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The house built in the 1970s retains its contemporary sensibility with a reconfigured front entry that features a glass door set in a glass wall, a dramatic front hall, and a deeply cantilevered peaked roof.
The house built in the 1970s retains its contemporary sensibility with a reconfigured front entry that features a glass door set in a glass wall, a dramatic front hall, and a deeply cantilevered peaked roof. Greg Premru/Greg Premru Photography Inc.

“We did not want pillars on the front of our house!”

Rather these homeowners-to-be envisioned a home that was informal, contemporary, not too big. Moving from a large, traditional house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, this couple were looking for a change.

Still, they had no set ideas when they assembled a team that included interior designer Sheldon Tager of Sheldon Tager Associates in Newton, Massachusetts, who has worked with them on other homes; woodworker and landscape designer Hank Gilpin of Lincoln, Rhode Island, a personal friend and design mentor; and architect Adolfo Perez of Newton, sought out for his sleek style sensibility. When they found the right site, they would be ready to build. To everyone’s surprise, including their own, the empty nesters fell for a 1970s contemporary-style house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Weston, Massachusetts, that was showing its age.

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“We can’t figure out what made us buy this,” one of the homeowners says with a laugh. “It was a leap of faith for us in every way,” his wife chimes in. “The house was tired, and the 1½-acre lot was an overgrown mishmash. Still, it was an amazing property.

“What first attracted us to the house, I think, was the size and the fact that it’s Modern,” she adds. “Then Hank walked around the yard with us and showed us what we had. We’re not gardeners, but we could see his excitement.”

“The original owner was an astute plant collector,” says Gilpin. “She bought plants from all the great propagators in the Northeast and never stopped collecting. We found a yard planted with the most amazing varieties of valuable old trees, shrubs, and perennials, all species that thrive in the diffused light of that high canopy.”

The house stands in a copse of tall white pine trees. Broad-leaved evergreens such as azalea and rhododendron grow in the acid soil of their shade. “When we installed the landscaping, 85 percent of the plants we used were already there,” says Gilpin. “We just moved them.” Now, mossy stones form planted beds while bluestone pavers delineate several seating areas. A brook spills into the yard, splashing down a stony waterfall and forming a pool. Shaded, serene, and mysterious, the backyard feels like an arboretum.

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The 6,000-square-foot house with deep roof overhangs was ripe for a redesign. “I have worked with houses of that vintage before, and I like the style,” says Perez. “Good contemporary design is timeless. We respected the shape and the structure of the house, but took it back to the studs to reconfigure the interior.”

His plan located the living room in a soaring two-story space whose tall windows bring in the wooded surroundings. A less formal family room abuts the kitchen, which is designed around a large island and looks toward an adjoining sunroom, also oriented to the back garden.

“The house has a beautiful setting, so we created this indoor-outdoor orientation,” Perez says. “It’s open and simple, not like traditional New England rooms that are small boxes with small windows.”

The master bedroom suite is on the first floor, while additional bedrooms and a home office occupy the upper level. To update the exterior, Perez replaced the original vertical siding with stucco. And to house part of the owner’s collection of classic cars, he designed a large garage.

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Hans Schaefer of Art/Set LLC of Attleboro, Massachusetts, was the builder. A longtime associate of Gilpin, he trained as an artist at the Rhode Island School of Design and participated in the design of the house as well as its execution.

“I was a strong collaborator,” he says, pointing to the front entry with its wall of glass as an important element of which he is especially proud. “I also designed and built the copper Chinese[-style] top of the firepit.”

Today, his wife, artist Sarah Mott, is responsible for the garden’s maintenance.

For the homeowners, Modern interior design was intimidating until Tager took them to Artefact Home|Garden in Belmont, Massachusetts. “We knew we wanted Modern, but we are not minimalists,” says the wife. “Sheldon introduced us to furnishings that are warm and comfortable but contemporary.”

“She is not a big color person,” Tager adds. “So we worked in a quieter palette to create a sort of flowing, serene feeling. Even the leopard-print rug in the dining room is quiet without being boring.”

He devoted a lot of time to perfecting the color of the flooring, which is quartersawn oak lightened with white stain. The peaked wood ceilings of the sunroom and family room were given a warm honey-toned finish. The only departure from the neutral decor happens in the upstairs office, where the walls are lined with boldly patterned black paper.

“He’s a dramatic guy,” Tager says of the husband, “so his office reflects that.”

There are no curtains on the windows. “They’re like paintings, showing us what’s outside,” Tager says. “You can’t ignore what’s out there.”

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The owners have placed several sculptures in their garden, including a large red metal piece by Middleborough, Massachusetts, artist Rob Lorenson. Despite their nongardener status, they appreciate their woodland more and more as they use it and see how its good bones and intriguing plantings create interesting vistas year-round.

“They find the garden beautiful,” says Gilpin with satisfaction.

Design decision: Enter here

“When you see that front entry, you know you’re in store for something special,” says interior designer Sheldon Tager. He, as well as architect Adolfo Perez, landscape designer Hank Gilpin, and builder Hans Schaefer, takes special pride in the dramatic front entrance, which features a glass door set into a glass wall and overhung by a deeply cantilevered and peaked roof. There is not a single pillar anywhere. The step just below the door is made up of three enormous granite slabs that appear to float above the ground, so that it seems to jut out into space.

The design developed over time and at the behest of the owners, who wanted drama at the front door.

“We went through many, many iterations,” says Gilpin, noting this was the hardest part of the job. “When we figured out that we could cantilever the roof, it all came together.”

The team also figured out how to set granite slabs before all the outside doors, cementing them into place so that they appear to float. While none is as large as the one at the front entry, each of the floating steps functions as a rustic, artistic transition between the outside and the inside.

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Design decision: Gardens for all seasons

“It’s no big deal to have a beautiful garden in the spring,” landscape designer Hank Gilpin says, “but here in New England, we look out at our gardens from inside the house for five or six months of the year. That’s why we design our gardens for winter first, then fall, then summer, and then spring.”

He points out that a number of trees and shrubs have beautiful winter form that is obscured by the other seasons’ greenery. Many varieties of Acer palmatum (threadleaf Japanese maple), for example, grow twisting trunks that are especially beautiful when outlined with snow. Sideways-slanting winter light illuminates bark colors that are eclipsed in the summer. Gilpin touts Fagus sylvatica, or European beech, as another tree that has a strong winter presence.

“When low winter sun shines on the cinnamon-colored bark of some trees,” Gilpin says, “it shines like fire.”

Editor’s note: This article is from the November/December 2014 issue of Design New England. Read the full edition. For regular updates from editors and contributors visit Design New England’s blog.