Friday, September 5, 2014

Gary Brewer

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


We’ve started doing a few field trips for the HOUSE column, daring to venture into the beyond—this week, it’s Park Hill in Yonkers, where we sat outside in the sunshine and (very loud) birdsong to interview Gary Brewer, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Park Hill is something of a well-kept secret: a planned community that was first established in the 1880s. With some exceptions, the most recent houses were finished in the 1930s.

The closely set houses were to be of an individual design and had to be incorporated into the natural contours of the terrain, parts of which overlook the Hudson River. After a period of decline in the 1960s and 70s, the area was re-discovered in the 1980s and Gary bought his house straight off the pages of a “If You’re Thinking of Living In” column in the The New York Times.
Gary's Park Hill, Yonkers home sits high upon a ridge giving it a sense of separation from the surrounding neighbors. Built in 1906 the house follows an American Foursquare design; stairs in the middle, a porch across the front and a hipped terra cotta roof.
Gary added new columns and rails as well as the bluestone steps and walks.
Gary and Scout, a Wire Fox Terrier, greet us on the way up.
You ended up living here because you read about Yonkers in the Times column “If You’re Thinking of Living In” – I remember reading the exact same article and thought, “Wow, what a nice place to live!”—but you bought the actual house in the article!

I know! I drove right up to it. And I had never been to Yonkers before. Then I asked Bob Stern, who is an expert on planned communities—because this is a planned community—and I asked him if he knew about it but he didn’t know about it.

I somehow never actually thought people who read those columns might actually buy the house in the column and then go live in that place!

The thing is, I work in the city; I spend most of time in the city … I figured I work on houses so it would be nice to live in a house. But when you tell people you live in Yonkers, it’s like you’ve moved to Mars.
Victorian wicker sets the tone for the front porch. The columns, hand rails, porch floor are all new additions.
Scout enjoys the view from atop the front steps facing east.
Who does live up here?

 Well this [area of Park Hill] was a planned community from like the 1880s to about the 1930s and its heyday it was full of well-heeled people. In the 60s and 70s it went a bit downhill but then in late 1980s it started to come back because it had such a stock of great, old houses. It has a really Hudson River Valley feel in that it has big rock outcroppings. And it’s not too far from the city. There are people that live in this neighborhood, in the big old houses that are up the hill— and those houses are in the $700 000 to maybe the $1.5 million range, which is like a fraction of what you pay in Bronxville—so what they do is, if they have kids, they send them to Horace Mann or Fieldston. So you end up with that kind of person and there’s a lot of gay couples and single people too.
A view from the dining room across the main entry into the living room.
A Victorian style chandelier from Rejuvenation Hardware hangs over a 1910 antique dining room table from an Atlantic Avenue antiques store. New wainscot and ceiling beams were added to the space.
In the dining room Empire chairs stand below a group of prints from The Grand Tour.
A collection of antique crystal decanters and a pair of antique alabaster column lamps are arranged atop a custom built-in buffet with new window above.
Looking out the dining room side window.
A mahogany antique Empire secretary purchased from an antique dealer on Atlantic Avenue is filled with a collection of ironware.
Vintage souvenirs of iconic buildings.
Click to order “Designs for Living."
We’ve been looking at your book “Designs for Living” (Monacelli Press), and something that struck me about the look of the houses is that although they are referencing Tudor or Mediterranean or whatever, no one would ever be fooled into thinking that they’re anything other than American. But I can’t put my finger on what it is that makes them American. So perhaps you can?

Well I would ask, “Which America?” [laughs] Um … I guess in an architectural sense, they’re American in that many people want traditional houses but pre-war American houses a lot of times have floor plans with lots of separate boxes of rooms. What we typically do is more open plan. A lot of it comes from people who entertain—you want to have an open plan so people can circulate and it’s nice to have two ways out of a room in case you’re stuck talking to some boring person.

Ah! The escape floor plan …

[Laughs] Well, I would also say that people love pre-war houses but they also love light. Our houses tend to have larger windows, especially when you have the mountain views and the ocean views. For many of our clients, the sites are their prize possessions and so we try to make the most of those sites. I’m sure there’s a deeper answer than that but …
More views across the front entry into the living room. New ceiling beams were added to the entry and the original dark brown/black wainscot and casings were painted in a Farrow & Ball paint.
In the living room Gary designed a new mantel and over mantel with custom brick tile from Waterworks and antique sconces.
Looking across the living room.
Antique Grecian-style iron lamps flank the fireplace mantel.
The entire house is painted in Farrow & Ball paints. In the living room, Gary and his partner Barbara Brust, chose a buttercream color to lighten up the once dark tones of the room.
A custom cabinet with wicker panels holds a flat screen TV.
Nineteenth-century landscape paintings fill the walls of the living room.
Gary's new book, "Designs for Living," shares space with Robert Stern's recent publication "Paradise Planned" and other objects and books atop the living room coffee table.
I read a piece about Robert Stern. In it, and it was said with a bit of a sneer by another architect,: “He has no problem seeing architecture as a high end service.” Why do architects talk about each other like that? Why is it looked down upon to be a “service”?

