How these beach homes in New York challenge traditional architecture


A view of Mecox Bay behind a home in Water Mill, New York. Photos: Ashok Sinha/The New York Times

An infinity pool at Furness Jackman's waterfront compound in East Hampton.An infinity pool at Furness Jackman's waterfront compound in East Hampton.In 1980s Sagaponack, a village in the Hamptons, New York, the United States, new houses were awash in shingles and classical columns, to the dismay of the architect Fred Stelle.

“It was raging post-modernism,” he said, still sounding bewildered.

He took modest architectural jobs expanding old houses with contemporary extensions and bided his time.

Finally in 2001, he said, a Manhattan creative director requested a fully modern 2,500sq ft (232sq m) new house.

Then came one client after another. Some are famous like Calvin Klein, Aerin Lauder and Michael Kors, sprinkling stardust on a firm that is housed in a converted potato barn in Bridgehampton.

As the business expanded, Stelle added three partners, Viola Rouhani, Michael Lomont and Eleanor Donnelly. Their firm, Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects, quietly became known for a brand of beach modernism that sits lightly in nature, with million-dollar water views of sea grass and open skies.

The houses grew, along with the business.

“Sometimes they got big,” said Stelle, 77, recalling one with 30,000sq ft (2,787sq m).

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, where the pleasures of a sunny day can dissolve into a roiling superstorm in the course of an afternoon, a confluence of laws and constraints point away from traditional architecture.A view of Mecox Bay from the living room of a home in Water Mill.A view of Mecox Bay from the living room of a home in Water Mill.

Flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency dictate construction – low-lying structures must sit atop steel posts to let rushing water surge safely underneath and local height restrictions leave scant room for an attic, let alone a sloped roof.

A flat roof maximises living space below and can host a 13kW solar array, planters thick with sedum or a mahogany sun deck. Atop a 4,900sq ft (455sq m) house on Mecox Bay – with interiors by designer Shawn Henderson – the partners gave a Manhattan real estate executive and his wife all three.

On a spit of land between the ocean and a pond, gossamer floor-to-ceiling white curtains by interior designer Julie Hillman billow at open Fleetwood sliding doors, in high-performance glass crystalline rather than tinted “like very dark sunglasses”, Lomont, 58, said.

“My houses are all glass, with water vistas to feed your soul,” said Deborra-Lee Furness Jackman, the Australian actress.

She worked with the firm for more than six years to replace an unremarkable two-storey tear-down in the East Hampton woods. She also acquired and remade a modest mid-century house next door. That house is now stained black, its lot folded into her waterfront compound.The living room of a home in Sagaponack.The living room of a home in Sagaponack.

She requested cosy elegance, whimsy and the feeling of a museum gallery in tune with her artistic aspirations.

“I walk into any space and I start creating,” she said.

Her ex-husband, Hugh Jackman, attended the design meetings, but “this was my passion piece”, she said.

Furness Jackman admits that she is not good at compromise, but she listened whenever the architects and the designers said, “That won’t work.”

An early version of the layout had two stories, but one day Stelle lopped off the top to produce an unexpectedly elegant single-storey pavilion at ground level, above a tall walkout basement with a screening room, an art studio and the garage.

Rouhani, 54, said she developed the plan “to incorporate this idea of drama” casual enough for family life.

A visitor might nominate the 15ft (4.6m) asymmetrical pedestal dining table that Donnelly modelled to scale in Plasticine and then carved full size in blue foam.

After 18 months of development, the massive bleached walnut table, with a steel interior structure reinforcing its 11ft (3.3m) cantilever, arrived by crane at one end of the sprawling great room, on the main level, and got welded into the floor beams.Mecox Bay seen from the balcony of a home in Water Mill.Mecox Bay seen from the balcony of a home in Water Mill.

“Design is my passion,” Furness Jackman said, “and ‘cantilever’ is my favourite word.”

At a property in Water Mill, Rouhani started from scratch and fortified a new design with disastrous weather in mind.

Concerned that a beach cottage that once belonged to Christie Brinkley would not survive another storm like Hurricane Sandy, the architects shifted the replacement house back from the ocean as a further precaution, and LaGuardia Design Group restored the dunes.

When new owners bought the property for US$11.7mil in 2017, they also tapped Stelle Lomont Rouhani and got a free-standing garage topped with a pool house.

In charge of the interiors, Donnelly, 51, oversaw the painting of the walls. They are white, though the decor pops with pink and orange accessories.

“There’s no rainbow of fruit flavours in our architectural palette,” Donnelly said, though she quickly added that colour was possible at request.

A cedar house in Amagansett for Canadian interior designers George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg added exterior zinc-wall panels that are non-toxic, recyclable and reflect heat from the sun.Furness Jackman’s waterfront compound in East Hampton.Furness Jackman’s waterfront compound in East Hampton.

The couple owns homes in other places, but Yabu said they considered this one their “effortless” primary residence from late spring through October.

“The beach is really us, and this time of year we yearn for it,” he said.

The upper level thrusts daringly toward the dunes while maintaining a respectful distance of five feet (1.5m).

The men wanted to step out of the lower level directly onto sand, so Stelle advised them to move fast and get approved by the building department, before regulations changed, to keep the new structure “off stilts”.

They designed their own interiors, in a creative conversation with the architects that Yabu termed a “love fest”.

Now, a dozen years on, Stelle still brings colourful eggs freshly laid by his Araucana hens as a thank-you when he arrives to show the house to prospective new clients.

“Architects can be prickly, but he is supernice,” Pushelberg said. – The New York Times

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