SHADOW FARM, WAKEFIELD, RHODE ISLAND 1980

The conversion of Shadow Farm from a gentleman’s estate to a sensitively developed multi-family project would foreshadow a prolific body of work over the next decade and lay the groundwork for an increasingly sophisticated design response. The ideas of “reducing the chatter” by simplifying the roof form and conceiving a group of units as a singular building that we saw at Loon Mountain a few weeks ago, is repeated here. The existence of an architecturally significant house and barn complex provide the inspiration for the architectural language of the new structures that are carefully sited to preserve the estate character of the landscape.

Planning started in 1979, and focused on blending the new housing units with the historic character of the existing farm buildings through the choice of materials and geometry as well as careful siting and preservation of existing vegetation. The first clusters were constructed from 1982 to 1984, being careful to preserve the view corridors to and from the historic buildings. See site plan below from the National Register nomination application.

“Care was taken to make each cluster of new buildings relatively small and inconspicuous, and to surround it with open space so that the original landscape plan remains legible. Utilizing the kitchen garden’s high walls to help downplay the new buildings has reduced their impact on the estate as a whole.”

National Register Nomination

HISTORY AND THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES

The original property was established in 1869 when Samuel Strang of New York purchased 60 acres including Silver Lake to be near the growing summer resort around Narragansett Pier. In 1884 Strang replaced the original farmhouse with a Queen Anne design by Douglas Smyth, a former apprentice to Richard Morris Hunt (see rendering below). John Welsh purchased the estate in 1901 and hired an unknown architect to “modernize” the house by adding on and horizontalizing the composition with a nod towards the bungalow and Prairie School influences that were becoming popular, eliminating most of the original Queen Anne details.

Left: Original rendering in American Architect 1884. Right: Main house at the time of the project.

Welsh also had the farm complex constructed, which, the Register nomination notes, “Architecturally….ranks with the best in the state.” It remained the Welsh’s home and a gentleman’s farm until the 1950’s. Agricultural use ceased in the 1960’s and Welsh’s heirs continued to use the property as a year-round retreat until selling it to Gaudreau Development Company in 1979. Gaudreau was quite conscious of the uniqueness of the property and asked the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission to survey the property and consulted with William Shopsin, author of Saving Large Estates:Conservation, Historic Preservation, Adaptive Re-use that had just been published prior to moving forward with the project. With a plan for the redevelopment in progress, the historic elements of the estate were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 to preserve the character of the site and architecture, while seeking the critical historic tax credits to aid in the renovation of the main house and farm complex.

Farm complex with stone garage/carriage house in the foreground.

Large sections of open space were retained to preserve the landscape character and provide a buffer to the perimeter of the estate. The main house was renovated to contain six condominium units and 14 units were built into the renovated barn complex (above). Forty new units in one and two story wood frame structures were clustered on the site offering panoramic views of Silver Lake.

Water-side, the main house.

ARCHITECTURAL LANGUAGE

The new buildings recall the design vocabulary of the main house and farm buildings in both form and materials. Characteristics of the main house that also appear in the design of the new buildings include the notion of a base capped by a dark green band of built-up trim supporting a shingled second story. Masonry columns support the roof volumes at the porches with split face concrete block emulating the stone of the original house. The length of the new building clusters is similar to the length of the original house with a horizontal emphasis in the massing. The second floor roof is expressed as a folded plane extended beyond the walls with the windows tucked tightly to the roof. The materials of masonry, cedar shingles left to weather and dark green trim are all repeated in the new structures.

View illustrating the relationship of the new buildings to main house.

The distant view of the main house is a volumetric composition horizontally expressed with punctuations of vertical chimneys in various orientations. The new buildings similarly appear as a horizontal mass with chimneys turned in different directions. However, in this case the chimneys reflect the number of units rather than the number of fireplaces in one house.

The plan of the largest cluster shows how the units were put together to create the building form. Large single floor living units occupy the corners. Two-story townhouse style units occupy the middle, putting the tallest part in the center of the composition and allowing the building mass to step down on the ends. Note that the middle units are shifted in plan to align the roofs, “reducing the chatter” in elevation and providing interest to the façade. In one corner a breezeway is used for entry, opening the corner and providing a view to the lake, while keeping the L-shaped building compact. Separate garages, conceived as farm “outbuildings” keep the front facades friendly and pedestrian oriented and avoid the sea of garage doors often typical of the project type.

The utilization of similar massing, materials, vertical elements and allowing sufficient space around each cluster results in a composition complementary to the original house when viewed from across the lake. There is always a familiar proportion of landscape and buildings from various vantage points around the site. Site furnishings, lighting and signage are kept as inconspicuous as possible to maintain the original character of the farm.

So successful was the approach to fitting the new housing on the site that the National Register nomination stated that “These deferential modern structures fit in as inoffensively as possible within the estate,” and “despite these changes, when one experiences Shadow Farm today, one ‘reads’ it first and foremost as the product of its historic function and era. Once on site, one still perceives it as a gracious, secluded, turn-of-the-century country place of compelling beauty”.

Aerial view showing the completed project and how the open space plan is still legible and historic vegetation is maintained.

The success and legacy of Shadow Farm would lead to numerous other estate projects like the Polo Club, Ledgebrook, Chestnut Grove, Sears Point, Water’s Edge and Huckins Farm, some of which we will visit in future posts. All of these projects followed a similar model for site planning and drew on the historic architecture for the inspiration of the new structures.