The beautiful house is not one to flaunt its attributes. First-time visitors are charmed by the gradual way the building reveals itself as they move up the driveway. And what a revelation! The homeowner’s own words—“a fusion of Arts and Crafts with Asian influences”—are an accurate but modest description of the graceful house. Its predominant material, granite, fosters solidity, giving the sense that the house, as Wharton says, “grows out of the site.” But details both subtle and striking add softness, fluidity and drama. Horizontal bands of red brick help direct the eye heavenward along the cool granite. Overhanging roofs and gables end in a gentle flare. And lots of glass lends lightness and transparency. Arrive in the generous cobblestone courtyard at night and the house is a glowing jewel-box. The rear elevation focuses on the landscape, featuring flowers or foliage in every window. As Wharton—who has a firm grip on what makes people happy—sees it, framed views equal paintings. Never mind that colors shift with the seasons. Astute designer Nannette Lewis has contrived a stylish interior that never battles with nature whatever the time of year. Her primarily pale palette also allows the architecture to shine and provides an ideal backdrop for the owner’s burgeoning art collection.
Having worked with these clients on their previous homes, Lewis, based in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, understands their finely tuned aesthetic. It’s one that suits her own philosophy: “I think it’s important that should any of my clients have need for an extra seat, they can shift a chair from, say, the dining room to the living room and have it still look good,” she says. “That’s why you’ll never find me doing a bright red room with a blue room and so forth.”
For a home sporting spaces that flow one to the other, there couldn’t be a more convivial decor. Antiques (many purchased on a buying trip Lewis and the owners took abroad) marry effortlessly with new custom pieces. The beautiful Biedermeier table anchoring the entry is eye-widening but not knockdown flamboyant. And fabrics—honey-hued velvet covering the Biedermeier armchairs in the living room, buttery silk drapes skimming the oak floor in the dining room—are lush but not pretentious. “These owners never wanted a showhouse. But because they frequently host charitable events, they needed elegant rooms that were also comfortable for crowds,” Lewis says.
Small dollops of cleverly placed color, such as the living room’s emerald-green ottoman, add liveliness without detracting from the art collection. Seated at the mahogany dining table Lewis designed, for instance, guests can look through to the living room and take in a medley of visual treats. Paintings, sculptures and tribal pieces look equally at home. And what’s this? Above their heads, a series of thin rings trace a celestial outline in the center of the dining room ceiling. “Unlike a coffered ceiling, it’s a low-key detail but it makes a huge difference,” says Wharton.
The butternut-colored paneled library exhibits a slightly different mood. “We took the palette a bit deeper here with rich reds, burgundies and gold,” Lewis says of the snug refuge that sits off the living room. Lewis designed the custom rug that centers the scene. The understated coffee table is one of the few pieces the owners brought from their former address. Other prizes include the antique desk behind the sofa, a piece that evokes the dying arts of letter writing and journal keeping.
The kitchen stands as the epitome of the homeowners’ desire for both openness and intimacy. At one end of the generous room, the cooking zone rests beneath an oak-paneled ceiling. The other end holds a homey family room complete with fireplace. An oak gathering table separates the spaces. There’s an island surrounded with leather stools for perching and a handy spot for casual dining. “It’s all we’ve ever wanted,” the husband says, “a great combination of family room and working kitchen along with a breakfast room for intimate meals.”
There’s more wizardry unfolding in the house. The graceful staircase that climbs to the second-floor bedrooms and on to the third-floor exercise room is punctuated with ornamental newel posts. “They’re another surprise—a bit of architecture within architecture,” Wharton says. “The owners travel these stairs every day. I want them to take notice and enjoy the experience. It should never get old.”
Such a thoughtful approach assured the home’s success. But Lewis and the architects give a lion’s share of credit to the foresight and confidence of the husband and wife. “Their involvement was key,” Wharton says. “They assembled a team that we all felt part of. That’s what made this such a strong project.”
In brief, a feeling of content pervades every corner. Building a new house would have been fun enough; creating the place of your dreams to share with others is another story, one with an even more meaningful ending.
Architecture: Bernard Wharton and Michael McClung, Shope Reno Wharton Architecture
Interior design: Nannette Lewis
Builder: Andrew Goldstein and Charles Barry, Thoughtforms
Landscape architecture: Morgan Wheelock
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