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Medieval Modern

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To quote a perennially acute observer of family dynamics (the redoubtable Jerry Seinfeld), “There’s no such thing as fun for the whole family.” The Attie sisters — Jeanie, Ilana and Alice — understand this truism. “We live very separate lives,” says Jeanie, a historian of 19th-century America who chairs the history department at Long Island University. “We don’t even socialize a lot when we’re in the city.”

So when the women and their mother, now widowed and living on Long Island, decided to look for a house where they could all gather for holidays and vacations, they wanted one that offered enough privacy to respect each sibling’s character and preferred pastime, as well as those of their children and significant others. (Their brother, Kenny, lives with his wife and twins in Brazil but visits on occasion. When everyone’s in residence, the house holds four children and 11 adults of varying ages.)

Four years ago, the sisters discovered a house on seven and a half acres in Germantown that they thought would work. A small portion of it dated to 1890, but previous owners had added onto it over the years, building, among other things, an indoor pool and a separate barn.

“We zeroed in on this one because it seemed there was enough room that everyone wouldn’t be on top of each other,” recalls Jeanie. “But we were naïve and inexperienced, and once we bought it we realized it needed some changes.”

They hired architect Chris Arelt, principal of Nautilus Architects of Red Hook, Dutchess County, and Deep River, Connecticut, to do some renovations. However, says Jeanie, “Pretty soon we realized we’d end up pouring a lot of money into a house that would never be right.” So the Attie clan decided to tear down and start anew.

“The family was pretty design-savvy,” Arelt observes. But considering their different natures, he thought it would be more expeditious for one person to take the lead. Jeanie seemed most inclined. “We were like aesthetic soul mates,” he says. “We could finish each other’s sentences.”

The family did agree on the basics. Everyone liked the original home’s white clapboard exterior and cedar-shake roof, but they were also stylistically open-minded. “We would all define ourselves as modernists,” says Jeanie. “We didn’t want an ultra-modern house — steel, glass and concrete — because it wouldn’t fit into the region. But we also didn’t want a house, as Chris says, layered with trim.”

And early on they decided against separate structures because “it would leave too big a footprint on the property.”

At least from a distance, explains Arelt, the house had to have “a kind of familiarity to it, as if it belonged here and didn’t just drop down from the sky.” His 7,000-square-foot solution defies neat labels. Dutch-style hipped roofs connect it to the region’s 18th-century past, and also “pull things down so the house doesn’t seem to loom.” The front façade, with its white clapboard siding, cedar-shake roof, and stone silo-like tower at one end, also looks like a traditional rural American structure. Yet the vault and proportions of the living room resemble those of a small Coptic church. The arched hallways upstairs and the thickness of walls throughout put you in mind of something more medieval and European. And viewed from the pool, the ample use of glass in the rear refers to more modern architectural movements.

“I had this running term I used to describe what we wanted,” says Jeanie: “medieval modern.” In the architectural continuum, medieval (at least the monastic version) and modern are not mutually exclusive aesthetics. Both eschew excessive ornament yet prize judiciously applied craftsmanship and detail. Both value the integrity of materials. And neither abides clutter.

Like medieval abbeys, the front of the house has thick walls punctuated by small windows. Back in the Dark Ages, these served to keep out cold and the occasional flaming arrow. In this case, the aim was privacy from the street. Once inside, however, the house opens up to the exterior in a very modern way thanks to Arelt’s use of large windows. The walls, masterfully plastered by Dutchess County contractor Bryan Vosburgh to curve seamlessly into the ceilings, looked so beautiful that Arelt and his clients decided merely to seal them. “You can almost feel people’s hands and tools going over the surface,” says Arelt. “It enhances that tactile quality.” It also nicely toes that line between modern and medieval.

The original house had been sited poorly, and the trees were so thick that they obscured views of distant mountains. To let in the most light throughout the day, Arelt followed Frank Lloyd Wright’s admonition and reoriented the house 30 degrees east of the north-south axis. As for the trees, “What Chris understood but we didn’t,” says Jeanie, “was that if they were cut down selectively, we’d have views of the Catskills. What he did was a revelation.”

Building over and down the natural slope of the land enabled Arelt to situate the pool on a lower terrace out back and thus preserve that newly visible panorama. A pond at the base of the slope, also previously invisible from the house, was doubled in size (by this time the Atties had purchased an adjacent four-and-a-half acre plot, so they now owned about 12 acres all together). The pond now disappears behind a small peninsula and, says Jeanie, “gives the illusion that it keeps on going, that it’s not a finite body of water.”

The living room-dining room — the heart of the house, which lies to the right of the entry — offers the best vantage point for this scenery. To the left are a powder room, the 85-year-old matriarch’s suite (conveniently outfitted with a laundry shoot and an elevator to the pool and lower terraces) and one of several “away rooms,” smaller, cocoon-like spaces scattered throughout the house to allow for smaller congregations of people. There is also the stone tower, which accommodates a circular stairway to other floors. Tempered glass treads on the steps and the tower’s conical glass cap ensure that natural light reaches all the way to the basement.

The downstairs houses an exercise space that doubles as a media room and ping pong tournament site; a laundry room; two bedrooms; changing rooms and shower for the pool; and an outdoor kitchen. Upstairs has four more bedrooms (which occupants decorated according to their own taste), three baths, an office and another “away room.”

Throughout, there are decks and terraces — “a lot of places to escape outside,” says Jeanie. There is also a detached barn, which serves as a studio for Alice (an artist) and additional guest quarters. Three years after they tore down their original purchase, the Atties finally had the perfect place to indulge in both privacy and the community of family. They can all sit around the enormous walnut-and-steel dining table custom handcrafted by woodworker Eric Englander, who made several other pieces of furniture in the house. But with all the levels and terraces, large rooms and small rooms, there are plenty of places to avoid the fray when everyone is in residence. â—

Captions: Previous page: . The spiral stair runs through the silo-like tower, its wood-framed glass treads allowing sunlight to penetrate the stairwell. Windows cut into the wall of the upper hallway (top) also bring in light. Smooth vaulted ceilings in the hallways (below) and living room (opposite), recall medieval abbeys. The plaster was left unpainted to show texture and contractor Vosburgh’s high-quality workmanship

Green tile in one of the bathrooms (top) provides a rare hint of color in the mostly monochromatic house, but the room’s zen simplicity keeps things modern. A cozy study (left) provides a retreat from the larger spaces. The kitchen (above) has a poured concrete island and Thassos marble mosaic walls. Black granite counters pick up the black frames on the windows

 

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