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The House of Playful Gables

Jan 12, 2011 12:15AM ● By Anonymous

The home, owned by Janet Nebel and John Brown since 1988, began its life as a 1,200-square-foot Cape Cod built in the 1930s, with small windows, and an attic space you could barely stand up in. This unassuming style reflected the community’s sleepy mid-century past, when a no-frills river cottage was a place to picnic, raise a few kids, and fish during the summers. In 1990, after the couple had lived in the home for two years, they were ready to expand and hoped for an eat-in kitchen, and a view of the water from every room. However, they did not want something that looked ostentatious. “We wanted to maintain the integrity of the house and build out from there,” says Janet, who owns her own business as does her husband, John. Their home was a respite, she says, when she and her husband were building their businesses and raising a family. “I loved coming home after a 12-hour day, there was a calmness when I walked in the door,” she says.

Good accomplished both feats. Because its exterior is modest and half-hidden from the street, the home is easy to miss. However, from the water, its triple gables are unmistakable. The composition was influenced, in part, by 19th-century British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Tigbourne Court. Located in Surrey, England and built between 1899 and 1901, Tigbourne is distinguished by its three consecutive gables that are both classical in their symmetry yet, at the time of their construction, modern in their unconventional placement. Lutyens believed architecture should sometimes exude humor and wit and often exaggerated dominant features, such as chimneys, windows, and gables. And, indeed, it seems as if Good, like Lutyens, was engaging in his own form of subtle spatial play. The triple gables, rarely seen in this area, defer to the other single or double gabled homes on the block, yet refresh the typical roofline. Today, gables on suburban homes built in the 1930s seem old-fashioned, even quaint. On larger homes, traditional formal gables are usually towering and severe, communicating strength and stature. However, these gables, perhaps because of their smaller scale, seem playful and even friendly.

They were also strategic devices that allowed the architect to increase the structure’s width and mass without adding height. “They were the result of a very functional and deliberate formal design solution, I did not want to go above the old roofline, I did not want the new gable to rise above the old gable. This kept the street side quiet and unassuming, with no hint at what was going on,” says Good.

The six pillars supporting the covered loggia, which runs the length of the house, also have their lighter side. They are massive enough to support the roof but their pronounced thick bases, free of adornment, narrow as they ascend. In some respects, they are parodies of classical pillars (and the traditional pillars) inside the Brown-Nebels’ home. “They are like exaggerated cutouts of the kind of pillar you would see in a storybook,” he says, explaining that many architects during the 1970s and 1980s were experimenting with tradition and, instead of replicating a historical precedent, were reinterpreting it, sometimes to forge an unexpected style.

And, as you walk through the interior, the unexpected unfolds both downstairs and up. The living room is composed of two tiers and spills out towards the water and a 30-foot glass curving wall. Upstairs, the master bedroom has an unconventional balcony, that, like many of the home’s signature design elements, is a postmodern “remake” of a suburban balcony. Good enclosed the space on all three sides, creating a private sitting alcove with sweeping views of the Severn. In place of a railing and front-facing wall, though, is a giant round window with diamond-patterned mullions. (A mullion is the precise term for the “grid,” usually composed of wood or aluminum, that divides a sheet of glass into individual panes.) The design is unusual because the architect left the upper mullions free of glass. You are safely enclosed but can still feel the breeze and hear birdsongs. This unsuspected spot, with its sunny southern exposure, is just right for warming yourself while gazing upon the Severn during the winter months. Here, in this 19th century-like niche in the home’s center gable, you may be someone else’s unexpected view.