THREE HOUSES BY THE WATER: THE BAILEY HOUSE, THE ALEXANDER HOUSE & THE TREGURTHA HOUSE

As previous posts have illustrated, the scope and diversity of the firm’s work grew as partners Rem and Tony experienced success and national recognition. Naturally, a firm’s transition to a larger practice might diminish the amount of custom residential work it takes on.  Yet, the firm continued to find time to design custom houses, in spite of the extremely personal nature of this project type which requires intense attention from a principal.

I am expanding this week’s blog post from featuring only one building, to describing three similar houses. After working in several design-oriented practices, I have learned that strong design firms often pursue themes across several projects, constantly refining the ideas and learning from each iteration of how to better implement a design concept. Such is the case with these three houses designed and built over a period of ten years in the 1970s.

The residential clients during this period were often younger families requiring larger homes than those the firm had previously designed, and many of these clients were able to afford luxurious homes even by today’s standards (a design for a famously wealthy and later imprisoned savings and loan executive was close to 20,000 square feet!).

These three houses reflect a new design direction inspired by enlarged programs and the opportunity to build on expansive waterfront sites as well as the idea of a applying a disciplined geometric grid (seen clearly in their floor plans) that became the organizing element of the program. We first saw this in the 2’-6” grid underlying the planning of Rem’s own house. Earlier houses were often conceived as sculpted volumes with taut exterior skins of cedar shingles penetrated by window openings.  These houses explore the use of components, planes and columns, as separate elements arranged within a measured rhythm to create compositions that interlock with the landscape. Roofs are placed over the portion of the composition that is the interior of the house. The openness of the plans to the exterior (floor to ceiling glass where there are no walls) connects indoors to outdoors. The “garden” becomes a significant part of the inside living experience.

THE BAILEY HOUSE, DARIEN, CONNECTICUT 1970

Somewhere Frank Lloyd Wright said, “there is more beauty in a ground plan than in any of its consequences.” If there be a story to tell of these houses, it may be read in their ground plans. There, one may see their freedom and their discipline, their stimulating clarity and their pleasing complexity.

– Rem Huygens

Of the three, the Bailey House in many ways expresses the clearest idea and marked a change in design direction.  Large over-sized round columns emphasize the rhythm and walls extend from the house far into the landscape to “enlarge” the house into the garden.  Masonry walls offer privacy between the driveway and the neighboring house, while framing an open floor plan with spaces freely flowing  into one another.  Towards the view of Long Island Sound, the walls are replaced with floor to ceiling glass.  A great feeling of shelter is provided by the deep overhang of the large roof and also by the ceiling inside that follows the slope of the roof.

The Bailey House Site and Floor Plan
The Bailey House Exterior

The site of the Bailey House is next door to Richard Meier’s Smith House, the first of his compositional white houses to be completed.  It was finished in 1968, about the time that the Bailey House design work started.  The Smith House sits “on” the landscape along the shoreline to dominate the view.  One can speculate that the crisp white vertical form appealed to the modernist in Rem Huygens.  But as a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, he would choose to embed the Bailey House “in” the site with a long horizontal profile and cedar shake roof that blends into the foliage.  The roof overhang shelters the south facing glass and moderates the heat gain.  In contrast, the large unshaded glass of the Smith House created a living room that Frank DiMella called “stifling hot” on a visit during the design phase of the Bailey House.

A 1968 article in Progressive Architecture called “The Quiet Approach” described the firm’s work this way:  “In their few commissions for buildings that have been conspicuous because of their size or setting, they have resisted any temptation to make a grand gesture.  Their cue was taken from the surroundings, and the design meant to enhance rather than one-up the existing neighborhood.  It is likely that they will continue to design essentially simple volumes and combinations of forms to which minor details are subordinated.  In spite of the fact that this is an age of ambiguity, a Huygens & Tappé house tends to be a clear, unambiguous shape.”

This is not to say that one architect’s approach is better than another’s.  But it does help to clarify who we are as a firm and how our history has informed the work that we do, why certain clients are attracted to our work, and how we can be better going forward.  It is not unusual for architects to influence each other, even those with disparate approaches.  Rem would utilize the white planes seen in Meier’s work to animate the floor plans and bring a crispness to the solid and void of the wall while keeping true to his Wrightian design principles.  He would continue to refine this approach across all three houses.

THE ALEXANDER HOUSE, MARBLEHEAD, MASSACHUSETTS 1976

Many of these houses have dominant roofs. Such roofs offer many benefits: they allow for lofty ceilings overhead, for additional rooms within them and they can add much to the pleasing profile of a house. A flat roof seen from above is no pleasure.

– Rem Huygens

Street side of the house blends in comfortably with the other traditional seaside houses

The Alexander House takes these same themes and applies them to a larger program for a doctor’s family with three school-age children.  The site is narrow and deep, the first half is level with trees and shrubs, and the ocean half is rocky and sloping down steeply to the shoreline.  The T-shaped floor plan creates an entrance court to the street and a private garden towards the ocean.  One leg of the “T” forms a barrier against the sounds of the street, while the other leg turns against the neighboring house.  The linear plan of the house makes it possible for all the rooms to enjoy the view, and the long colonnade of rotated squares leads one towards the ocean vista.

