Fred A. Bernstein

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Modernism Comes to Frump's Island

A new house breaks with tradition

Published in The New York Times, July 9, 2006

IN the 1990's, when he was the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Harry Parker III hired the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to replace the old de Young Museum building in Golden Gate Park. After years of controversy, the new building opened last October to rave reviews.

In New York, Mr. Parker's architectural patronage is a bit more modest. He and his wife, Ellen, commissioned a three-room addition to their Victorian cottage on Fishers Island, which is part of Suffolk County but is reached by ferry from New London, Conn.

The Parkers' addition, of concrete block and translucent fiberglass, is an anomaly on the island, where until recently the attitude toward modernism was "not in my backyard," said Henry Smith-Miller, a New York architect whose father, Theodore Smith-Miller, designed several houses there in the 1960's.

The Parkers' foray into modernism is in their backyard. The 1,000-square-foot addition - a living room, bedroom and bathroom - is separated by a breezeway from a small two-story Victorian cottage.

The old peak-roofed cottage "had a lot of personality," Mr. Parker said, "like something in a Hopper painting."

Simply enlarging the white clapboard cottage, built for a hotel manager in the 1890's, would have "obscured its cute proportions," Mr. Parker said, and "would have made the building ungainly."

Instead, the couple's architect, Bill Ryall of Ryall Porter Architects in Manhattan, inserted a 10-foot-wide breezeway between the house and the addition. The resulting building is a two-headed animal. "The juxtaposition of old and new is exciting," Mr. Parker said.

Some of the walls of the addition are Homasote, a type of panel made from recycled newsprint. (The Parkers, who have lots of paintings, like the fact that Homasote "heals itself" when a nail is removed.) Some of the ceilings are Kalwall, an insulated fiberglass product common in high school cafeterias and reminiscent of shoji screens.

Preparing for a time when they can no longer climb stairs, the couple asked Mr. Ryall to include a bedroom in the addition.

The scarcity of modern architecture on Fishers Island may have something do with Windshield, a 14,000-square-foot stucco-and-glass house that occupied a prominent location on the island. The house was designed by the great Austrian modernist Richard Neutra for John Nicholas Brown and Anne Kinsolving Brown, members of the wealthy Rhode Island family for whom Brown University is named. (One of their children, J. Carter Brown, was later the director of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington.) Two weeks after the Browns moved in, the house was badly damaged in the devastating hurricane of 1938. Rebuilt, it was destroyed by fire in 1973.

"Windshield always had a cloud hanging over it," J. Carter Brown told this reporter before his death in 2002.

Since the destruction of Windshield, most of the houses on the island, where the year-round population is under 300, have had more shingles than glass. And they have been far smaller than 14,000 square feet. On Fishers, building too large a house is considered d�class�. "The more you show your wealth, the less likely you are to be admitted to the country clubs," Mr. Ryall said.

The Parkers are steeped in the ways of the island. Mrs. Parker's family, the Fergusons, has vacationed there since the 1890's, and the Victorian cottage and its addition are part of a family compound that includes several old houses and a barn.

For decades, the Parkers (who have four children and four grandchildren) spent summers in another house in the compound. But Mrs. Parker's mother, Elizabeth Day Ferguson McCance, who died in 1992, left the cottage to her and her two brothers. Later, the Parkers bought it from them and began planning for their retirement by hiring Mr. Ryall. Mr. Parker, 66, retired from his museum post last Dec. 31; Mrs. Parker, 69, said she had "retired from a major unpaid career as a mother." The couple, who used to own a house in San Francisco, now divide their time between Fishers and Vieques, off the main island of Puerto Rico.

So far, they say, they haven't missed big city life. Last month, Mr. Parker skipped the opening of a show designed by Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron at the Museum of Modern Art. He chose to stay on Fishers, "trying to make the grass grow," he said. "You have no idea how hard that is."

Some things are easier to grow. The addition's concrete block walls are "disappearing into the hillside," Mr. Ryall said, thanks to the camouflage provided by climbing hydrangea.

"The house is literally green," he said. "It doesn't have air-conditioning. It doesn't need it. The walls are thick, and the hydrangea blocks the sun."

Inside, there is an eclectic mix of old furniture and new art. In the red-painted dining room, one daring piece by Susan Magnus, an American artist, consists of a pair of fish preserved in a glass tank - shades of the British artist Damien Hirst.

Longtime Fishers residents are rarely that daring in their decorating. And they tend to avoid publicity. "Can't you just call it 'Frump's Island,' " said Mrs. Parker, who added that she and her husband had agreed to be interviewed to support Mr. Ryall.

"Bill is the hero of this story," Mr. Parker said. "He came up with ideas that made a small house, built from inexpensive materials, special."

If Mr. Parker would rather avoid publicity, he is no shrinking violet. John King, the urban design writer at The San Francisco Chronicle, said, "In a city that's very conservative architecturally, the Herzog & de Meuron design really pushed people's buttons." But Mr. Parker "was courageous and steadfast," he said.

It was not always easy. "We took a lot of heat on the exterior of the de Young," Mr. Parker said.

On Fishers, neighbors who saw the cinderblock and fiberglass addition being built were more puzzled than outraged. "They thought, 'If they're building a garage, can't they at least put a few boards on it?' " Mr. Parker said. "It's a small island. Everyone comes over to check things out."