At the contemporary Westchester home of Michael and Barbara McCarthy, the architect, landscape designer, and interior designers worked hand in hand
by Anitra Brown â€¢ Photographs by Alec Marshall
So many people who build their own homes have tales of sorrow and woe — bitter fights with the architect, a falling out with the contractor. Not so Michael and Barbara McCarthy, who live in a contemporary home designed by Vuko Tashkovich. “It was so much fun,” says Barbara McCarthy, who still works with the builder, the landscape designer, and the interior designers she hired to work on the house when it was built in 1987. It was part luck, she believes, and part willingness to pay people what their labor is worth. “We picked what we wanted, we tried to pick quality, and we paid for it,” she declares. “Why cut corners in your home?”
When they were ready to leave their Irvington condo, the McCarthys knew they wanted a contemporary house but couldn’t find anything they liked on the market. Then they saw an ad for Tashkovich in the New York Times. They arranged to meet the architect at his home in Pound Ridge, and were stunned by his work. “I loved it,” says Barbara. “If he had given me the keys, I would have given him the money right then.”
Tashkovich was a 1962 graduate of Cornell University who designed 57 homes during his career, cut short by his death from cancer in 1996. A great many were built in northern Westchester, where his work is known and admired. (One house recently came on the market for $2,250,000.)
The brilliant white modern houses, the subject of a retrospective at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in 1997, are considered masterpieces of contemporary architecture, featuring strong lines, striking shapes, and large glass walls. “These sprawling, dramatic homes, some costing upwards of $5 million, all showcase the architect’s imaginative uses of light to draw the outdoors inside,” wrote Darryl Geddes when the exhibition was mounted. Tashkovich was also known for his extraordinary sensitivity to place, siting his homes to take advantage of an area’s natural beauty.
The McCarthys’ first task, then, was to locate a property with some inherent drama. They found it in two and a half acres at the crest of a hill in Armonk. Much of the land sloped away sharply at the back, but that suited the McCarthy’s child-free lifestyle. “We didn’t need a back yard,” Barbara says.
The McCarthys wanted just a few large rooms downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs. (Barbara considers her home, at 5,000 square feet, small for a Tashkovich residence.) They like to entertain and have large cocktail parties, so the flow from room to room was important. “You can have 60 people in here without feeling crowded,” notes Barbara. And they wanted the features that Tashkovich was famous for — the glass walls, the semicircular glass dining nook in the kitchen, and the dramatic contrast of two ceiling heights in the living room. “It’s contemporary, it’s clean, but it’s not cold,” says Barbara. “It has a bit of a warm feeling.”
Tashkovich had an artistic temperament, so it was not always easy working with him, Barbara admits. The worst moment came when she and her husband decided they needed an extra closet upstairs, which interrupted the line of one of his windows. “I thought he wouldn’t even notice, but of course he did,” she remembers. “And he left a phone message which indicated that he absolutely did notice,” she says. “These houses were like his children, and there was a purpose for everything.”
In building the house, one of the McCarthys’ best moves was consulting a landscape designer before they even poured the foundation. Jan Johnsen, of Johnsen Landscapes & Pools in Bedford Hills, came to discuss the driveway and saw the problem — and solution — instantly.
“I told them, â€˜If you want a circular driveway, you should push your house over 15 feet,’ says Johnsen. “And lo and behold, they listened to me, which is unusual!”
Johnsen also noticed that plans called for eight steps leading down from the sliding glass doors of the dining room to the outdoor terrace, because the grade was so steep. She made another simple suggestion. By putting in a retaining wall at the same time they poured the foundation she could build up the ground and reduce the number of steps to three. “Who calls in the landscape designer before they build the house?” says Johnsen, admiringly. “Not many people.”
Because there were so many glass walls, one of Johnsen’s main concerns was creating landscapes and views of the gardens that would harmonize with the rooms. “My job was to make it feel like the outdoors flowed seamlessly into the indoors,” she says. On walking in the front door, for instance, you face a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looks onto a “mini-Stonehenge” — a sculpture garden of rough granite stele that are placed vertically in the ground. “We uplight them, so at night it’s very dramatic,” says Johnsen.
Johnsen likes the freedom that newer houses present and how they allow the indoors and outdoors to flow seamlessly together. “Older houses are a little more disconnected,” she explains. “You have to step outdoors to experience it, unlike in modern houses, where it can be experienced while sitting in your living room.”
In the living room, the McCarthys look out onto a solid green wall of pine trees with a row of tall terra-cotta pots, also uplit at night. For the yard itself, Johnsen recommended an ornamental grass garden that would be deer-resistant as well as beautiful. “The garden has a Japanese inspiration to it,” says Johnsen, who worked in Japan at one point in her career. And because it is low maintenance, it frees her up to continually build in new features. Most recently, she created a Japanese dry stream, a path of river stones that winds through the woods. “It’s a wonderful collaboration that goes on through the years,” says Johnsen.
For the interior, the McCarthys hired Janet Wexler and Karen Weisberg, who had designed their condo in Irvington. “This particular house required tremendous respect for the architecture,” recalls Wexler. “The style and setting of the house told us what it needed. We wanted to keep the outside in and the inside out, and have it flow so there were no boundaries.”
The McCarthys wanted a clean, contemporary look in neutral colors, with interest coming from pattern and texture. For the focus in the living room, the fireplace wall is a rough, sandblasted granite, while the hearth and mantel are polished smooth and shiny.
The designers also created a lot of custom pieces for the house. Over the mantle is a round mahogany veneer mirror from Evanson, inspired by a table that was on the showroom floor. To create a completely transparent coffee table that wouldn’t detract from the black, beige, and grey pattern of the custom-designed rug, they combined Lucite legs with a large glass top. And in the dining room, they designed an elegant floating buffet and cabinet that blend seamlessly into the sleek look of the home.
They talked about window treatments, but ended up with very few — just some very interesting curtains of loosely woven Saran (also known as plastic) in the dining room. “They didn’t want them, and the original architecture did not require window treatments,” says Wexler. “So we just told them, â€˜Sun is damaging, things are going to fade, and you’ll have to live with the fact that you’re going to re-cover sooner than most.’
Over the years the McCarthys worked with the designers to add some more playful, colorful elements, like the large vintage French posters that decorate the landing on the second floor and the dining room, advertisements for Arko Liqueurs and Grands Vins Mousseux.
Barbara admits that the white oak floors have faded somewhat under the intense light…that the house can be a bit hard to heat…and that she has added some blinds upstairs in the bedrooms and bathrooms. (“We have more neighbors now.”) But apart from those small changes and difficulties, the house — a contemporary designed during the era of Mario Buatta and ubiquitous chintz — has held up remarkably well. “It’s very easy, and very calming,” Barbara concludes. “It’s been more than 15 yearsâ€¦and I don’t dislike anything.” ■