The property on both sides of Laurel Road in New Canaan has quite an unusual pedigree. In the 19th century, it was a home for the homeless; known as the Poor Farm, its sturdy saltbox, barns and outbuildings provided refuge for debtors and the destitute. After serving that purpose for some 70 years, the land was sold by the town to a willing soul, then another and another, and eventually became known as the Extown Farm.
Old journals and yellowed photographs document wear, tear and sundry alterations to the buildings over the years, but it wasn’t until 2006 that someone embarked on an ambitious and comprehensive restoration of the property. Three years later, a gracious guest cottage sprang up on the footprint of the old caretaker’s house—and now it has been awarded highest honors in the 2012 Alice Washburn Award competition sponsored by AIA Connecticut.
The architect, David D. Harlan, AIA, of New Haven, is a bit bemused by the honor. Engaged initially to renovate the main house on the property, Harlan was asked to first take on the construction of the small building at the edge of the woods so the newly married homeowners could live there in the interim.
“The funny thing about this cottage is that it’s not the most architectural thing we’ve ever done,” he says, “but it’s very appealing. It was built for the client, and for the sake of historical continuity. It’s simple, direct, well composed.”
Noting that he was working in concert with the preservation group Historic New England, Harlan adds, “We’re pleased that the award acknowledges what we tried to do, which was to protect the character of the farm.”
Indeed, the 1,400-square-foot cottage is a classic example of New England vernacular architecture—one the jurors in the competition praised for its “sense of place, which feels like a rural Connecticut farmhouse.”
The original structure, which measured just 714 square feet, was for all intents and purposes demolished, with only the south wall left intact. “To this day, I’m not sure why,” says Harlan. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. The client wanted to preserve a piece of the building, and we all agreed to leave it standing, but by the time we were done, we came to think we probably hadn’t needed to.”
Designed around the core of an intimate (but roomy enough for two) great room incorporating the kitchen, the structure features an entry and enclosed porch. A single bedroom and bath, a windowed dressing room, a mudroom and laundry complete the modest floor plan.
In the same manner that farmhouses evolve over time, plans for the cottage evolved, too. “In so many ways, the house is about living history,” says Harlan.
“Back in the day, porches were added to houses over the years. In this case, the saltbox came first, then I convinced the client we needed a porch. Then I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if the porch were enclosed, if it became more of a sunroom?’
“And so, the design progressed. It was a wonderful collaboration. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones you never expected to have.”
The project went smoothly, largely because Harlan, along with his wife and business partner interior designer Defne Veral, had worked with the homeowner previously. “It was very easy to incorporate the client’s taste … it came out quite naturally,” says Veral.
The traditional farmhouse exterior, nestled against the backdrop of the woods, seems perfectly suited to the site.
Says Harlan: “What you get is a sequence when looking at the house from the road. Trees give a sense of screening, and the porch scales the house down, wrapping around it, creating an outdoor room. The owners hang out a lot on the porch . . . it’s nice to know it’s used, rather than just a decorative piece.”
In signature style, Harlan created an interesting juxtaposition between inside and out. “Most of our exteriors are designed for modest presentation. Maybe it’s the Puritan ethic in me,” he says. “Outside there is a level of restraint that doesn’t diminish the home, it’s just not aggressively decorative.
“Our interiors, on the other hand, tend to dial up the level of decorative details, creating a very engaging visual environment. In this case, there are many more moldings than you’d expect to see. There’s layering as your eye moves up—paneling, beams on the ceiling—I like that there’s a little surprise inside.”
While the house is really just one-and-a-half stories high, “we exploited the full height of it inside,” says Harlan.
Within, everything is laid out according to use and hierarchy, he explains. The bedroom is as far away from the street as possible, on the side of the woods, so you can’t see inside from the street. There are levels of privacy, and separate sitting areas throughout. The great room is a study in colonial simplicity . . . but with every modern convenience (including a flat-screen TV hidden behind period cabinet doors). Clerestory windows are arranged near the vaulted ceiling to allow natural light into the space all day.
The kitchen is tidy, charming and practical, with a wood-topped island and countertops, commercial-grade appliances and Shaker-style cabinets. “They’re small things,” says Harlan, “but put them together and they increase the visual delight and practicality of the place.”
