Fred A. Bernstein

In Princeton, Architects Get Lucky

Ron Witte and Sarah Whiting live in a modest, modernist masterpiece.

Published in The New York Times, February 26, 2006

LAST summer, Ron Witte and Sarah Whiting, husband-and-wife architecture professors, found themselves head-over-heels for a house in Princeton, N.J., a rare modernist masterpiece in a sea of trite colonials. "So we scraped together every last penny for our offer," Ms. Whiting recalled.

But their scrapings were less than the asking price. So, along with their bid, the couple submitted a letter explaining their attraction to the house.

The sellers, Estelle and Harold Kuhn, had commissioned the house in 1960. "We had a lot of anxiety about selling a place that we loved so much," Ms. Kuhn, now 79, recalled. But when the Kuhns read the letter from Ms. Whiting and Mr. Witte and met them a few weeks later, "this lump of misery inside of me melted away," Ms. Kuhn said.

The Kuhns accepted the couple's offer, although another bidder had offered several thousand dollars more.

"The lesson of the story is that words really matter," said Ms. Whiting, who has spent 20 years writing about architecture.

She and Mr. Witte bought the house in August, just before they began teaching at Princeton's architecture school. They did not bring a lot of furniture from their last house, outside Boston, but it turned out not to matter. The Kuhns left much of their furniture, the kind of midcentury pieces that now command astonishing prices at auction.

The couple already owned a pied-�-terre near Lincoln Center, which is now their full-time residence. "We had everything we needed here," Ms. Kuhn said. "And we don't like clutter." Once their three sons took everything they wanted, the Kuhns asked the buyers for a token payment for whatever remained in the house.

They said they were happier thinking the house would stay the way it was than making a few (or even more than a few) thousand dollars selling their pieces.

The living room contains chairs by Eero Saarinen and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and a large print by Louise Nevelson, all in excellent condition. There are built-in cabinets and original light fixtures. "Most of the room is exactly how it's been for more than 40 years," Mr. Witte said.

That is how they plan to keep it. The Kuhns (he was a Princeton math professor, she a community activist) had worked with a distinguished architect, Thaddeus Longstreth, to design every element of the house. When it came time to furnish it, "they responded to Longstreth's choices with equally enlightened choices of their own," Mr. Witte said.

"For architects," he said, "it's terribly affirming, exhilarating even, to see that kind of commitment to design. We felt like we were taking on an almost curatorial role."

The house treads lightly on its wooded 2.2-acre site. The main level has a large living room with floor-to-ceiling glass, a kitchen with a bubble skylight and a dining room big enough for two large tables. The master bedroom, also on the main level, is only about 160 square feet, which is small by today's standards. But to Ms. Whiting and Mr. Witte, the room's architectural qualities, including walls of wood (instead of Sheetrock) and two facing ribbons of glass, are compensation.

Downstairs are three small bedrooms - designed for the Kuhns' children - and a former playroom that is now the office of the Witte-Whiting firm, WW Architecture. (As if by fate, the carpet that the Kuhns left has a design based on repeating W's.) Large expanses of glass lead to terraces on both levels.

Mr. Witte, 45, and Ms. Whiting, 41, met in 1987, when they were architecture students at Princeton. Since then, they have taught simultaneously at the University of Florida, the University of Kentucky and Harvard. They are known as theorists. But they are also at a stage of their careers where their designs for actual buildings are beginning to get noticed. (Their proposal for an art museum at San Jose State University has been widely praised and could be built in a couple of years.)

When they were offered jobs at Princeton, one of their concerns was whether New Jersey was a place where they could build a practice. But as their own studies had shown, architectural innovation often originates in the suburbs.

Houses like the ones the Kuhns built prove the point. In the 1950's and 1960's, Mr. Longstreth, a disciple of the Austria-born, California-based architect Richard Neutra, designed houses for a number of Princeton professors, including the world-renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. "Back then, especially if you were in math or science, modernism was part of your ethos," Mr. Witte said.

Last spring, Stan Allen, the dean of Princeton's School of Architecture, was determined to lure the couple from Harvard, where they had taught since the late 1990's. But Princeton real estate is notoriously expensive. "And Sarah doesn't drive, so we were worried about how far we'd have to be from campus," Mr. Witte said.

Mr. Allen took the couple to see some of the more interesting houses on the market. "Stan would say, 'There's a nice modernist house just around the bend,' and then we'd turn the corner and we'd see a lot where the house had just been torn down," Ms. Whiting said. "The market pressures are that great."

They were particularly excited when they saw the Longstreth house. The Kuhns had been spending more time in their apartment in the city. They decided to live there full time after negotiating the long driveway to their Princeton house became a problem. Because the driveway isn't paved, plowing is extremely difficult, the Kuhns explained.

That same driveway helped Ms. Whiting and Mr. Witte. The real estate agent, according to Ms. Whiting, said, "The driveway's impossible - make them a low-ball offer."

Since Ms. Whiting and Mr. Witte could not afford the full asking price, they did make a low offer of around $800,000. But another bidder offered more, and he was also an architecture lover. (The Kuhns were determined to weed out buyers who would tear the building down.) But the Kuhns didn't know if he would live in the house full time.

By contrast, Ms. Whiting and Mr. Witte were committed to making the house their home. Although they don't have children, they do have two cats, Odette and Yvette. "We loved Ron and Sarah," Mr. Kuhn, 80, said.

"There was a familial inheritance thing about the whole process," Mr. Witte said.

The other night, Mr. Witte and Ms. Whiting had some of their students over for dinner. They cooked on the original appliances (including an electric range with controls that look like the buttons on a car radio), and they played music on the Kuhns' hi-fi. They reveled in the openness of the house, where even at night the indoors and outdoors seem to merge.

It was 1:30 a.m. before the party broke up. "It's a house you don't want to leave," Ms. Whiting said.