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Beauty and the Beasts: Exploring the Art and Architecture of Estate Agriculture

By Louis Postel, as seen in New England Home, Special Spaces, November 2016

If you close your eyes and listen to the clip-clop of a great steed being led across the cobblestone courtyard with a three-spouted fountain playing counterpoint into a cistern behind, it’s easy to imagine yourself reincarnated as one of those riders born to royalty you read about in romantic fiction.

Indeed, when architect Marcus Gleysteen set out to design the Beechwood Stables complex in Weston, the first stop on his research trail was the regal 18th Century Bourbon stables in Chantilly, France. And before drawing the most preliminary sketch he went on to check out just about every notable stable within driving distance of his Boston office. This included Vanderbilt’s Shelburne Farms on Lake Champlain, and Sandy Point and Glen Farms in Portsmouth, RI where he was able to put his considerable riding skills to work as a further test.

Marcus Gleysteen
Marcus Gleysteen

“My term for Beechwood is Estate Agriculture,” says Gleysteen, “while built for utilitarian equestrian use, the architecture itself needs to embody the values of the people who own it and live around it. That’s why we don’t use perfectly functional corrugated siding for Estate Agriculture.  The Beechwood idea was to combine that functionality with beauty.”

Open your eyes, and you see the three buildings comprising the Beechwood complex: Gleysteen’s Estate Agriculture, a modernized use of traditional forms in steel and wood. Across the courtyard stands a 4,500 square-foot timber-framed, multi-gabled stable with extended roof beams on each side, and a skin of board and batten and Douglas Fir.

In addition to the stable, a 22,000 square-foot enclosed, irrigated arena with six pneumatic, bi-folding hangar doors angled slightly below an observation room, bar and granite, Stonehenge of a double fireplace. And third, the 4,200 square foot utility barn, kitty corner from the arena and its outdoor patio. Here is where the owners Lise and Dan Revers put the seventeen-foot dark-stained slice of walnut with its light maple wedge of inlay to use as a dining table entertaining guests after drinks in the observation room. About 30,000 cars a day see the outside of the barn facing the street.

When Lise rode as young girl she recalls how stables were mainly converted cow barns with 150 years of cow urine odor filling the dank and dark interiors. “What makes a happy stable,” adds Gleysteen, “is a healthy smell.” The proper setting of the doors to prevailing winds. The ingenious ventilation flaps in the hayloft and the twelve extra-large, airy stalls below. The ten leafy private acres set in 200 acres of conservation land. All these elements combine with ubiquitous fresh hay to make not so much a smell, but a heady fragrance one would be tempted to bottle.

Uninsulated, but comfortable given the biomass of the horses themselves, with a heated floor for 6 am February grooming, the choice of timber-frame construction posed some challenges for Gleysteen. While Douglas Fir with its striking horizontal graining, is one of the most stable and sustainable of woods it’s rich with resin which is highly combustible. “That’s why we put a sprinkler system in here worthy of a nuclear plant,” says Gleysteen. Though well-concealed behind steel-strapped columns and beams, the piping is unavoidable. “Sadly, every week I read about stables going up in flame,” notes Lise. The other challenge about timber-frame relates to the first: there’s no way to hide the smallest detail, timber-frame leaves everything exposed. “This fact provided a real opportunity for creative expression,” says Gleysteen, “and to develop a vocabulary that expresses the structural geometry in each building. Though in the construction, one occasionally had to use a cat o’ nine tails — no improvising allowed.

beechwood-stables-14

For example, in the stable, Gleysteen made sure nothing juts out that might hurt a horse coming by, not the smallest latch, nor scores of other functional details having to do with the constant circulation of thousand pound, champion hunters. They pass cleanly down the halls, past vet stall, farrier stall, bathing stall, laundry, and hotel-quality tack room to the arena or one of the five grassy paddocks outside.

In the arena building, attached to the stable by an enclosed link, Gleysteen had the walls inclined slightly to afford space for riders’ legs if their horses happen to run along them, while making sure the arena’s illumination was uniform so the horses won’t shy from odd strips of light. He also designed elaborate fireplace doors with horsehead inlays in copper and bronze for the double-sided granite fireplaces in the observation room and patio outside where the fountain pours its notes. Above the dining table, Gleysteen, who began life as a sculptor, created a huge, ring-like light fixture inspired by the leaf springs of old, and forgotten tractors.

“So many barns are moving South these days,” says Lise “The snow loads are collapsing the enclosed arenas.”

“Which is too bad,” says Gleysteen whose practice is based in Boston, “because a tradition here is getting lost.” Meanwhile, Kingpin, a majestic horse with an elegant white blaze, seems happily unconcerned. Luminous in the light and air and complementary honey hues of the Douglas Fir columns, he seems to point to a future where good design everyone feel ennobled.

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