Small Wonder

 

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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.

Washburn 2012

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