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The Barnes Coy Courtyard House

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 18:30
A ‘designed meadow’ leads to the inner sanctum.

It’s like the opening sequence of a 1930s Hollywood movie. You approach down a long, straight driveway shaded by Japanese Zelcova trees, and the introduction creates moody, cinematic suspense with wildly contrasting patches of light and shadow continuing throughout the grounds and into the house itself, where there are courtyards and pools of light within pools of light.

The clients purchased the four-acre property 25 years ago, but a pre-existing house had drainage problems and the basement was often flooded with rainwater. After lengthy discussions with Barnes Coy Architects, the clients decided to tear down the house and build something new — and dry.

They’d been looking at Belgian farmhouses and other traditional domestic residences, so the architects presented a scale model in cardboard with a Flemish hipped roof and another model that looked like a Napa Valley winery house. Eventually, they were able to make the case for a thoroughly modern house with flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass that would not only be more appropriate for the site but better suited to their programmatic needs: The clients wanted five bedrooms and a big kitchen. They wanted a sense of the outside coming inside, and every room to be flooded by natural light. They also needed ample wall space to hang their collection of contemporary art.

Unlike Barnes Coy’s outward-directed beach houses, this was not going to be another “view house,” but more of a hive-like composition, with internally organized circulation and light filtering in from every side, a garden courtyard at the center, and ground-floor rooms placed around the periphery in low, “ground-scraping” symmetry.

With a bold statement at the point of entry, the architects proposed a wall of rusting Corten steel, ike a Richard Serra sculpture, but the steel would be difficult to maintain, so instead the entry wall was fabricated with ceramic panels in a rust-red glaze, as close to the color of rusting steel as could be matched. It makes for a psychological barrier, as if it were the vestige of a walled encampment.

One enters the inner sanctum on a raised teak boardwalk, which passes through a 10-foot-wide opening in the ceramic wall and into a forecourt that’s been landscaped like a miniature park of semi-controlled wilderness. Rough flagstones, left over from the original house, were used to create a cross-axial pathway, which leads to glass doorways on either side. Liriope grass was used as groundcover, while crape myrtle trees provide privacy. Two 13-foot-deep light wells are surrounded by low barriers of steel and densely tufted fountain grass. The light wells illuminate a subterranean level with recreation room, gym, guest rooms, and media theater.

The axial line of approach continues through the main entrance and into the central living room, finally terminating in symbolic fashion at a 20-foot-high hearth of travertine marble.

A sun-drenched gallery wraps around the courtyard. Two other guest rooms and the daughter’s bedroom are strung along its eastern side, while to the west is a large kitchen with an informal dining area, and a guest suite with its own walled-in courtyard. The only section that rises above one story is the master bedroom suite, a block-like extrusion of pale gray cedar that pokes up like a captain’s wheelhouse.

The 8,000-square-foot house opens to the back of the four-acre property, with a formal dining room, library, and living room that has 12-foot-high windows that look out over the park-like landscape. 

The original entry to the property faced west, so the architects’ first move was to rotate the direction to a north-south axis. An existing tennis court was left where it had been, in the northwest corner of the property, but they got rid of a small guest house as well as the original swimming pool, which was replaced with a long lap pool running north to south along the western side of the property.

Chris LaGuardia, the landscape architect, created a parterre in back of the house, with perennial borders and a mix of Russian sage, salvia, asters, and wild grasses “like a designed meadow,”  said Mr. LaGuardia, who shaped the ground plane into widely-spaced turf steps held in place by Corten steel risers, and that lead up to a wilder, less-structured garden. Select landscape features, like a group of old willows and a large katsura tree, were preserved or relocated. A venerable copper beech, which was in the middle of the property, was moved 100 feet to the east so that it would anchor the northeast end of the house and provide a generous canopy of shade, while a long allée of honey locust trees was planted to create a walkway to the back of the property. All accomplished, the clients were ready to host large summer parties.


Mr. Gordon has a book coming out from Rizzoli on Barnes Coy Architects by next spring.

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