The High Life

Where an ugly duckling became a swan
The original 1970s Amagansett house was grandfathered in to become the Treehouse, circa 2015, allowing views from the third story. Matthew Carbone Photos

“It was so special — a three-story house,” Viola Rouhani, the architect of what became the Treehouse in Amagansett, said. “We knew we had to preserve it and have it grandfathered in to keep that view.”

The view is a magical 360-degree expanse, high above the stillness of the trees, with only a gliding hawk for company, Gardiner’s Bay and Block Island Sound in the distance, and Connecticut on the horizon on a clear day.

When Andrew Catapano, the owner of the Treehouse, was land hunting about six years ago, he came upon the rundown 1970s structure, an unimaginative tower of sorts on two acres, inhabited by a semi-recluse and a colony of raccoons. By all standards, it was a teardown,  but razing the tower would mean losing that view forever.  

East Hampton Town’s building codes limit new houses to two stories (going underground is some homeowners’ way of adding a third). However, if a three-story house was built before current codes were enacted, a new house could retain three stories as long as the original footprint was maintained. 

Ms. Rouhani, a partner at Stelle, Lomont, Rouhani Architects, which is based in Bridgehampton, is more accustomed to creating wide open interior spaces, for which the firm has become known. The tower, she said, was the antithesis of her usual blueprint.

“The concept became clear very early on,” she said. “It was going to be about different spaces and various compartments. The goal became to create a variety of spatial experiences.”

More than variety, the Treehouse seems to offer a provocative juxtaposition of two experiences: one aerial and monumental, the other more grounded and domestic.

The tower now bears little resemblance to its former self. It is mostly encased in glass with each story animated by new cantilevered balconies. A guest bedroom suite is on the first floor and a kitchen and dining area on the second. An office, perched like a hawk’s nest off the side of the building, is on a split level between the second and third stories. Mr. Catapano did not like the idea of a media room in a basement so Ms. Rouhani designed one on the third floor with full-height glass windows that are fitted with black-out shades. One more flight of stairs is the inspiration for it all, the piece de résistance of the Treehouse: the roof deck. With a full kitchen, a fire pit, comfortable seating, and frameless glass balustrades that provide the extraordinary view, which the host’s visitors, especially if weary-eyed after a trip from the city, can bask in.

Like two buildings joined at the hip, the new  section of the house seems to penetrate the tower at its midsection. A walkway on the same level as the kitchen and dining area leads to an expansive living area with massive amounts of glazing to offer maximum light, space, and a connection with the outdoors. Its giant windows slide open, leaving only glass balconies, with no screens blocking the breeze.  

“Andrew was very interested in bringing the outdoors in. He’s surrounded by all these trees, and he wanted to open up the building so that you get a feeling, even when you’re sitting in the living room, of being on a porch,” Ms. Rouhani reported. Below the living room are two more guest bedrooms and bathrooms. And despite its seeming sprawl, the house is under 5,000 square feet.

The master bedroom and bath is accessed from the living area, and the glass walls continue even into the bathroom, where a deep soaking tub sits in a glass corner surrounded by trees. And why not, since the only prying eyes are likely to belong to deer.

With the amount of glazing throughout the house, steel was a major component of the construction. A total of 137,000 pounds went into the framework of the new part of the house, a necessity not only to support the many cantilevered areas, Ms. Rouhani said, but because the East End is given to hurricanes and local codes demand sturdy steel frames. She pointed out that even the vast master bathroom, which has concrete floors, is cantilevered. 

During the approximately three years of designing and building, Mr. Catapano was an active contributor, a fact Ms. Rouhani acknowledged with a smile. Mr. Catapano explained that an open, collaborative relationship was important in his decision to choose her firm. “I wanted to work with someone who would be open to getting input from the client. I interviewed about four companies, and I found Ms. Rouhani to be very passionate but totally open to collaborating,” he said. He said he wanted a house that would ultimately look and feel like his own. 

In all aspects of the design, from the artwork on the walls to the landscaping, Mr. Catapano was determined to take cues from the surrounding area, the ocean and bay and the oak and beech trees. “I wanted something very natural. Everything had to fit in with the natural landscape. No lawns. I hate blowers and lawnmowers,” he said.

Native grasses surround the house, together with low blueberry bushes and ferns. The gray coat of the house blends right in. Mr. Catapano hired LaGuardia Landscapes to realize his vision for the outdoors and was pleased with the low-maintenance result. He added with a grin, “And they only need to come twice a year.”

Indoors, white got the nod. The minimal palette offers less “noise” and frees up spaces so the owner can add his own layers and personality. And even though white is timeless and light, the interior design pales somehow in comparison to the skill with which the architect has imposed a sense of hierarchy on the spaces. The rooms are impressive but do not seem fully populated, which makes sense since Mr. Catapano moved in only about two years ago. A retired real estate developer, he enjoys having friends over for dinner and to stay for weekends. He also noted that there are no children to scuff things up. With time, a patina will build up, however, and the atmosphere may not seem quite so pristine. It’s the autobiographies that make a house a home, or so it has been said, and Mr. Catapano is clearly still writing his.

The living room of the Treehouse.
An indoor/outdoor bathroom experience.
The unobstructed view from the top.
A light-filled, architecturally pleasing staircase.
Andrew Catapano, the owner.