How nature itself came to embrace the soft lines of this updated beach house in Westport, CT by architect Stuart Disston.
by Louis Postel | Originally published in Aspire, Spring 2015
The water streaming past the open gates of this sixty acre millpond no longer powers a colonial paddlewheel.
Nevertheless, the current continues to stir one’s emotions about this special site: the pond, marsh, and ocean, the beach plum and bayberry-covered sands — and, perhaps most of all, emotions about the low-key cottage nestled in the midst of all this.
How did the architect’s Shaker-inflected, modernist approach to the cottage’s renovation and augmentation remain faithful to the spirit of that long-gone paddlewheel —that gentle partnership between man and nature that daily ebbs and flows with the tide?
Most critically, the owner wanted to keep maintain the original, simple cottage spirit of the house. Commensurately, architect Stuart Disston of Austin Patterson Disston of Southport, CT and Quogue, NY found unique ways to honor that simple wish for that partnership between man and nature evoked by the millpond.
Simplicity is hardly that simple to achieve. You can write the mantra ‘less is more’ a thousand times with a stick all down the sandy beach of Long Island Sound situated on the other side of the house from the millpond — and still not get it.
‘Less is more’ can easily become ‘less is nothing’. Simple is not sterile. The tide, metaphorically speaking, has to fill in the millpond as well as flow out.
“Simple is more a reductive process, a matter of what to take out and what to leave in?” says Disston about his multiple award-winning project. “Simplistic means not putting much thought behind what you’re doing.”
And thought there was. One of fifteen summer houses in a Westport, CT colony established around the turn of the 20th century, the house had to-die-for views, but no road access, no heat and no insulation. Just for starters, Disston had to remedy all that, plus move the cottage back from the beach onto 30’ pilings, get the foundation up to code, and add a porch.
“Normally, we would have had to wheelbarrow stuff to the site, or hire a barge. Luckily for us, the state park was undergoing some sewage work and we went in that way,” says Disston.
He doubled the cottage in size, while keeping the original footprint to within five feet by adding a matching gambrel connected by an eyebrow. Below this eyebrow on the inside is the staircase. Disston echoed the original fenestration and window mullions. The resulting exterior profile undulates like waving grass on sandy dunes. “We wanted to emphasize the soft lines of the house, rather than the detailing of the trim,” says Disston.
Those soft, clean lines can be seen throughout the interior, as well. Gutted to the floors and ceilings, Disston left the beams exposed in a meaningful gesture to tradition. He also did the flooring in Western fir, and the kitchen sink is a traditional farmer’s ceramic sink — additional nods to the original, turn of the century period.
Of all the interior spaces, it’s the kitchen that perhaps best expresses what Disston meant when he said that simplicity was a reductive process, a matter of carefully examining what to keep and what to let go.
Giving way to the living room on one side and a mudroom and laundry on the other, the kitchen has modernist concrete countertops brought into focus by a stainless range hood. All the shelving above counter-height is wide open to the sea breezes that gently lift the roman shades of sheer linen. What’s more — there are no ugly brackets holding up those open shelves — just stainless rods which appears a far more elegant solution to holding them up.
Is keeping out dust and grime from open shelves an issue? “Dust can get into anything,” says Disston, “even closed cabinets. But if you look at commercial kitchens, they have open shelving. Professional chefs use surprisingly few pots and pans but they keep recirculating them.”
Last question: Is the owner happy? “Indeed,” says Disston. “When the owner bought the place he was a bachelor. Now he’s got a whole family and they love coming to the house every summer.” One can imagine the in-rushing waters of the millpond sounding something simple like ‘glad you’re back, everyone!’