Fred A. Bernstein

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An Artful Retreat from the Art Scene

Building a modernist house in the Hamptons

Published in The New York Times, October 12, 2007

"Are you going to talk about the trailer?" Bonnie Rychlak asked her husband, Brian Gayman.

Ms. Rychlak was referring to the trailer that her husband lived in one winter while he was building their weekend house on Long Island.

"When money was getting tight," Mr. Gayman explained, "and we couldn't rent a place for the winter, I bought a 20-foot trailer and parked it where the pool is now."

The trailer had a bathroom, but there was no way to get water to it in subfreezing weather, requiring trips to the house's not-yet-finished basement. Ms. Rychlak, the curator at the Noguchi Museum in the Long Island City section of Queens, occasionally came to visit and to lend moral support. "I detested the weekends in the trailer," she said, "but I tried not to complain too much."

Mr. Gayman expected the house, in the village of Springs, to take about 18 months to build; in the end, the project took four years. "I underestimated the cumulative effect of things that can go wrong," he said.

But many things went right, and Mr. Gayman eventually produced a house that suggests the Modernist architecture of Southern California, where both Ms. Rychlak and Mr. Gayman grew up. Huge sliding glass doors open onto a 60-foot-long porch, which in turn overlooks an inviting lap pool.

At the same time, the house has a peaked roof of corrugated metal, more Mayberry than Mies. "Since I'm not an architect, I didn't have to commit to one style," Mr. Gayman, 58, said. When asked how he differed from a real architect, he joked, "I'm a high-functioning amateur."

For most of the last 30 years, Mr. Gayman has made his living as an artist who works in two and three dimensions (photographs and aluminum sculptures). But during his early days in New York, he helped support himself by doing construction work. Eventually, he renovated the couple's loft on Lafayette Street for residential use - it's been their home since 1979 - and a studio on nearby Greene Street.

In 1980, Ms. Rychlak began working as an assistant to the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who commuted between studios in Long Island City and the Japanese island of Shikoku. When Mr. Noguchi died in 1988, the Long Island City studio became a museum, and Ms. Rychlak became its registrar. Promoted to curator in 1997, she has helped cement Mr. Noguchi's reputation with dozens of shows and publications in the United States and abroad. (The latest, about the collaboration between Mr. Noguchi and the industrial designer Isamu Kenmochi, runs through March 16.) She has also helped biographers understand Mr. Noguchi, a lifelong wanderer who, she has said, "was always running from something."

In the 1990s, Ms. Rychlak and Mr. Gayman, though not nearly as peripatetic as her former boss, began looking for a weekend house. They eventually focused on Springs, an area long popular with artists. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner worked in Springs, where their studio is preserved as a National Historic Landmark. Springs also offers access to Gardiners Bay. As Californians, Mr. Gayman said: "We reconnected with the water. I used to surf as a kid, and it seemed like a wonderful idea to try and pick it up again."

They found a wooded lot just shy of an acre and about half a mile from the bay for $60,000. Had they waited just another year, the land would have been out of their price range, the couple said. In fact, a comparable lot in Springs is now on the market for $695,000, according to the multiple listing service for the area.

Once the land was theirs, they began laying out a pair of buildings: the house and a studio. (Ms. Rychlak is also an artist; one of her drawings is on display at the Hudson Guild Gallery in Manhattan through Nov. 21.) They decided that two long buildings facing each other across a courtyard would create the feeling of a private compound. The courtyard would contain a pool.

The house is a large rectangle, about 30 by 60 feet. Along the south side, a 12-foot overhang provides shade in summer. The interior walls - one of them borders the kitchen, another the master bedroom - stop short of the ceiling, giving the house an open feel.

There is also a small tower with a stairway leading to a second-floor guest room. Mr. Gayman described that as a late addition to the plan, "when Bonnie wasn't satisfied that guests would just stay on the couch."

Mr. Gayman brought in an architect, Harry Simino of Brooklyn, to complete the construction documents required for a building permit.

Still, getting approvals to build the house took time, in part because the house needed a well, and, under the rules of the county health department, the well had to be separated from the neighbors' septic systems. But neighbors don't always know where their septic systems are, said Mr. Gayman, summarizing a problem that delayed construction for months.

His next big problem was getting subcontractors to help him with large tasks like excavating the basement and pouring concrete foundation walls.

Unlike general contractors, he couldn't promise to give the subcontractors repeat business, making him a low priority. "There were situations where you're waiting for somebody, and waiting and waiting and waiting, and nothing happens," Mr. Gayman said.

Ground was broken in the fall of 1999. After the foundation was in, Liberty Iron Works of Southampton installed the 12 steel columns - six along each side of the house - that form the basic structure. They support dozens of wooden trusses, which were manufactured in upstate New York. Liberty helped Mr. Gayman hoist the trusses into place atop the columns. The next big job was installing the plywood that forms the first layer of the roof. Several of Mr. Gayman's friends - artists from Manhattan - drove out to help. Together, they lifted and secured the 4-by-8-foot plywood sheets. After the helpers left, Mr. Gayman said, he cut and installed "the little oddball pieces that remained."

Once the building was enclosed, Mr. Gayman was largely on his own. "I was framer, Sheetrocker, carpenter and cabinetmaker," he said. He even built the Japanese soaking tub that Ms. Rychlak, who often travels to Japan, requested. He also make a dining table of an exotic wood called sapelle, and Ms. Rychlak, 56, brought the lamps, called Akari, which were designed by Mr. Noguchi.

The couple said they didn't know how much the house had cost. "I'm curious," said Ms. Rychlak, turning to her husband. (She later explained, "He's a man of few words. I usually don't learn details unless I ask him the right questions.") Mr. Gayman, in turn, said he had never added up all the bills.

Pressed, he said he thought the costs were in the range of $350,000. To meet the expenses, the couple took a home equity loan on their Manhattan loft and eventually sold Mr. Gayman's studio on Greene Street. Ms. Rychlak said that whatever the house had cost was worth it. Pointing to the open spaces and giant sliding glass doors that seem to bring nature in, she said, "It's one of those structures that feels good just to be in."