A Perfect Match
A modernist architect and a family that treasures the past work in harmony to bring new life to an old dairy barn
By Anitra Brown â€¢ Photographs by Michael Polito
After couples have been together a while, they often have different recollections about what happened at the start. So it is, apparently, with architects and clients.
“All I wanted was a pantry and a study with a door that closed,” declares Virginia Stern, who lives with her husband, Mark, in a classic red dairy barn set in the rolling countryside of northeastern Dutchess County. The barn was converted to a home in the late 1960s and the Sterns, both practising psychotherapists, bought it as a weekend getaway in 1983. Gradually they spent more time in the Hudson Valley, less in the city, and in 2004 made the leap, selling their five-story East Village townhouse to semi-retire in the country.
Barry Price, the architect the Sterns consulted about making updates to their rustic retreat, remembers things differently. “They were looking to make the house work as a full-time home, and they wanted an addition,” says Price, who earned his degree from Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1989 and landed in Woodstock because his wife, April, was born there. Most of his work is modernist, like the glass-walled masterpiece near Hudson that won the 2006 American Institute of Architects Westchester/Mid-Hudson Honor Award. But there was something about the beauty and character of this old dairy barn — “a linear space with a curved roof” — that spoke to him.
At their first meeting, Virginia showed him the dark, hushed hayloft on the second floor. It was packed with a dragon’s cave of treasure, including three households’ worth from two sets of parents since passed on, plus the Stern’s overflow from their city home. Still, Price could see its potential. “You walk in and it’s breathtaking,” he says. “It’s a cathedral space.”
Virginia, who spins and weaves as a hobby, confessed it was her favorite place in the house. Price told her, “If this is your favorite place, it should be your studio.” And with that, she was won. “He just felt like the right person — his temperament, his pace, the way we would discuss things,” says Virginia. She and Mark wanted the house to be a place their three grown children and their families could come to for the holidays. “It wouldn’t matter how many people came, there would be room for everyone,” says Virginia. They thought a small barn out back would be perfect for a home office.
Barry took it all in and came back with a plan that was “much bigger than anything we’d thought of,” says Virginia. “He said, â€˜Look at what you can do with what you have!’” Price’s solution included using the hayloft, and even a raw space at the apex of the barn. “I saw all this unused space, and I didn’t feel good about adding on to the building until I had used that space,” he says.
He insulated the original tin roof, which was beautiful but made the house a nightmare to heat and cool. “I was trying to keep the barn’s feel but bring it up to date in terms of its performance and functionality,” he explains. The hayloft’s soaring ceiling was paneled with beadboard pine that now emphasizes its shape, like the inverted hull of a boat. Two large windows were set high on the far wall to let in more light, while a partial wall beneath them allowed the Sterns a place to store boxes and furniture. At the opposite end, Price added a stairway to what’s now known as “the children’s loft,” an open room with a cork floor, built-in storage for toys and bedding for the four grandchildren, and a full bathroom in a dormer. Parents or other guests stay in the three bedrooms on the second floor, now freshened up with new windows (which were added throughout the house). Old carpeting and plywood on the second floor were torn out and the original barn floors were sanded and finished, though they still retain the weathered, rustic feel that the Sterns like.
Some of Price’s changes were minor but made a huge difference in how traffic flowed through the house. A living room window became French doors that open onto a terrace and the much-loved screened building, a former calf barn that the Sterns call “the summerhouse,” with white wicker furniture and wind chimes to catch the breeze. Formerly, the only way to reach the garage from inside the house had been through the master bedroom on the ground floor. Price moved that door to the common-room-cum library.
People often thought the main entrance was the door to a small room jutting off the front of the barn — “the milkhouse,” where trucks once picked up milk ready for market. In fact, it was Mark’s study, filled with French Provincial antiques from his mother’s estate. Price solved the problem by closing off the doorway and adding a paned one at the side, filling the study with light. At the same time he created a more elegant and dramatic main entrance. Bluestone steps now lead to a porch with white columns and an eyebrow-shaped roof that echoes the arch of the barn. French doors illuminate the Stern’s collection of 19th-century New York lithographs just inside, and to the right is a mudroom and Virginia’s must-have pantry.
In one deviation from the original footprint, Price designed a small addition off the master bedroom to give the Sterns a new, light-filled bathroom with views of the charming stone walls and picturesque farm buildings in the backyard. A glass-paned door off the bedroom leads to a back porch, framed on one side by a silo (the only part of the barn that the Sterns can’t use).
Some changes were esthetic, like taking down much of the barn wood in the living room to lighten up the space. Mark and Virginia had always loved the wood’s patina and resisted a little, but found that they appreciate the wood more now that there’s less of it. “It was so dark before,” notes Virginia. More light was also shed on the couple’s art collection.
As the two-year project went on, the Sterns realized that some things they had thought were fine, like their kitchen, would need to be freshened up. “Barry never said, â€˜You really should redo your kitchen,’” says Virginia. “He just trusted you would get it.” She chose new forest-green custom cabinetry and aluminum appliances, including a six-burner Wolf stove so she can cook for those big family groups.
Once the work was underway, architect and client turned their attention to the barn out back. The Sterns wanted to transform it into a home office large enough to house their professional library, an enormous collection of psychology, philosophy and theology books. “The problem was, it just sat on the ground — it had no foundation,” says Price. “The engineer said we’d have to take it apart and put it back together again.”
Price — who is quick to give credit to his associates, Russell Krysiak and Ilene Mark, who also worked on the project — designed a completely new structure from the foundation up, with heating and air-conditioning powered by solar panels on the roof. But by reusing the original weathered siding and hand-hewn beams, the feel of the old barn remains.
The ground floor now has a small kitchen and a private office. A staircase made of original wooden beams and industrial cable railings leads to the library on an open, second level, and it is Mark Stern’s favorite feature. “The craftsmanship is incredible,” he remarks. “They used wooden pegs to put it together, instead of nails.”
Client and architect may not agree how the project began, but all agree it ended well.
“My training is modern design, but these buildings demanded that the era be respected,” says Price. “They’re updated, but you also feel the vintage of the buildings.”
Virginia says Price is one of the few architects she has known who is able to bring his vision in line with the client’s esthetics. “He was absolutely lovely to work with. He looked at the spaces that were here and imagined how they could be, and now we’re living with more comfort and graciousness,” she declares. “And that’s a real gift.” ?