A modern home with a past life. Stories from my house.
The Academy was constructed in 1833, not as a house, but as a public building. It is one of eight original structures in the little Long Island village where I live. There it served as the local school, under different names, until finally, it was known as the Bellport Academy. Over the years the building was moved, survived a fire, was struck by lightning, became a carpenter’s shop. It was finally purchased and turned into a house in 1919, and gained its distinctive side wing. I bought the faded property in 2001 and spent (two) years restoring it. Almost two centuries from its beginnings, people in town still call this house the Academy.
For a vernacular country building, the Academy’s Federal architecture is classical and formal in a way that captures the Greek Revival ideal, full of civic aspiration and the invention of a dignified American identity. Even as a school, it has the elegant symmetry and lofty proportions of a chapel or meeting hall; the refined pediments, fanlights, and belltower; the honest square columns of the front doorway and portico. All of these features remain with the house as it is today. At the same time, the clean, less adorned geometry echoes in much later modern architectural directness. The light and public spaciousness create rooms of modern scale. The coastal shingled construction places it in the New World, local tradition. In the time when it was first built, there would have been something just as forward- looking, fresh, and original about the Academy as there was a sense of history. That duality carries through my restoration and exists in the way I live there now.
The School becomes a House
The domestic additions made in the 1920s included the long kitchen wing, the sunroom facing the back lawn, and the side portico. Chimneys were added and moved, and the grounds and drive reconfigured. But for the most part the lines and rhythms of the original school building were thoughtfully preserved. Most magical of all, the original full-floor classroom was kept intact as one main living room.
The goal for a building like this, already rich with history and its own sensitive period additions, was to use as much of the existing architecture as possible, inside and out, during my restoration. The ingredients I worked with – moulding shapes, framing heights, millwork and doors – are taken from the best of what was here, not to change the house, but to make it more unified, refined, and in its way, simple. This project is about reclamation, more than renovation.
Cabinets from the kitchen and pantry were repurposed upstairs. The casing profile of the 1920s sunroom doors became the window mouldings throughout the living space. The kitchen was reinvented in materials and layout that would feel as if they had been part of the original 1920s era of the house. Shingles and shutters were meticulously replaced and finished in a combination of traditional weathered grey, white, and darkest hunter black, to let the exterior feel bright and interesting, yet correct.
Using architectural detail to define a space is one of the most important places to start at in any project. In this house, the point was to create better alignment of openings and passageways, with a corrected trail of light moving across the main classroom-living area and through the stairwells and halls both upstairs and down. In the classroom, the scale of the millwork changes to meet the sheer size of the space – the enlarged entry; the deeper, larger window frames; and, higher, deeper, built-in cabinets with screen-like folding doors on either side of the entrance. Shining enameled paint and whitened floors bounce light, widen space, and look both modern and traditional with high, narrow, paneled black doors.
Outdoors, the grounds follow the contours of the building and are divided into three exterior “rooms”: a garden along the portico side of the classroom; the back lawn and its new pool; and, a kitchen garden. These spaces naturally correspond to the classroom, sunroom, and kitchen wing. They are bordered by two-hundred-year-old oaks on the property and separated by new hedges and transplanted vintage topiary. Shades of dark and light tulips in spring beds around the pool, and other pale flowers around the house, continue the contrasting “saddleshoe” effect that occurs in both the colors of the architecture and in the house’s furnishings.