The Alexander House Site and Floor Plan

Window areas and wall planes are arranged to enhance certain views, while blocking out others. While the street side of the house blends in comfortably with the other traditional seaside houses, the living room and master bedroom on the ocean side extend out dramatically towards the view, crowning the steep rocky slope. A massive chimney anchors this wing visually to the ledge below.

The sculptural roof shapes, blend into a simple geometry when seen from the ocean.  The second floor is contained within the roof keeping the outside wall planes to one story, emphasizing the horizontality.  Here, the volumetric soffits of earlier houses like Gerstein that sloped back towards the wall give way to a flat plane continuing the interior soffit outside.  Much time was spent in the office contemplating roof edges and how to detail them.  Rem required intention in every drawn line on the elevation.  Was it a knife edge like that shown here—represented with one heavy line? Or three lines to represent a stepped fascia?  The fascia is always 90 degrees or less to the roof plane because it is the edge of the roof.  I learned how to design roofs here and I also learned that this is one of the most poorly conceived and executed details in production house construction today.

As I studied the pictures and this photo in particular, it occurred to me that there are aspects of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s influence in this house also. A quick check on Wikipedia confirmed my memory that he died in 1976 while this house was being designed. We saw Aalto’s influence in the Framingham Public Library post last week. I can imagine that  a renewed interest in his work might have inspired the white painted brick work and the stained fir ceilings that one also finds at Aalto’s famous residence, Villa Mairea. The exterior steps peek around the corner like those of Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall where they are articulated like contours of landscape spilling out of the elevated courtyard. Here again, one or two architects influencing another, resulting in a dramatic house that is a little Wright, a little Aalto, but also all Huygens.

THE TREGURTHA HOUSE, DARIEN, CONNECTICUT 1979

These stories are told of wood, brick, glass and steel, with materials old and new, with their use always according to the nature of the material, and each material always chosen for its appropriateness to the particular circumstance. What “style” are these houses? They are no style. They have style. When we say someone has style, we refer to integrity, repose, appropriateness, character. So these houses were intended.

– Rem Huygens

Tregurtha House Exterior

The Tregurtha House, the third and largest of the trio, occupies a one-acre site, with a panoramic view of Long Island Sound.  Similar to the Bailey and Alexander houses, a series of exterior walls and landscape garden walls are integrated into a free flowing, open floor plan under a low, hovering pitched roof.  These walls also provide privacy from neighbors and the street and conceal the view that awaits. On the ground floor, the living/dining room, study, and master bedroom occupy the length of the “T” and enjoy the expansive view of Long Island Sound through floor-to-ceiling windows. The family room/kitchen, entry and two-car garage run along the top of the “T”. A terrace provides a pleasant outdoor space shared between the living/dining room and family room. Four additional bedrooms, two baths and a playroom with a skylight occupy the second floor, here again up in the volume of the roof.

Tregurtha House Exterior

The material palette is more varied with light grey stucco walls above a cast-in-place concrete water table. The planar chimneys are red brick and the round concrete columns are left raw, showing the sonotube forms. The design approach for the interior was to use natural materials and allow the colors of the land and sea to dominate the setting. This can be seen in the living room photograph where the blue of the sound is drawn into the house as the color against an otherwise neutral setting. The walls and ceilings are natural plaster left unpainted, the wood ceilings are natural fir and the paneling is clear sealed oak. Floors are handmade structural stoneware tiles with wool carpeting in the living room and bedrooms.

Tregurtha House Exterior

When you closely study these three houses, as well as other custom houses designed by the firm, you can imagine the countless hours that were spent to execute these buildings down to the last detail.  It is amazing that this was possible during those years of tremendous growth in the firm.  Had it not been for Rem Huygens’s life long passion for this building type, such seminal works would not have been created.  It became common that after meeting with clients, seeing the sites and establishing the programs, nothing would occur at the office.  Then suddenly, usually on a Monday morning, Rem would walk in with a completed design drawn out in great detail.  As Frank Lloyd Wright often did, Rem pretty much visualized the houses fully in his mind before setting pencil to paper.

In all three houses, the refinement of details such as the crispness of roof/soffit edges, masonry detailing and placement of window mullions is consistent.  Each house furthers the ideas of the last, trying to make the next one better and more refined.  It is often said of architecture, in relation to manufacturing, that each building is a prototype the first time it is built.  Rarely do we get to build a second version that is a enhancement of the first. In a small way, one can see the evolution of a “house by the water” where the same design themes are refined through three projects on similar sites but for different families and by the same architect.

I feel that it is only appropriate to give Rem the last word.

“That the same architect here led to these resolutions will be no surprise; more noteworthy is what his clients have in common: each has a house that reflects the way each one lives. Each has a house to be lived in, to come home to, to wake up in, in which to enjoy the seasons, in which to raise families, and in which to grow old, gracefully. Here no fancy street fronts while the master of the house comes home through the laundry room. Here no formal rooms, no unused living, dining, rec-rooms or library, while the family lives in the kitchen. Here no pretense. This is what they have in common.”

Rem Huygens, from the forward of a booklet of twelve houses that the firm self-published.