Back in 1892, the Schuyler family — for whom money was apparently no object — commissioned the illustrious architectural firm McKim, Mead & White to design a carriage house and stable on their Rhinebeck estate. The architects already had many grand Beaux Arts buildings to their credit, so it can have been no surprise that they presented plans for a gracious brick structure of classical proportions, with two wings set at 45 degrees to angle around the road that was then there. (It has since been moved.) The main wing included a skylit block-and-tackle manual elevator to haul out-of-season carriages to the second floor; the stable wing had horse stalls, with a hayloft and living quarters above, where grooms could survey the countryside through charming Gothic dormer windows. As stables and carriage houses go, this one was undeniably a beaut.
In the dining room, Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost chairs surround a tiger maple table designed by the architect. It expands to accommodate up to 20 people. An altar table, a series of Japanese woodblocks, and an antique Chinese robe rack are among the Asian touches. Chinese figure tiles (made in the U.S.) make a whimsical fireplace surround
Just over 100 years later, in 2002, the present owners of the handsome building (now separate from the estate) engaged Beacon architect Jeff Wilkinson to transform it into a comfortable home. Former owners had done what Wilkinson calls “a bad ’80s, quickie renovation” of the carriage house, and the second floor in the stable wing had been converted into an apartment, but the unheated stables still held the horse stalls.
The owners, a couple, wanted to reconfigure badly planned rooms in the main house, and incorporate the stable wing, turning the apartment into a master suite and adding a dining room (with butler’s pantry), a media room, and a small powder room where the horses had once lived.
“It’s a very masculine structure, bold and large,” says Wilkinson, who estimates the total square footage at around 6,500. “So one of the biggest challenges was scaling it for a residence.”
Clockwise, from left: Vintage wallpaper looks like architectural wainscot in the second floor hallway; a well-appointed mudroom has granite counters and a low sink for washing the dogs or rinsing muddy boots; Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper pretties up the powder room and the butler’s pantry
Both he and the owners were respectful of the building’s pedigree. “It’s got real organization and geometry, a classical language, so it suggested what to do,” says the architect. “I wasn’t trying to make it say ‘Jeff Wilkinson’s been here.’ ”
The couple, who had just returned from a year in Hong Kong when they moved in, already had some ideas about what they wanted to do. “But we lived there for a year before we finalized the plans, because you don’t know how you’re going to use a house,” says the wife.
Although the work was to be tackled in stages, Wilkinson drew up a complete set of plans before renovations began. “Think it through, so you won’t waste money,” he advises.
Phase one was “damage control,” says the owner — replacing all the doors, and installing new double-paned windows (including the Gothic dormer windows) custom-made to look like the original, rotting ones. A new roof — a top priority — resembles slate but is actually material made of recycled tires. “It’s a 50-year roof and maintenance-free,” says the lady of the house. “Not quite as beautiful as real slate, but it costs much less, and we were facing such a major renovation.”
With necessities taken care of, work began on the stable wing. (“These horses lived better than a lot of people,” Wilkinson remarks.) The stalls were torn out, and the brick walls lightly sandblasted to remove old white paint. Three windows were enlarged into French doors to let in more light. Radiant heat was installed beneath new bluestone floors. After the rooms were framed, Wilkinson added paneled wainscoting, window casings, and crown moldings — signature woodwork that unifies the house.
Upstairs, a paneled floating wall in the master bedroom suite serves both as a headboard to the built-in platform bed, and to separate the sitting and sleeping areas. The master bath is a sybarite’s delight. Pietra cardoza (an Italian soapstone) surrounds the deep tub, with white-gold quartzite on the floor and the walls of the large, unenclosed shower. “The rest of the house is so traditional, I wanted it to be more modern, more of a spa,” says the owner. As for that open shower: “At first we thought we’d have to put glass doors on it, but we didn’t. It’s lovely — you can stand in the shower and look out the window.”
Another luxury is a breakfast bar with a microwave, coffee machine, small sink, and fridge tucked along a wall in the hallway. (“It’s a long way to the kitchen,” remarks the owner.)