A bold apple-green palette prevails throughout, in the paneled walls, beams, window trim, cabinetry—and more than a few furnishings.
“We were thinking we’d go with a more subdued color—more tan-on-tan—but the client is comfortable with these shades, and in the end they worked out well,” says Veral. “We had to strike a balance since it is such a small space. We took the green from the paintings, and made it softer on the floor and in the fabrics.”
Contrasting pinkish reds provide punch, while patterns and texture liven things up. “They clearly love period furniture, so we used wood judiciously, in the farmhouse style,” says Veral. There’s a mix of antique pieces, reproductions, some things they brought from previous homes, and some bought new.
Encompassing a sitting area and dining nook, the enclosed porch (also known as the “morning room”) is located on the east side of the cottage, overlooking the main barn and the stone walls of the farmyard. It shares back-to-back fireplaces with the great room, affording a cozy warmth in the evenings or on wintry days.
The long and narrow bedroom is separated from its cheery dressing room/walk-in closet (with dozens of cubbies for easy storage), by a small bath.
The cottage may be new, but there are some vestiges of the past. The architect reused some of the original foundation, and cabinetry salvaged from the main house pantry was restored and reused to great effect in the laundry and mudroom.
The house’s overall mood—very much by design, says Veral—is one of comfort and ease. “The beauty of the cottage is its feeling of relaxation . . . we wanted it to be sweet and straightforward. As furnishings go, we weren’t looking for something permanent. It’s not that we didn’t choose fine pieces, but we knew it was going to be a guest cottage, so we weren’t looking for anything so precious that it would have to live with them forever.”
The Washburn jurors “got it.”
“The farmhouse metaphor was successfully rendered,” they wrote. “This is a distinctly Connecticut vernacular structure—complete with simplicity and modesty.”
The Washburn Award
The Alice Washburn Award is named for the distinguished Connecticut residential architect of the 1920s. The annual award program is a joint effort of the Connecticut chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Connecticut Magazine to acknowledge excellence in traditional house design. Focusing on style, the program honors the thoughtful adaptation of tradition to address 21st-Century needs. The competition is open to architects licensed and residing in Connecticut; projects had to be one- or two-story houses completed after June 30, 2007, and designed in a style considered traditional—including but not limited to Shingle, Georgian, Queen Anne, Gothic, Colonial and Greek Revival. The three jurors chosen by AIA Connecticut for their expertise in traditional design were: Peter Chapman, Executive Editor, The Taunton Press, Newtown; McKee Patterson, AIA, Austin Patterson Disston Architects, Southport; and John Tittmann, AIA, Albert Righter & Tittmann Architects, Boston.
David D. Harlan, AIA
David D. Harlan Architects
938 Chapel St., New Haven, 203/495-8032
E. M. Rose Builders Inc.
34 East Industrial Rd., Branford, 203/481-5115
Historic New England
185 Lyman St., Waltham, MA, 781/891-4882
John M. Farnsworth & Assoc., P.C.
11 Main St., New Milford
E. M. Rose Builders Inc.
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE, STONEWORK, MASONRY AND HARDSCAPING:
Diane Devore Associates LLC
2557 Burr St., Fairfield
A. Defne Veral Interiors
938 Chapel St., New Haven, 203/495-8030
David D. Harlan Architects
David D. Harlan Architects
Living Room/Laundry/Mudroom: Kennebunkport Green (trim, cabinetry, beams), Barely Beige (wall boards) and Linen White (above)
Dressing/Hall: Linen White (walls) and Barely Beige (trim)
Master Bedroom/Bathroom: Deserted Island (walls) and Linen White (trim)
Floor Stain: English Chestnut on red oak
The Primitive Muralist, Lisa M. Nelthropp,
Wolfebor Falls, NH, 603/520-6983
Mudroom: Osborne and Little (drapery), Brunschwig and Fils (seat cushion) and Calvin (trim)
Living Room: Lee Jofa (drapery and lounge chairs), Osborne and Little (sofa) and Kravet (desk chair)
Master Bedroom: Zimmer and Rhoda (drapery), Cowtan and Tout (sofa) and Zoffany (tablecloth)
Dressing Room: Bergamo (drapery) and Osborne and Little (bench)
Bathroom: Brunschwig and Fils (drapery)
84 Commerce Rd., Stamford