Renovating a “Powerful” Shingle Style Home

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Architecture firm Meyer & Meyer's shingle style renovation required blending 19th-century history into the present.

By Nancy A. Ruling

Project: Residence, Skaneateles, NYArchitect: Meyer & Meyer, Inc., Boston, MA; John Meyer, Laura Meyer, principals; Andy Silipo, project manager

General Contractor: GF Rhode Construction, Boston, MA; Grant Rhode, president

When Boston, MA-based architecture firm Meyer & Meyer was commissioned to renovate a 19th-century lakeside house in Skaneateles, NY, it had to expertly blend history with the present time zone. The historic resort town, southwest of Syracuse, is home to 7,300 people and dates back to 1830. Its quaint historic district is characterized by Victorian structures, from which the client’s summerhouse and its remarkable lakefront are clearly visible.

“It is a community of long-established residents, who were cautious regarding our client’s addition of a large new structure,” says John I. Meyer Jr. AIA, LEED AP. “We had to scale the home to make it part of the town without losing the grandeur of our client’s vision and without making a big splash.” The civic-minded, art-centric clients are active in town causes and often use the sprawling house for philanthropic events. They were more than eager to be good neighbors and have their home fit gracefully into the landscape of the surrounding late 19th-century architecture.

The Meyer & Meyer team, led by Meyer and architect Andy Silipo, who served as project manager, used the town’s restrictions on height and square footage to great advantage, creating what they call a “Powerful Shingle Style” home that is contained in the original footprint yet has twice as much room. “We gutted the house and gained more space by finishing the attic and the basement,” says Silipo. “And the owners were able to acquire the adjacent plot, bringing the estate size to 2.5 acres, which gives grandeur to the estate.”

The resulting four-level home has dual functions. The first floor, which houses the living room, dining room, kitchen and breakfast area as well as a guest bed and bath, and the second floor, which contains four bedrooms, are for the family. The attic serves as a guest suite, and the basement is home to a media room, spa, steam room, workout area and bar that opens to the lawn, which is used primarily for public functions and entertaining.

The large-scale illusion in the small-scale space begins with the drive to the front door. The entrance road, set with granite pavers, undulates, creating a slow reveal of landscaped “rooms.” It ends at the dramatic porte-cochère. The latter’s curvaceous roof, crafted by Andy McDonald, a partner in Syracuse Custom Carpentry & Millwork of East Syracuse, NY, floats softly above the sheltered entry, a powerful signal that this is no ordinary dwelling. “This was quite a feat,” says Meyer. “McDonald built it in his studio in four parts and brought it to the site for installation, which was completed in only one day – to the great astonishment of the watchful citizens.”

The house was designed to have two distinct looks, in what Meyer likes to think of as a wholly formed split personality. The front, which faces neighboring homes, is in a simple Arts & Crafts style of tripled-layered red cedar shingles – an understated material that blends with the surrounding architecture. The back side, which faces the lake, is predominantly fashioned of heavily rusticated granite fieldstone, a more boisterous choice that sets the tone for the unfolding opulence of the grounds. The twin gables – one in front, one in back – are also set in stone.

“The grand rear façade, which has a bay window, a grand staircase and screened-in porch, reflects a period when stately mansions graced the waterfront,” Meyer says. “The home is reminiscent of one of the quieter Newport manor houses. Its interior, designed by McAlpine, Booth & Ferrier, is fresh and modern and is respectful of detailing that allows styles to intermix without harsh juxtapositions. All floors offer spectacular waterfront views.”

The building of the house presented Meyer & Meyer with a huge logistical challenge: The site is a six-hour drive from the firm’s Boston office. “The client wanted the best craftsmen,” says Silipo. “This meant that we had to have people relocate. We had to do a lot of persuading, because this project took two years, and they could only go home on weekends. The homeowners were great – they provided housing for many of the workers.”

Most of the team hailed from Massachusetts. The builder, Grant Rhode of GF Rhode Construction, and the landscape architect, William Pressley, FASLA, of Pressley Associates, are based in Boston. Stonemason David Von Jess of The Stone Masons, has offices in Westport, and the landscape installer, Sean Brosnan of Valley Crest, is from Brighton. “In many of our jobs, we are on the site two to three times a week,” says Silipo. “In this case, it was about two times a month for one to two days each time. For communication, we worked with the site team via photos, phone calls and emails.”

Meyer, whose firm has been in business for more than three decades, says that few houses in his portfolio “demonstrate the skill of modern-day craftsmen with such charm and grace.” And the choice of materials – limestone, carved timbers, copper and slate, along with the stone foundation and decorative windows – reflect the owners’ artistic sensibilities. “The owners really appreciated everything we were doing and supported the selections of high-end products,” says Meyer. “And when we needed to extend a roofline or make other changes, they were respectful of our judgment.”

One of the more interesting features of the property is the grotto. Entered through a wooden archway set into a 20-ft.-high hedge, the stone and brick structure features a trio of triumphant arches, vaulted ceilings and an elaborate decorative pattern on the floor. It holds an emergency generator and is used as storage space for the owners’ wine collection. “The engineering and masonry work are amazing,” says Silipo. “Usually, vaulted ceilings are supported by pillars, but the grotto has levitating vaults held in place by steel tension rods and custom bronze anchors that appear to be floating in mid-air. Constructed of rusticated red brick dyed to soften the color and add age, it is one of my favorite spaces on the property.”

The Newport style is carried over into the landscape, which, in the back, gracefully terraces to the lake. A large screened-in porch, with timbered arches, opens off the dining room, inviting everyone outdoors, where a set of cascading stairs complete with hand-carved limestone balusters leads grandly to the lake. Various “evergreen” passageways open up the outdoors. A wisteria-covered trellis, for instance, connects the garage to the house, and an arched pergola is placed to act as a garden border.

To further merge the water and grounds, Pressley Associates created terraces and walls, each of which becomes a room that has a different theme and level. Thus, the Lawn Terrace, a “green patio” punctuated in the center by a koi pond and splashing fountain, opens off the ground floor of the house overlooking West Lake and the Water Garden. The Water Garden is defined by a limestone balustrade, a tall evergreen hedge and a limestone and wood pergola, laced with wisteria. The Ellipse Garden, which is designed for everyday use and special events, is reached through an arbor-covered passageway in the hedge.

Meyer says that the house is true to its neighborhood and its owners. “It is designed to be cherished for generations and to last for centuries,” he says.