Commercial Palladio Winner
Douglas C. Wright Architects
Since its completion in 1895, the President’s House at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has only undergone two minor renovations. The last of them was some six decades ago, and with the institution’s 11th president set to take office in 2017, the board decided it was an appropriate time to renovate and restore the residence.
Douglas C. Wright Architects and Katie Ridder Interiors were commissioned to return the red-brick Medieval Revival-style house, designed by Rossiter and Wright Architects of New York, to its original elegance and to reconfigure its interior spaces to make them suitable for the professional roles of the president, which include large-scale entertaining.
“The last renovation had mired the house in a 1960s academic style and removed the original finishes and delicately balanced colors and materials,” says Architect Douglas C. Wright, principal of the eponymous New York City firm. “We restored much of the original balance and design intent while adapting the plan and incorporating new technologies.”
The transformation of the 8,000-square-foot residence started at the arched front entrance with the expansion of the terrace and the replacement and enlargement of one entry set of steps and the removal of the other.
“The original gateposts were beyond repair, so we matched them,” he says. “We also added an ADA ramp in place of the second set of steps. It’s made of bluestone pavers, and it’s so integrated into the landscape that it looks like a gently sloping pathway. Of all the ADA ramps I’ve done, this is the one I’m most proud of.”
To achieve this feat, the team raised the grade about four feet and created landscaped areas on each side of the terrace.
The terrace floor, which had been covered with what Wright calls “classic collegiate red square tiles,” was replaced with limestone and bluestone in a classic Arts & Crafts design.
The original “clinker” brick walls of the home’s exterior, which feature sandstone details, finials, and coping stones, were restored, the wood-frame windows were replaced with historically accurate replicas in the original color palette, and the white oak flooring throughout the residence was restored. Inside, the woodwork was repaired and replicated where necessary and new period-style radiator covers were added.
“We reconfigured and re-planned the spaces on the first and second floors to improve the flow,” Wright says, adding that the first floor, which is a major entertainment space, now includes an ADA-compliant bathroom and a reconfigured kitchen and pantry. “This involved moving walls and enlarging some door openings such as the ones connecting the first-floor living room and dining room.”
It also involved major repairs, including shoring up the sagging central staircase and hiding the new heating and cooling system behind grilles in the stairwell paneling.
One of the new first-floor spaces is the formal office the president requested for student conferences and meetings.
“We enlarged the opening to the space from one door to double doors so it’s a more dramatic entrance, and we built bookcases and a new fireplace mantel,” Wright says. “We originally designed it for four to six students but made it smaller at the president’s request. Now, it’s more intimate and personal. And the architectural result is a wonderful Arts & Crafts room—we packed a lot of architectural detailing into the small L-shaped space.”
The many small family bedrooms of the second floor were combined and enlarged to serve as a more gracious family study and bedrooms as well as guest bedrooms for the occasional board member visit.
The spaces of the third floor, which housed the staff rooms, were refinished and restored.
Period-style wallpapers and period-style furnishings appropriate for a contemporary lifestyle were selected by Katie Ridder Interiors.
Wright says the president was delighted with her new home. “It was,” he says, “exactly what she wanted.”
Wright, too, was happy to bring back this 19th-century architectural gem to its original glory. “This house is really something very special,” he says. “It’s a house, but it’s also an institution and will be a special part of Vassar’s future.”
Architect Douglas C. Wright Architects
Interior Design Katie Ridder Interiors
Landscaping Ed Hollander Landscape Design
Contractor William Peabody, Executive Director of Facilities, Vassar College
Window Supplier Norwood Windows