Big Architecture in a Small Town
Published in Metropolitan Home, March/April 2002
When big architecture comes to a small town, it's bound to attract attention. This house, atop a hill in the northwest corner of Connecticut, is no exception. Some of the neighbors, bewildered by its flat, pale facade, have asked the owners, Norval and Camilla White, "When are the shutters arriving?" and "What color is going to be?" Others, entranced by its simplicity, have inquired, "What style is it?"
The answers, respectively, are, "There won't be any shutters"; "We've already stained it white"; and "Distilled vernacular." That's the phrase coined by the couple to describe their seductively spare structure. "It's a typical New England building, taken down one level of detail," explains Norval, who is the co-author of the classic AIA Guide to New York City (and therefore eminently qualified to name the style). Camilla explains that when it came to details such as moldings and overhangs, they didn't eliminate them -- something a minimalist might do - but kept them small and simple.
The result is almost like the ghost of a New England building, which makes sense, since it was inspired, in part, by a building that was in Camilla's family for much of her life. That was the New Hampshire barn that her grandfather, pioneering industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, turned into a living room in 1930. "There was a small brick house; guests would get their drinks and then walk down to the barn; seeing it was very startling," says Camilla. "People didn't put living rooms in barns back then." When it came time to build their own house, Camilla and Norval wanted a room that evoked Teague's, both in materials and proportions. The room they got is 27 feet high at its peak and framed, majestically, by hemlock timbers rescued from a barn near Albany, N.Y.
With the living room at its core, the house's layout is remarkably straightforward. At one end is the main level is the kitchen; at the other end, a pair of guest rooms. Upstairs, the master bedroom and the couple's design studio -- their daytime and nighttime quarters -- face each other across the living room's upper reaches.
Norval has been an architect since the 1950's, with a number of significant New York buildings to his credit. Camilla was working in a bookstore when, not long ago, she decided to take an aptitude test to "see what I should do when I grow up" (her two sons had gone off to college). The testing company advised her to become an architect, which, she says, "is what I always wanted to do, anyway." At 47, she entered architecture school, and a couple of years later, she began dating one of her professors (who has three sons of his own). Now they both go by the name White and collaborate on home design throughout New York and New England.
Once they had selected the 8"x8" columns and 8"x10" beams that would define their living room, the couple knew that other flourishes were unnecessary. They even eliminated the fireplace mantel. As Camilla says, "With so much exposed structure, we didn't want the room to seem too busy." But the fireplace is no minor detail. In fact, the towering room required large accouterments (which is why the French doors to the entry court and garden are 8 feet tall, not the usual 7, and the dining table is wide enough to seat two people at each end. When it came to designing the kitchen, Camilla, who does the cooking, took charge. One of her goals was logical organization; visitors find things without asking, she reports, "exactly where they expect them to be." Except on a single inside wall, she avoided upper cabinets, in order to keep the room feeling as wide-open as the rest of the house. That left room for the large double-hung windows, which link the kitchen, visually, to its surroundings. She mostly avoided open shelving -- the only things exposed are the couple's everyday dishes, plus a collection of decorative molds. "I'm conflicted," she says, "between displaying objects I enjoy looking at, and wanting to keep things clutter-free."
How well she resolved that conflict it is a sign that the aptitude testers were right. "When your mother says you can do something," Camilla White jokes, "you don't believe it, but when it's a national testing company, you do."
For both Norval and Camilla, it was important to create a "courtyard of arrival," an outdoor room framed by the house, the garage, and a spare white wall that encloses the pool (bottom left photo). "That way, when you get out of you're car you're surrounded by the architecture," says Camilla, "You're in our lap," is how Norval puts it. The inside of the house is, in its own way, courtyard-like -- the living room is a kind of atrium into which the other rooms flow. The hemlock posts and beams, which define that inner courtyard, ensured that the house would have gravitas. So too did the black-painted steel connectors, which, Norval says, are larger than they need to be. But he's not complaining; structure has to be scaled, he explains, not only to how strong it needs to be, but to how strong it needs to look.
With the rough-hewn beams commanding attention, the rest of the details were kept simple. The parapet wall is unadorned -- the builders were constantly asking, "Don't you want a piece of wood to cap it off?" recalls Camilla. (The wall is 40 inches high -- high enough, she says, "so that I don't feel like I'm about to tip over.") The floors are inexpensive 3/4 inch yellow pine over plywood; beneath the boards is a radiant heating system, which allowed the couple to eliminate baseboards and vents. That helps them to maintain the clean lines that make the house an example of "distilled vernacular" inside as well as out.
WHAT THE PROS KNOW
"White is a mysterious word -- two things called white can look very different," says Norval White, perhaps (unconsciously) referring to himself and Camilla. The house they designed together is off-white, though it may look white-white, Camilla explains, because it is surrounded by the rich colors of nature. (How colors are perceived is dependent, in large part, on their context.) Instead of painting the wood exterior, the couple used Cabot Solid Color Stain, which they had used, successfully, on the fence at a previous house. Explains Norval, "Paint forms a membrane; stain is absorbed into the surface." As a result, they say, re-staining requires less work than repainting -- there's no layer of paint to peel or sand away.
A 30-foot loggia connects the house (at left) to the garage. The absence of overhangs gives the building a flat, barnlike mien. To create a serenely simple facade, Norval and Camilla White used only one color -- their namesake -- and just two styles of windows.
Downstairs, Windsor chairs surround an antique dining table. Upstairs, Audubon prints hang above the bed. (To the right is the skylit master bathroom; to the left, his-and-her closets, complete with windows.) Most of the rooms feature antique scales, a collection begun by Walter Dorwin Teague and expanded by Camilla.
The living room's central bay was scaled to the Oriental rug from Walter Dorwin Teague's barn-living room in New Hampshire. (Camilla inherited it, and much of the furniture in this house, after her mother died.) Teague bought the oil portrait in England in the 1920's.
A stairway rises to the master bedroom between a pair of low walls. The parallel walls, Norval explains, help create a layer of separation between public and private spaces, minimizing the impracticality of a "loft" bedroom. The guest tub (like the owners') is wide enough for two.