Project: Victoria Commons, Greenwich, CT
Architect: Judith Larson Associates, New Canaan, CT; Judith Larson, principal; Maggie Browning, Anneke Sugito and Christine Carrie Guiliani, associate designers
Builder: Gardiner, Inc., New Canaan, CT
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JULY 2009 » 2009 Palladio AWARDS
Winner: Gardiner Larson Homes
Attention to Detail
In the mid-1800s, the railroad industry transformed the farmlands of Greenwich, CT, into a developed area for summer resorts, favored by nearby city dwellers. Vacationers soon found that the town's close proximity to New York City made it the ideal place for suburban homes. Fourth Ward, located in the downtown area, was one of the modest working-class residential neighborhoods developed during this period.
Settled in the 1640s, the town of Greenwich is also home to numerous historic landmarks and districts. Among the many landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) are the Thomas Lyon House, built in the 1640s and the oldest home in Greenwich, and the Bush-Holley House (ca. 1730), a boarding house and gathering place for many notable American Impressionist artists. Fourth Ward district, added in 2000, is one of seven historic districts listed on the register.
In 2005, Gardiner Larson Homes, a design/build partnership of Judith Larson Associates and Gardiner, Inc., both based in nearby New Canaan, acquired three lots in Fourth Ward's Sherwood Place – numbers 77, 81 and 85. The three combined lots form an awkward trapezoid and each lot is long and narrow, which limited development options. "At the very beginning, we looked at merging the three adjacent lots and building a clustered condominium complex," says Judith Larson, principal of Judith Larson Associates. "That scheme was quickly discarded because it would have interfered with the character of the homes in the neighborhood, which is comprised of a streetscape of single- and two-family homes constructed from ca. 1849-1925."
Larson and her design team opted to design five townhouse units on the three lots – two-family houses were built on lots 71 and 81 and a one-family home was built on lot 85, along with two detached garages in the character of carriage barns, common to the local vernacular. "It was apparent to us early on that individual units were much more attractive and light-filled because of the increased amount of exterior surface in relation to interior volume," says Larson. "Keeping the lots distinct and separate, rather than merging them, was the right course of action."
Instead of building a traditional side-by-side two-family house, the two-unit townhouses were built by placing one unit in front and the other in back, thus allowing Larson to fit two dwelling units within one narrow lot while maintaining a single-family street façade.
Although, Fourth Ward is protected under the NRHP, it does not protect the district's properties from minor renovations or demolitions. While the option of demolishing all the existing structures was available, Larson salvaged two existing structures that could be renovated and added to. Salvaging the original structures was particularly important for a balanced streetscape because one of the houses, 77 Sherwood Place, was a "twin" of an adjacent house; it was also in keeping with the preservation goals of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the existing five unit house at 81 Sherwood Place was in severe disrepair and had to be torn down.
Complying with the district's strict zoning and parking regulation became a challenge, particularly with the awkwardly shaped lots. The zoning regulation required 15 ft. of combined side-yard setbacks and 25 ft. – or the height of the building if higher than 25 ft. – front-yard setbacks with the building height not exceeding 35 ft. The two existing houses' frames were set too close to the road and had to be moved back. In addition, the frames' foundations were unstable and needed to be replaced. The frames were raised off the existing foundations, placed on steel beams and moved towards the back of the lot. The old foundations were removed and concrete was poured into new steel frames. After the salvaged frames were set in place, new additions were added – a second dwelling at 77 Sherwood Place and extra interior space and an attached garage at 85. The parking regulation also required that each unit have two off-street parking spaces that did not block the flow of traffic. Moving the existing houses to the required setbacks allowed for two parking spaces in front of each lot.
Privacy for the lots with two townhouse units was a major concern, especially since driveways are shared to provide additional interior space and front porches. The main entry for the rear dwelling units were set perpendicular to the road with articulated entrance facades to give the appearance of two separate units. "The one thing that many people dislike about two-family houses is the lack of privacy and sound transmission issued between units," says Maggie Browning, associate designer. "By creating a pedestrian passage on the ground floor in between units, only the second floor shared a common wall. The floor plans were then configured so that a closet or bath occupied the common wall."
Larson drew inspiration from surrounding homes in the district that were constructed between 1880 and 1910. "A good many of the homes had been renovated through the years in ways that resulted in less ornamentation and detail, and lots of vinyl siding," she says. "The good news is that a lot of the homes have been undergoing renovation and with that, original shingles beneath vinyl clapboard and other details have been unveiled."
Distinct Victorian exterior details give each unit a unique appearance. 85 Sherwood Place, featuring shingle siding with uninterrupted corners, steeply pitched roofs and bracketed eaves, draws on the Shingle Style. The 2/2 windows, by Palmer, MA-based Lepage Millwork at 81 Sherwood Place are typical of Queen Anne and Folk Victorian homes. Each streetscape façade also has a differently styled porch with individualized porch posts and brackets, as well as period-inspired light fixtures from Portland, OR-based Rejuvenation.
"Our goal was to end up with small but elegant townhouse-type homes, each with a foyer-stair hall, generously sized custom kitchen, powder room, family room, formal living and dining areas, two bedrooms and a master suite," says Larson. "At the same time, we also needed to be sensitive to the scale of the neighborhood and to stay true to the Victorian and late-Victorian styles we were seeking to replicate." Each unit has an elevator that is hidden behind either four vertical or five horizontal paneled doors from Trustile of Denver, CO. Custom-designed kitchen cabinets, crafted by Fairfield, CT-based Weston Mills and Doylestown, PA-based Superior Woodcraft, were used to conceal modern appliances.
"We tried to use period-inspired fixtures, fittings, light fixtures and tiles throughout the interiors," says Browning. "The cabinets were fully custom-designed by us, and were finished by hand. This is the key to capturing a vintage look. Many factory finishes and even factory distressed finishes on today's cabinetry read as 'new.' It's a subtle but important detail."
The Palladio Award-winning Victoria Commons townhouses have seamlessly blended with the historic architecture of the Fourth Ward despite the many challenges. Larson and her design team not only preserved the original house structures to honor the history of the neighborhood, but also replicated many of the original details that were lost through years of renovations. "All of these constraints – architectural, historic, lot size and shape, parking and zoning regulations, marketable size and floor plans – directed and dictated the final product," says Larson. "In a sense, the final designs were as much a product of discovery as they were of creativity."
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