Upstairs in the stable wing, a floating wall with a built-in platform bed separates the sleeping and sitting areas in the master suite (see right). New Gothic arched windows were made to match the originals
When the makeover in the stable wing was complete, the couple moved into it, took a break, and then plunged into renovating the main body of the house, which involved gutting the entire space to move walls and add staircases. The spacious living room feels even bigger than it is because of the soaring skylight (which Wilkinson enlarged), but architectural details like the coffered ceiling and paneling bring it back to human scale. “There are a lot of mechanics hidden in the coffers,” says the owner. “Wiring, plumbing, and some giant steel I-beams to shore up the second floor, which was sagging.”
“It’s partly structural,” agrees Wilkinson. “But it’s also important to make ceilings mean something in that kind of space, otherwise you have a big, horrible, Sheetrocked expanse. There’s a bit of baronial castle to it.”
In the master bathroom (below), the open shower allows the owners to look out the window as they bathe. Walls and floors of white-gold quartzite, and Italian soapstone around the deep soaking tub, add to the relaxed spa-like feel
An ill-positioned staircase was replaced with two others: one leading from the dining room and another anchoring the living room. “And the oversized columns and the paneling are intended to ground the rooms,” notes Wilkinson.
A Chinese Chippendale railing around the balcony hallway was inspired, he says, “by something the owner had seen. She had a lot of ideas, and oftentimes I could take them and give them a little boost. We worked well together.” The owner also oversaw the subcontractors — and efficiently, Wilkinson reports. “I’ve helped many owners manage their own projects, and she was the most organized.”
Architect and owner both praise the work of electrician Phil Badger, who had to find ways to run wires in a solid brick building. “Phil is an electrical and mechanical genius,” declares Wilkinson. “It’s the hardest part on a house like this, with all the bells and whistles.”
Wilkinson also designed a library for the husband, a coat room and several utility rooms, including a mudroom with a low sink to wash the dogs.
When the dust settled, the wife had woodwork throughout the house painted white to set off the soft, earthy colors she chose for the walls, some of which have Venetian plaster or other faux finishes. “My husband’s from Scotland and he wanted wallpaper,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Americans are just lazy painting everything white.’ So I wallpapered the downstairs powder room and coat room, and the butler’s pantry, told him how much it cost, and he said, ‘Okay, that’s enough wallpaper.’ ”
The owner deftly mixed Arts and Crafts, Asian, and traditional furnishings, but she’s offhand about how well it goes together. “I can’t say I made a conscious style decision,” she says. “It’s basically things we like. The Arts and Crafts pieces are left over from a house we had before. The sofas and chairs used to be in different rooms. When we moved to the apartment in Hong Kong, we bought fabric in Thailand for slipcovers to coordinate everything.”
From the driveway, the stable wing (perpendicular in the floor plan) looks much as it did when it was built in the 1890s. Plans show how architect Wilkinson made clever use of the angles between the two wings of the house
The garage (top right in the drawing) was added around 1910, complete with its own car wash
Asian touches in the living room range from an altar table brought back from Hong Kong to an antique Korean tansu chest used as a coffee table (“got it at Gumps in San Francisco,” the owner remarks) and a giant Chinese mirror picked up at a local auction. “We said, it’s absolutely perfect, we need it and we’ll pay anything. It was one of the last things to be sold, and nobody wanted it, so we got it for $100,” she says with triumph. “I guess it’s too big, too red, too Chinese. We lucked out.” A giant carpet was also picked up at auction for a song.
Outside, Wilkinson designed a courtyard with a new pool between the two wings, and added a columned portico to dress up the main entrance. Still to come is a small pool pavilion, and a kitchen redo (the present awkward layout is dominated by a peculiar, grand piano-shaped island).
The original 1892 plans, stamped McKim, Mead & White, now hang in the TV room. Apart from the French doors, the portico, and a small cupola that lets light into the master bath, the building looks much as it always did — from the outside. But if the original draftsmen were to see the changes made inside, they’d likely marvel at how their modern counterpart has tucked useful rooms into the odd angles of the V-shaped dwelling, and transformed their stately 19th-century outbuilding into a comfortable and delightful 21st-century home.
Architect: Jeff Wilkinson, Jeff Wilkinson Associates, Beacon; 845-838-9763
General Contractor: Pat Kelly, Pat Kelly Construction, Rhinebeck; 845-876-3283
Electrical, Plumbing & HVAC: Phil Badger, Badger Mechanical, Inc., Staatsburg; 845-889-4464
Faux Painting: Muriel Norman Calderon, Down Under Faux, Red Hook; 845-758-1040