A Couple of Young Creatives Brings Their Mid-Century House Back to its Roots

GRT Architects were assigned the task of transporting this charming mid-century house on the Hudson River into the 21st Century.

The owners — a  young, creative couple from New York hired GRT Architects to restore the house, one which has been filled with much-loved family memories. Let us know how much you like this renovation on our social media channels!

Can you tell us a bit about the house and its owners?

The home owners are a young self-employed couple who work primarily in New York City but spend a good portion of their time in this home.

The home is located in the Hudson Valley just north of a point where the river makes a jog to the west. It’s perched quite high up on a lookout with primarily southern exposure that looks down this crick in the river. On a clear day you can see to the Tappan Zee Bridge and beyond.

It was designed by Roberta Thrun who, we are told, was one of the first women to study architecture at Columbia University.
She designed only a few homes – mostly in the area – before leaving the profession. She is in fact the grandmother of one of the home’s current owners who grew up with memories of the home.

When it came on the market several years back an offer was made at asking price, including a letter describing the owner’s history with the home. A higher offer came in but the asking price was honored. Not long after we got a call from the client seeking to renovate elements of the house to reflect their style without undoing what makes the house so unique to begin with.

READ MORE: British Modernism: Walter Greaves’ Cedar-Clad House in Chichester, UK

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What did your clients ask in the brief?

We were asked to consider a ‘master plan’ for the entire house, ultimately to include the sizable lower level, but also to plan an “a la carte” renovation for the upper level.

The house is so unique and the changes we sought to make were not your conventional menu of upgrades. So it was very difficult to estimate what would and wouldn’t fit the budget. We went about design on a room-by-room basis, but with an eye towards how it all fits together.

It became obvious early on that the house had to be addressed as a whole. So much about its design mandated this, like the fact that two monumental douglas fir beams run the entire 102’ length of the home.

In the end we were able to renovate the entire main level. From a design perspective we were in lockstep with the clients – the goal was to make the home their own without erasing what makes it so special, as a piece of family history and modern architecture.

READ MORE: Carefully Designed Brickwork and Wood Panelling Make this Sydney House Unique

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What was the thinking behind the color palette you’ve chosen?

As found, all the woodwork in the house (walls, cabinets, ceilings, beams) was a dark brown, which no one liked but which created an interesting opportunity.

Most clients (and sometimes, architects) are afraid of dark tones for interior walls fearing they might make the space dreary or feel smaller but what the existing brown walls let us see was how much a dark color contributes to one’s appreciation of the unbelievable Hudson views.

The dark colors work to create a void in the foreground and highlight the distant vistas. Nervous to go entirely pitch black we tested every tone short of black, but ultimately ended up going for it – a true black, low gloss was used for all walls.

What do you consider to be the main takeaways for the living room’s renovation?

That sometimes what is outside is more important than what is inside and emphasizing what is latent in the space is often a better idea than laying new moves on top. If you look closely at the living room you’ll see we didn’t do all that much.

We framed the views with a clean coat of low luster black paint. We sanded the beams down to express the structural rationalism and we coated the fireplace in a cementitious mortex coating to emphasize its heft and lynch pin like relationship to the house’s massing.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to buy a mid-century house today?

There is a lot about mid-century homes that appeals to buyers today the two most obvious may be their non-bloated size and the fact that they come from an era when some of the best designers were focusing their efforts on affordable homes.

One thing to be aware of is energy consumption. On the one hand we are huge believers in the responsibility of reusing the embodied energy of an existing house rather than building from scratch. On the other hand we encourage clients to budget for updates to an older home’s envelope and mechanical systems.

This means replacing single glazing with insulated glass, insulating walls and ceilings to current standards and replacing HVAC equipment where outdated.

This particular home had a wonderfully built radiant heat system throughout, no A/C but very intelligently laid out overhangs that protect the southern exposure from too much summer heat gain.

READ MORE: This Mid-Century House Was Influenced by Marcel Breuer

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What advice would you give to new mid-century house owners who want to renovate their property?

More than anything we try to help our clients replicate the decision making that lead to the design of the home in the first place.

To us, mid-century design is a philosophy about what a house should be more than it is fixed stylistic orthodoxy.

Some of the fundamentals are to consider space before materials, and to elevate humble materials with design intelligence.

You don’t find marble and exotic hard woods in mid-century homes, you find clever uses of stainless steel, linoleum, simple tile and color. We like this egalitarian approach that reinforces the value of good design over expensive or name brand materials.

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Photos by Nicole Franzen, courtesy of GRT architects

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