Early in my career, I thought that an ideal house to live in would be a combination of either an old Greek Revival farm house or a Queen Anne cottage with a big, open, urban loft. In this dream house, I would repair and preserve the character, detail, and scale of the exterior while utterly transforming the interior. The first floor would be almost an entirely clean sweep, creating a big open space that would include a great kitchen, a dining area, and a living area. Other than updating bathrooms, or turning a small bedroom into part of a larger master suite, I would leave the upstairs alone. The house would have gravitas, history, and charm on the outside and be efficient, spacious, clean and crisp on the inside. Having a porch facing a view of the sunset would be nice too.
I love New England farmhouses because they were built with a great sense of purpose and craft. They are carefully detailed, managing composition, texture, and scale to create a dynamic and harmonious whole. They are simple, beautiful, modest, and incredibly useful. They also are very responsive to the natural environment that surrounds them. These are all design principles that inform good architecture today as much as they created good architecture over the past three hundred years.
So how far did I get with this vision?
First, we had to get the urban loft part down. Judy and I renovated a loft in New York in 1976, creating a big space that had the kitchen off one end and a bedroom off the other. The best part was the stove, which was pushed against a low wall overlooking the main space. We could cook and entertain at the same time. Despite the fact that it was built on an "art student" budget, this project is echoed in just about every home we have designed since.
Sixteen years later, we did manage to buy a 1940s vintage Cape. Not quite the Greek Revival or Queen Anne farmhouse we were looking for, but it did overlook a big farm across the street. The house, and more importantly, our budget did not lend itself to a clean sweep, but it constituted a big step in the right direction. What did work particularly well for us, however, was the combination of classic New England architecture on the outside with modern details indoors.
Eight years ago, we bought a modern house, built in 1969, and decided to turn it into a New England farmhouse and barn. This time, we did get the big open space on the inside, but lost the Greek Revival/Queen Anne part. We still managed to create a house that blends effortlessly into a rural landscape. The exterior, although hardly classical or traditional, still embodies the principles of scale, proportion, and detail that speak to the kind of house we dreamed about.
The chance to realize the original dream finally came in a commission for clients, rather than a new home for ourselves. We were given the task of restoring a beautiful Queen Anne cottage in Cambridge while totally transforming the interior. The first floor is open from front to back. The second floor did not change too much, and the third floor was transformed into a great master suite with a deck. I would move into it tomorrow! The house is utterly Queen Anne outside; inside, it is perfectly modern.