Taking charge of this project required rethinking our approach to renovation. We had always only restored houses in good condition (including our Brooklyn Brownstone), in part because that was what we were given. We have always been proud of our ingenuity, of our ability to find an elegant solution to a problem. Putting together the inevitably incomplete puzzle. This is the essence of restoration: restrictions are your freedom.
But designing from scratch is an entirely different thing than restoring what is there. What this house needed, when we moved and expanded it for our needs, was detail. Oddities. It is extremely ironic that this house, the oldest in a century, does not seem to reveal any historical history. No architectural progression in its facade. No porches closed over time. No additions offering hints of graceful extensions over the ages.
Designing this home with our longtime partners Anne Sherry Architect and the builder of Sag Harbor Houseworks NY, that’s where we started: the expansion. Once we established its new location, finally giving the house a deeper backyard and some breathing space from the tennis court, we started trying to make it bigger – thoughtfully, with its own story. The new strip of wood that wraps around the entire dining room and covered porch is a nod to the additions of so many homes whose multiple turn-of-the-century porches were slowly incorporated as interior space over time. A jog that connects part of the back addition to the main house is punctuated by two diamond-pane windows of different sizes, an intentional quirk that suggests a long-standing decision to reclaim unique openings. By adding to these many details, we have sought to give this house the history it deserves.
Along the way, as we raised, rebuilt and relocated the house, we discovered some of its original history. Our great find was a hundred-year-old wood skeleton. This 1700 house was supported by massive hand-hewn beams, some of which were over 30 feet long. Although we no longer need them to serve as the underlying structure, the native timber beams were the missing link in the house’s past, hiding under the walls and siding. We carefully removed and sorted the beams, then reused them to anchor the bedroom ceilings and add character to the kitchen and dining areas. In the end, the most recent volumes of this house are supported by its oldest parts.
Throughout, we’ve balanced the story with our own treasure trove of new design ideas. We chose windows handcrafted in Maine, with traditional weights and brass chains. We built guest bedroom closets like carpentry wardrobes, reflecting the built-in elements of 18th and 19th century farmhouses. We have used unpainted brass for all of our door hardware, so that it has a natural patina. But we also designed and built an elegant brass and glass china cabinet (designed and manufactured by Brooklyn studio Evan Yee) and placed it directly above an eight-part window. We favored the pendant lights designed by Florian Schulz in the 1970s that we found on 1stdibs. We put slabs of marble paneling on the kitchen walls. Perhaps our biggest departure in history was a sultry ribbon of a staircase, with brass brooches and a curved banister from the cellar to the attic.
And, when we finished, barely furnished and installed, we had the opportunity to sell it. Much sooner than expected, but fortunately for people who seemed to appreciate her charms as much as we did. Moreover, over the course of these projects, we have realized how much we love the process. It is a labor of love in the work itself. But also, as fate willed it, we fell in love with another house. And that’s a real beauty: all gables and porches and mature gardens, built in 1885, and loved by its previous owners for over 50 years. We think this one of them could be just that.
Pilar Guzman is the former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Traveler. His next design book, Modern Patina, will be released in 2022 by Artisan Books.