April Abode: Over 15 years, a modernist city house takes on a new shape

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Photo: Andrea Hubbell Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Jeff Dreyfus and Bob Headrick have always loved their house. It is a special place—very progressive when it was built in 1933, predating by decades most other local examples of modern architecture. Its International Style design is bold and crisp, built with geometric planes of white accented by black. Yet by 2002, when the couple purchased it, it was in some ways like many old houses: It suffered from dated finishes and didn’t quite suit a contemporary lifestyle.

Headrick’s and Dreyfus’ relationship with the house, then, has always had change at its core; in fact, their first renovation began the day after they bought it. Teasing out the potential of this structure, found in the Lewis Mountain neighborhood, has been a long process, occurring in three phases to date (with a fourth still to come). Photos show what the couple has achieved: They’ve expanded and updated with the utmost respect for the house’s inherent qualities, creating in effect a more modern version of its original modernism.

Through three phases, the homeowners of this Lewis Mountain property have teased out a more modern version of its original modernism. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Through three phases, the homeowners of this Lewis Mountain property have teased out a more modern version of its original modernism. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

“It looks seamless,” says Dreyfus, principal of Bushman Dreyfus Architects. “To me the fun challenge is to make it all seem like it belongs together.”

What’s also remarkable is that phases I (2002) and II (2004) included adding some elements that would actually disappear in phase III. “The incremental approach is best,” says Dreyfus. “You don’t know how you’re going to live in a house when you buy it.” Living with the first renovations for more than a decade allowed him and Headrick to more fully understand what they wanted and ultimately made for a better phase III.

Before.
Before.

To give one small example, phase II included the addition of multiple large closets in what was then the master bedroom. While these were very effective at hiding belongings behind minimal white doors (the two like to maintain a spare dwelling), the closets turned out to have a downside. “It’s not easy living with closet doors on everything,” says Dreyfus. Far more practical, they realized, would be a walk-in closet in which all items were within reach at the same time.

When, in phase III, a bigger and better master bedroom came along, the better closet came too. Not only that, but the necessity of working with property setback lines engendered an angled exterior wall on this new bedroom addition—which allowed a second entrance to what’s ultimately a walk-through closet. Doorless, but with contents hidden from view, the space is a model of convenience.

In phase III, a row of built-in closets in the master bedroom were removed to make way for a sitting room. The master bedroom, then, moved to another area of the house, maximizing the first-floor public space down the hall from the living area. Photo: Andrea Hubbell
In phase III, a row of built-in closets in the master bedroom (below, in a photo from phase II) were removed to make way for a sitting room. The master bedroom, then, moved to another area of the house, maximizing the first-floor public space down the hall from the living area. Photo: Andrea Hubbell

Photo: Scott Smith
Photo: Scott Smith

Meanwhile, some of those phase II closets came out, to be replaced by a small workspace with a built-in desk. The former bedroom turned into a sitting room, a more intimate counterpoint to the large original living room. “It’s nice to have the lower ceiling” in the new room, says Dreyfus. “They are two spaces, for larger and smaller groups.” A modern fireplace and a view of the pool and landscape make this new seating area deliciously inviting.

And it’s a better companion to the adjacent dining area than the bedroom had been. Notwithstanding a drop-down privacy screen, the bed had still essentially been in a space contiguous with the dinner party spot, which, says the couple, never felt quite right.

Outside the sitting room, a new porch overlooks the pool deck. Headrick and Dreyfus had intended to screen it—they even had the screens on hand—but realized once it was framed that it would feel “too claustrophobic” if enclosed. “While I don’t relish living in a renovation,” says Dreyfus, “every day you can look at it and you can make adjustments.” Accordingly, he and Headrick, a realtor, decided to skip the screens. They’d banish bugs with ceiling fans instead, and created clerestory openings at the top of one wall, for even more light.

Photo: Andrea Hubbell
Photo: Andrea Hubbell

The porch is supported by black columns—steel with wood surround—that mimic existing black window and door frames. “They lighten the whole visual,” says Dreyfus. “The black disappears.” White brick walls and a metal trellis blend seamlessly with their older counterparts, making it hard to tell where the 1933 house ends and the addition, completed 80 years later, begins.

The porch offers a view of an expanded landscape scheme that includes stone walls and planting beds, designed by landscape architect Anne Pray. Another lesson learned through experience: The front walk, formerly made of bluestone stepping stones, has given way to a continuous aggregate-and-stone walkway. “We learned that everybody has a different stride, and your stride is different going uphill than going down,” says Headrick. “Visually, it looked awesome, but it wasn’t practical.”

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A redrawn entry sequence is the last major component of this phase, offering a clearer and more capacious way for guests to arrive, aligned with the primary axis through the living room and kitchen. The wide stairwell to the second floor, housing the guest quarters, is now more private, and there is space for a powder room near the front door.

Dreyfus and Headrick say the slowly unfolding renovation owes its success to the passage of time. “If we’d had unlimited funds in the beginning,” says Headrick, “we wouldn’t have done this.”

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