By Dinyar Wadia
They saw it at the movies—the great hall of a 13th-century Scottish castle. It was the sort of chamber they’d long envisioned as the centerpiece of their renovated home. But would it work in New Canaan?
Over the past 30-plus years I have worked to help hundreds of clients create what they invariably call their dream home. This is the story of a grand house made even grander—without making it seem larger than it already was.
The inspiration for the project was Duart Castle, on Scotland’s Isle of Mull. The castle was the setting for the 1999 movie Entrapment, in which Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones played art thieves practicing their moves for a high-tech heist. After seeing the movie, a prospective client called us to say, excitedly, that after years spent trying to “envision our dream,” he and his wife had finally seen exactly what they wanted—Duart Castle’s great hall. They envisioned this magnificent hall as the centerpiece of their renovated and expanded 1920s Elizabethan home.
From the onset, the clients were intent on maintaining the character, style, and integrity of this, their landmark summer home, which had been designed by New York architect William B. Tubby for Rush Taggart, one of the most famous corporate lawyers of his time. Tubby rose to prominence during the 1920s Great Estates era, during which he designed Waveny House (for the Lapham family, which started the Texaco Oil Company), in New Canaan; Dunellen Hall, in Greenwich; and the original Greenwich Library.
After carefully exploring the ways in which the clients wanted to use this planned space, we presented them with a design solution that conveyed balance, proportion, comfort, and architectural integrity. The addition included an Old World kitchen, a computer study area, a groin-vaulted and window-lined gallery, an intimate library area and mezzanine, and, of course, the great hall—which soars dramatically to a ceiling 30 feet above. All of these spaces help enclose a charming paved courtyard and herb garden—used for outdoor dining in the summer months.
After a meticulous analysis of the existing structure’s position on the property, as well as its architectural elements, we came up with a plan that connects this major addition to the rest of the house so seamlessly that even my clients now forget where the old and the new meet.
We opted to tuck the addition onto the rear of the house, so as not to ruin the approach to the house—while being careful to not diminish the owners’ existing views of their beautiful, mature gardens.
To help preserve the integrity of the house, we used, for the addition, the same architectural details and material used in the original home: Flemish bond brick work, limestone accents, interior plaster moldings, walnut paneling, and old stone paving. We even had the new stonework power-ground to give it the same weathered texture and patina as the stone on the existing house.
Like the great hall, the new kitchen features leaded-glass windows surrounded by stone trim and an old stone floor, all of which complement the home’s original look and feel. We designed the kitchen cabinets as furniture, so they appear to have been purchased by the client as individual pieces over the years. And we added a skylight, which now floods the kitchen with natural sunlight.
However, implementing this wonderful design involved the request for a variance from the town’s zoning board, since the already sizable home exceeded the allowable floor area. To get approval for a variance, homeowners must first declare that being denied a variance would be a hardship, and then declare what that hardship would be. We positioned the hardship as architectural—that this house, which predated zoning, did not have a family room (since family rooms were not traditionally a part of a house built in the 1920s). In essence, we positioned the great hall, where the family would socialize, play billiards, watch television, and read, as the family room, and we confidently pitched that concept to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The first time around, we were denied the variance, on the ground that the addition to the house was much larger than current zoning laws allowed. But that objection turned out to be fortunate for us. We reapplied with a slightly revised, smaller plan, and were granted approval—for an unprecedented 500 square feet in excess of the zoning law’s coverage area.
Here are some lessons from this project that may benefit you, if you’re thinking of adding on to a historic house:
First, on such a project it is the (unspoken) responsibility of the designer to ensure that the style and dignity of the original house is unaltered. Preserving the virtues of the original house is an exercise in ego-suppression—in recognizing the foolishness of trying to “one up” an already distinguished house. This is a rare opportunity for designers to hone their craft and, in Sir Isaac Newton’s phrase, to stand “on the shoulders of giants.”
Second, this is a fine example of the importance of working with an architect or designer who is familiar with the intricacies of the local zoning regulations. Frequently, too much time is spent up front on the schematic design, rather than on first coming up with a broad-strokes concept for the zoning commission.
For this project, we quickly prepared a site plan that showed how the addition looked in relation to the existing house, with the aim of demonstrating to the commission that the addition was not visible to any of the neighbors or from the street. We also prepared elevations showing the seamless blending of the addition with the existing house. In my experience, it is always better to approach the beginning of a project in this way, since the zoning approval process can be difficult to predict in the best of times—and, if not handled properly, can easily scupper a project.