IT WAS MERYL AND ED MANDELBAUM'S twin boys who led them to the Berkshires, having announced that they wanted to go to sleep-away camp the summer they were 8 years old. They're 21 now, and the family has been spending time in the Berkshires ever since. So when the couple happened upon an unusual property near Great Barrington on a real estate website five years ago, they knew it was time to buy. Meryl says: "My husband fell instantly in love with it."
The property, situated on 200 feet of lakefront, was once a campground and included three cottages the original owners had rented out for generations, as well as several outbuildings. The place was in dire need of attention, so the Mandelbaums hired Ritch Holben of RhDesign in New Marlborough to help them rehabilitate it.
As tempting as a tear-down would have been ("Everything was painted hunter green and red," says Holben. "It looked like the set for a horror movie at Christmastime"), they decided to start by renovating a tiny cottage so that the Mandelbaums could stay there while they made a plan for the project. Both designer and clients wanted to respect what was already on site, from the buildings to the landscape to the overall scheme. "We were in a forest," Holben says, "and we wanted to maintain that feeling of privacy and intimacy of being surrounded by tall trees."
The initial plan called for restoring one of the cottages as the main residence rather than rebuilding it, but the winter that the design was completed, the pipes burst. Anything worth saving was no longer salvageable. The Mandelbaums and Holben used it as an opportunity to step back and reevaluate. Was anything missing? Were there aspects of the plans that should be redesigned now that they would be building from scratch? Turns out, the answer was no. Holben had been able to meet all of the Mandelbaums' wishes within the constraints of the original design. "The ghost of the old cottage is in the floor plan of this new house," he says.
The 2,900-square-foot house is a masterful blend of rustic and refined. Meryl says: "We wanted something in the New England vernacular, but we also wanted modern — a house that from afar looks like it has been in the landscape forever, but as you get closer, you see that the mix of materials is quite modern. It's a balance that has been going on in the Berkshires forever."
The home's design is based on a barn, albeit a refined one, topped by a standing-seam metal roof and sheathed in fieldstone, cement board, and cedar shingles. From the front of the house, two of what Holben calls "iconic house forms," or structures reminiscent of a child's drawing of a house, stand out from the rectangular mass. Referencing the barn aesthetic, they are clad in corrugated, galvanized metal.
The inside is open and airy, with more industrial touches. Holben used reclaimed posts and beams to create the outline of the iconic house shape in the main living space. The floors and switchback staircase are also made from antique oak. For the furnishings, Meryl chose a mix of modern and vintage, from shops, antiques dealers, and flea markets in New York City, the Berkshires, and online. It took her three months to track down some elements, like the hardware for the shower in the master bathroom, which Holben likens to jewelry. "Meryl is a tastemaker; she's a year ahead of the market," he says. "We talked every morning, on everything from chairs to roof materials. It was intense. Later, it would all show up on Remodelista. It was like they had a webcam on us."
When asked whether she and Holben successfully fulfilled the concept for the couple's dream home, Meryl responds: "Oh, yeah, 100 percent, for everyone in the family. The boys love it as much as we do." Sounds like they've come full circle.
Designer Ritch Holben offers these tips for building or rebuilding a vacation home:
> No- or low-maintenance building materials, like a galvanized-metal roof and rails, cedar-shake siding, teak decks, and metal-clad windows, are good bets for secondary residences. Cement-board siding is also ideal, as it's nonflammable and bugproof.
> Prefabricated solutions can help save money. Holben used an engineered Isokern fireplace system as the guts of the fireplace and chimney. Once installed, it could be clad with brick, stone, or another non-flammable material.
> Using reclaimed wood for floors and beams is a great way to add instant age and character.
> An open, raised hearth provides a place to store firewood and doubles as a bench.
> Pergolas help transform decks and patios into outdoor rooms by providing the skeleton of a roof, as well as casting shadows, which add depth.
> Never stop hallways with a solid wall. Instead, end them with a window, extending the house into the landscape.
> Interior windows are an easy and relatively inexpensive way to add light, and they really open up a room.