Gym at Home: 1900 Beacon Military Academy Gymnasium-Turned-House in Beacon, Dutchess County, NY

An artistic couple transforms a onetime gymnasium into a streamlined home

In pictures, the red brick building set back from the street in one of Beacon’s residential neighborhoods looks cute, even compact, like a one-room schoolhouse. In real life, the outside looks a little bigger than pictures suggest, but it’s still a surprise to pass through the front door and find yourself in the expansive, sunlit space within. Although the interior wasn’t quite as soaring and open when Naomi Sachs and James Westwater first clapped eyes on the place, it was appealing enough that they “fell in love” on sight, Sachs says.

Sachs, a landscape architect, grew up in Storrs, Connecticut. Westwater, an artist, spent his boyhood in a village in Suffolk, England. Their paths crossed in Santa Fe, where each had gone to work. In 2005, after they decided to move closer to New York City, they considered Beacon (with its burgeoning art scene) as a possible new home; soon they were scouting properties online. “We were thinking of building a small, prefab house on a piece of land,” Westwater says. “We had a little dream of opening a B&B that would be lots of little prefab structures. We naively thought that Beacon was out in the woods.” In March of 2005, “we went on a reconnaissance mission,” Sachs says. A realtor had sent them a picture of the red brick house and viewing it, says Sachs, was “part of the plan of attack. We’d planned to go to Brooklyn and Manhattan, too, but we ended up not going. The house clinched the deal.” By early June, it was theirs.

kitchen exterior of gymnasium turned home
main bathroom

Counter-clockwise, from right: The red brick, onetime gymnasium looks deceptively compact from the outside. The owners retained the original doors and windows; Sachs, a landscape architect, softened the surroundings with simple, graceful plantings. Under-counter cabinetry and custom-made stainless-steel countertops keep the kitchen sleek and understated. The concrete countertop in the roomy main bathroom is by Betonas

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Constructed around 1900 as a gymnasium for the Beacon Military Academy, the building served as a factory during the 1940s. When previous owners converted it into a home, they divided the 2,300 square-foot main floor into rooms with 14-foot ceilings; the basement floor was unfinished. Sachs and Westwater decided they wanted to start from scratch. “We felt guilty about gutting it,” says Westwater, not very convincingly. “We liked what they’d done, but it wasn’t our style.”

Demolition began immediately, so by the time the couple made the move from Santa Fe with their dogs that August, the walls and ceilings were gone, leaving the brick shell with its web of rafters exposed. Inspiration for the interior came partly from the home Westwater grew up in — a pair of Victorian warehouses that his father, a modernist architect, converted into a dwelling for his family. Beacon architect Aryeh Siegel drew up plans for the interior — several times. “We had about 30 different designs, moving things around,” says Westwater. “Aryeh joked he was going to make them into a flip book.”

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main living roomDark rafters add drama in an all-white space dominated by boxy shapes. The staircase at center leads up to Westwater’s loft office and the couple’s movie room; the hidden one on the left goes down to the basement floor. The boxed-in bathroom (at left) helps separate the studio in the rear from the living room

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During the three-year renovation, which took place in stages, the couple set up their bedroom and a make-do kitchen in different corners. The end result is a home that’s also “very flexible,” Westwater says, with a living-dining-kitchen area occupying much of the ground floor and Westwater’s studio in the rear. They refinished the old pine floor (“still showing remnants of factory action in the back,” he points out) and retained the original doors and windows, now restored and fortified with custom storms. The sleek, open kitchen was a collaboration with EKB Kitchen and Baths (now in New Windsor). “We said what we wanted, and they made it work,” says Westwater. A stainless-steel countertop from Green Courage in New Paltz defines the kitchen area in one corner. Other recycled or eco-friendly choices include some bargains, like the $3,000 Gaggenau oven they bought for $150 from Green Demolitions. Westwater demonstrates the hidden downdraft for the relatively simple Bosch cooktop. “We didn’t go for trendy,” he notes. “We don’t like to show off — ‘Look how mighty our stove is.’ ”

The main living area is visually separated from the studio by a spacious bathroom and a wall concealing a staircase that leads to a loft in the rafters above the studio. Half the loft serves as an office;the other half, once the couple’s bedroom, is a snug spot where they watch movies. (The bed is now tucked behind the staircase, separated from the studio by an arrangement of plants and the dog’s crates. “It looks a bit pokey, but we think it’s cozy,” Sachs says.)

guest apartmentThe guest apartment in the refinished basement shares the same clean-lined esthetic as the main living quarters upstairs

Westwater has a second studio in the renovated basement, part of which is now a modern take on a railroad apartment — a long, narrow space with a sitting area, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom leading into each other. A satiny concrete floor, white walls, Ikea cabinetry, and clean-lined design generate the same feeling of simplicity and restraint as does the main living quarters upstairs.

Doors from the basement floor lead out to the small building in the back garden that the couple constructed as a studio for Sachs, who is founder and director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network. “This is where we lived while part of the renovation was going on,” says Westwater, opening the door onto a tiny room not much bigger than a king-sized bed. “It was us, the bed, three dogs, dog crates, and a Porta-Potty.” The studio’s sliding glass doors overlook Sach’s rain garden, a graveled, shallow oval engineered to collect rainwater that would otherwise erode the bottom of the garden and flood the neighbors. Graceful serviceberry trees thrive there. “We lived here from October to May,” Sachs adds. “It was cozy, looking out at the rain garden. It freaked us out a bit when we moved into the big space.”

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After renovating both floors, “the big space” totaled about 5,000 square feet — a considerable amount to heat and cool. Installing an Austrian pellet stove cut heating bills by about a third, Sachs says, and thermal blinds at the windows help with passive heating. “We’re very good about going round and pulling them down or opening them up,” Westwater says. “We resisted the urge to put in central air.” Instead they have two air conditioners, high windows that vent hot air in the summer, and ceiling fans that push it down in winter.

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white wallsWhite walls — like the half wall that conceals the staircase to the loft — provide gallery-like hanging space for Westwater’s art

Although they’re not true minimalists (“we’re minimal-ish,” Westwater says), the all-white brick walls, under-counter cabinetry, limited furnishings, and expanses of open space create an understated look that allows the building’s architectural features to shine. Boxy shapes recur throughout, from the alcoves set into the exterior bathroom walls (to display artwork) to the mid-century modern velvet sofa whose high back and straight lines serve as a minimal-ish room divider.

mid-century sofaAn oversized, mid-century couch, from Relic in Beacon, adds a cozy note

The streamlined setting also makes a good backdrop for Westwater’s art — “anything with an oval, or a bunch of junk. I’ve got a kitsch thing going,” he says, in self-deprecating English style. The “bunch of junk” pieces are actually found objects ranging from a plastic toy to architectural remnants arranged on carts and in cabinets. Objects awaiting their turn are laid out so carefully in the studio, it’s difficult to distinguish between art and materials for art. His Plywood Chateau series — “micro-dwellings” that are boxes big enough to sit in, with trompe l’oeil interiors — supply intimate spaces within the main living room.

Even on a dreary day, the loft feels sunny and welcoming — and perfect for a party. Do they entertain often? “We do have parties,” Westwater says. “We’re happy to pay the mortgage so our friends can enjoy the place.”

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