I don’t think that for us it’s an issue.

But is there some imperative to be daring? And if you’re not …

Well all you have to do is go to any American city or small town and you can drive around and see wonderful houses and post offices and beautiful town squares. And then in that same town you’ll see the post-war buildings … how could you possibly come to the conclusion that daring [pays off]?  Look at the cost-benefit—you get one Bilbao—but then you get thousands and thousands of knock-offs that ruin American cities … well I’d rather take the safer route, you know?
Climbing the staircase to the second floor.
A view from the second floor landing into the master bedroom.
An antique loop stitch of a Wire Fox Terrier, the same breed as Scout, hangs above the master bed.
Gary removed a wall between two small rooms and moved a door to create this spacious master bedroom.
More Wire Fox Terriers are arranged atop an oak chest of drawers. The dog box was painted by Gary.
On the rear wall of the master bedroom a new cozy window seat and closets overlooks the back garden.
More terriers stand atop the bedside tables.
Vintage suitcases are also handy for more storage.
The antique bedroom dresser is filled with boxes, green-glazed pottery, bowling pins and other favorite objects. Above is a vintage school map.
A second floor porch is accessed through French doors in the master bedroom.
I think you see in all fields of endeavor that pleasing large numbers of people is somehow looked down upon. Is architecture particularly prone to this kind of snobbery?

Well I went into architecture because I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to make the world a better place. I’m more interested in communities and urbanism. I think of architecture like tailoring. The tailor learns the craft of making a suit, how a lapel works, how the styles might change through history.

Lesley: Architects always talk about how rigorous the training is but then there is something I don’t really understand: why are there so many ugly buildings?

Sian: Because a lot of people don’t have good taste.

Lesley: Stop answering his questions for him!

Sian: She gets mad.

[Laughs] But that’s a really good point! You know a lot of people can learn to draw but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be Picasso. There used to be architectural training, which was called the “Beaux Arts” method in which the idea was that you could train anyone to be a good, responsible architect. They may not be Stanford White or Le Corbusier but they then could go out and have a good career producing great buildings. So when you travel around the States and you see all these great buildings, they were done by architects who were trained really well. But with modernism, the idea is “don’t look back into history” and “everybody is going to be Le Corbusier.” And they plant that seed in every young architect’s mind. It’s like the training has the ten traits of a cult … you know charismatic leader, sleep deprivation …
A view into Gary's study, originally an upstairs bedroom.
A light fixture from Brass Light Gallery hangs above a Stickley daybed.
A vintage painting of a cowboy hangs above a collection of antique trophies collected over the years.
Photos and drawings of Fox Terriers stand atop bookcase shelves in Gary's study.
A group of antique globes are arranged atop Gary's antique oak roll-desk. The custom bookcases made by Empire Restoration hold Gary's large collection of books on architecture and design.
Stickley style side chairs flank an oak bookcase in the study.
Stickley style side chairs flank an oak bookcase in the study. A second Empire chest of drawers fills a wall of the guest bedroom.
Reflections of the guest bedroom from an antique mirror. A painting of ancient ruins was originally a theater set scrim.
The suppression of dissent …

Yes!

So how did you survive this?

Well I went to school in Minneapolis and I was young! Actually nowadays, young people are beyond the style wars. They’re interested in green architecture and handmade architecture.

Does that interest you?

Yeah … well … [with fading enthusiasm] yeah … [laughs]

So I went to Celebration in Florida and it weirded me out. It was like the Stepford Wives. [Robert  A.M. Stern was involved in the design of Celebration]

Our office did Celebration but you know I get weirded out just from Florida. I like the diversity of New York. You can’t control the people who live in these places. But [our office] sees planned communities and what is called “new urbanism” as a way to avoid sprawl, great big houses with no town center.
The staircase walls are filled with landscape paintings collected over the years from auction and antiques shops.
Vintage landscape paintings fill the walls of the main staircase.
The attic dormer room of the house is used primarily as a guest room and sewing room for Barbara.
Views from the top floor sewing/guest room.
The kitchen, originally outfitted with dark cabinets and orange and brown 1970s wallpaper, was transformed into a 1940s design. The cabinet boxes were repainted white and were given new doors, trim, brackets and hardware from Restoration Hardware.
An adjacent sun porch was opened up to become a sunny eat-in area. New french doors and windows open up to the back yard.
Looking across the kitchen. A collection of yellow and green bowls from flea markets adds a pop of color to the upper cabinets.
Peeking into the back garden from the kitchen.
The back yard with its lush greenery and stone retaining walls provides a relaxing outdoor refuge. A comfortable seating area and grill spot also make for easy and casual entertaining.
Rear views of Gary's Park Hill house.
So this is a stupid question but how do you choose all those people that are walking about in architectural renderings? They used to be like stick figures and now they’re all real-looking.

[Laughs] That gets discussed by clients more than you know.

Now, if I didn’t know you were an architect and I walked into this house, I wouldn’t think an architect lived here … you, know it’s delightful. You’ve got soft cushions and you’ve got flowers …

I feel so sad for our profession.

And wind chimes. Architects don’t have wind chimes.

Er, my mom sent it to me seven years ago.