Modernist Transformation

Two old buildings and a surprising new one reflect nature and architectural possibilities.
The dining room, with a folding door and a screen that comes down from the ceiling, opens to a deck. The partners made the table themselves. Erik Freeland

As they had with their studio and living space in Manhattan’s Chelsea, G. Phillip Smith and Douglas Thompson were planning to start from scratch when they built a house for themselves on the East End. The partners, who met at the Columbia School of Architecture, spent two years looking for a suitable lot, where they could exercise their Modernist sensibility in a tranquil setting.  

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The property they found, on Spring Close Highway near an agricultural reserve and a 20-acre horse farm as well as the Long Island train tracks, had been part of the Bistrian farm. Two outbuildings, a tractor barn and a small hay barn that had been converted to a cottage, were to be torn down. But, over time, Mr. Thompson told a recent visitor, they “fell in love” with the idea of integrating the old buildings with the new designs they are noted for. It turned out to be a 15-year process.
Today, the old buildings have been restored as part of a 4,500-square-foot house with expanses of glass, interwoven and cantilevered levels, and a glass tower. There is a studio where staff members can come and work and comfortable places where friends and family can share the architects’ retreat. The last three years were a push to get it all finished.
As Alastair Gordon, an architectural historian and former writer for The East Hampton Star, explained, the property became “something like a laboratory workshop in slow design, a place where the architects could try out new ideas, change directions, and practice living with the results.”
The ground level of the house, in what was once the tractor barn, has the architecture studio and a library. A separate entryway was created, with a poured, light concrete floor and one of the several stairways in the house, which leads to the main floor and to a glass “stair” tower, which the couple think of as a silo.
The smaller building, at the other end of the house, has a sleeping loft instead of a hayloft and a summer kitchen, which is used to prepare meals for eating alfresco.
The property had belonged to George Schulte, a furniture restorer and appraiser and, later, to Peter Stone, a writer for theater, television, and movies. The barn, which had living spaces on a second floor, was Mr. Schulte’s workshop for many years, and Mr. Stone used it to house the actors who were often his guests.
Most of the windows face south, which, Mr. Smith said, makes the house “responsive to natural light all year round.” Skylights and a large A-shaped window provide the three main floor bedrooms with light and air. The house also has nautical touches: One of the bedrooms is like the cabin of a boat and opens onto a small deck through a Dutch door. A stairwell has a rope handrail.
Making use of the natural surroundings, the partners designed a sitting area on the living floor with a window adjacent to a huge juniper. It is one of several places where the house seems to be in the trees. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Smith had been in Japan as well as Malaysia, which explains some of the Asian touches in the house. A platform with a tatami mat for reading or relaxing is an example.
On the living floor, the ceilings had been 7 feet 4 inches high; they were raised to 10 feet and the windows were made larger. There is a folding wall and screen system on one side of the dining area that faces the front courtyard; it can be raised and lowered by remote control. At the other end of the room, a steel bookcase with a frosted plexiglass back is both a screen and light fixture.
Frank Lloyd Wright would approve of the look of the house, which, similar to the partners’ New York quarters, is spare, almost spartan. “Keeping the house uncluttered, helps keep the mind uncluttered,” Mr. Smith said. Proving the point, all the kitchen equipment is in drawers (even the microwave oven) under the countertop, which may come as a surprise to the uninitiated. The counter is made of precast concrete reinforced by rebar. An extra, pop-up sink in the counter is semi-concealed.
There are three ways to get into the house, with a staircase off a sitting area near the kitchen, another off the kitchen itself. At the top level, it is possible to cross from one end of the house to the other over a roof terrace that connects a guest bedroom to the stairs leading to the kitchen and living floor, all of which creates a loop.
While the house has become a signature of the partners’ work, another building on the site almost steals the show. It is a 200-square-foot, two-story pool house with a sod roof that the men describe as more tea house or garden folly. (The Smith and Thompson office building in New York also has a green roof, and the firm is doing other projects with sod.)
The pool house, at the edge of the property, can be seen, along with the swimming pool and a grass yard, from the different levels and rooms of the house. Mr. Smith said it was a retreat for writing or reflecting — and was also nice for napping, although it has an outdoor living room and indoor and outdoor fireplaces. Second floor shutters guard against rain and sun, while a composting toilet testifies to the partners’ environmental consciousness. Two huge evergreens, former Christmas trees planted by the Schultes, loom to one side.
The pool house was designed in keeping with Norwegian construction principles to support the weight of the four-inch-thick sod, which was taken from the property. The architects constructed the building themselves with the help of apprentices and interns, using Spanish cedar for the shutters and Philippine mahogany for dividers. Leftover mahogany became the main house’s dining room table, which the partners also built themselves.
While only an acre, several elements combine to make the property seem much larger: The house is at the back of the lot and there are woods to one side. The northern boundary is marked by a Corten steel wall, which will rust and seal itself eventually. As it blends into the landscape, it will also add dimension, they said.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Thompson wanted to live in a house that “respected where we are in nature, our vernal bond,” one that also evoked the area’s agricultural past and reflected the open ocean, about a mile away. The house now can accommodate some 12 guests, and, given the new spaces, the pool house, and the woods, not to mention the beach, the hosts have fulfilled their dream.