Throughout her childhood, Roxanna Robinson would visit her grandparents’ house in the woods on 15 acres overlooking a lake in Cornwall. Her father was a teacher, and she has fond memories of her month-long stays every summer, visiting from her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
The beloved home was built in 1928 by her grandfather, Samuel Scoville Jr., and designed by Ruth Maxon Adams, a rare female architect of that era. It had served Robinson’s family well as a vacation getaway for many years. But when she and her husband, Hamilton, took over the property in 2008, they tapped her brother-in-law’s firm, Boston-based Albert, Righter & Tittmann Architects (ART), to make it habitable year round without losing its flavor and patina. “This is a house designed by an architect who had her own set of aesthetic concerns and wishes, so I was respecting those. I was reluctant to meddle with good architecture,” Robinson says.
In fact, the renovation, coined “Treetop,” was done so well that it recently received a 2021 Alice Washburn Merit Award in the additions/renovations category from the Connecticut chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Connecticut). The award is named for the distinguished Connecticut residential architect Alice Washburn, an early 20th-century Connecticut designer and builder, who worked during the same time period as Ruth Maxon Adams. Focusing on style, the AIA program acknowledges excellence in traditional house design through the thoughtful adaptation of tradition to address 21st-century needs. Structures must be located in Connecticut and designed in a style broadly considered “traditional.”
A three-judge panel of architects described the work as “a clever, honest, understated restoration that brings a classic cottage into the 21st century. The minimal adjustments to the plan reveals how well the building was designed to begin with as well as the reserved hand of the architect to honor the original.”
“The challenge was to make it a year-round house without making it look like anything had been done to it,” says Jacob Albert, principal of ART, who teamed with his colleague J.B. Clancy on the project. “We really had to put ourselves in the mind of Ruth Adams, asking ourselves, ‘What were her details? How did she do things?’ We were working with a given language and we had to learn how to speak it.”
Since the 3,600-square-foot house was never meant to be lived in other than the summer, it had to be gutted and insulated. All of the unpainted wood trim, however, was retained and reused. And the wood floors, hardware and windows remained the same. “The old was quite valuable, as it was very distinctive and a part of Robinson’s memory of the place,” Albert says. “It had a great sentimental value as well as an architectural value.”
And while, for the most part, Robinson wanted to keep every detail looking like it did, raw Homasote interior wall finishes (similar to papier-mâché) didn’t seem worth putting back on once removed. Instead, the walls were replaced with plaster. Wallpaper designed by William Morris, who is considered one of the originators of the Arts and Crafts movement, was used in the dining room and elsewhere.
“I have always loved Morris’ designs, which draw on the natural world, and I have used his wallpapers in many other rooms,” Robinson says. “I thought his work was particularly appropriate here in this house, since the architect, Ruth Adams, was strongly influenced by his ideas.”
The house also reflects Morris’ use of local materials. Fireplaces are made from local rock, and the interior wood — pine and oak — was also sourced locally. Built on what was a birch grove, the floors of the house are birch, which was and still is an unusual and hard-to-find building material.
When turning the existing cave-like, recessed entry porch into a book-lined entry hall, Robinson says that wood flooring was needed and they hoped to use birch. The contractor, George Charleton, searched high and low for the wood and eventually found it.
A new entry porch was added, using posts made from an on-site oak tree. So, even the new things have some old from the grounds, Albert says.
The old single-glazed casement windows were restored, and removable storm panels fitted into the existing in-swinging screen frames. New windows were made to match the old ones, with the overall goal of making the house energy efficient while preserving most of the original details and finishes.
In the original kitchen sat an old-fashioned refrigerator about 4 feet high on legs, a small electric stove, sink, washer and dryer on one wall, and a hot water heater in the corner. There was no dishwasher. “Though we were putting in modern appliances, I wanted the kitchen to have the same feeling it had always had, which was homey and familiar,” Robinson says.
Albert says that they chose “fairly normal-looking appliances to replace the old,” careful not to add anything too shiny and dazzling. Materials also reflect the period, with butcher block for counters and a big butcher-block table in the middle of the room in lieu of a typical island seen in modern kitchens. The hot water heater and washer/dryer were moved to other rooms.
And in keeping with the character of the house, no upper cabinets were installed. Instead, the pantry that one passes through to get from the kitchen to the dining room was left untouched, and serves the family’s storage needs.
Extra kitchen space was borrowed from what were maid’s quarters and a bathroom to create a laundry room and mudroom. On the second floor, all the bathrooms are entirely new, yet designed in the spirit of the original home. A small bedroom was combined with the former master bathroom to create two master bathrooms and two dressing closets.
Since a ramshackle garage, separate from the house, couldn’t be saved, a new one was built in a compatible style in its place. Original, small diamond-paned windows that went unused in the main house were reused here. And a writer’s studio above is perfect for Robinson, a novelist and biographer. “My grandfather was a lawyer, but he was also an amateur naturalist and wrote lots of books and articles about birds and animals, so this house was built as an outpost within the natural world,” Robinson says. “His study was right at the edge of the woods, so that’s a big part of what the house is about. It’s this extraordinary feeling of being inside the house, yet feeling very much a part of the natural world at the same time.
“For a place that was designed for a summer house, it’s remarkably comfortable as a full-time house,” Robinson adds. “One of the most spectacular spaces is the porch that overlooks the lake. It’s just fabulous to sit there and look out, read or talk.”
Now that the family’s treetop treasure is restored to its former glory and enhanced for year-round living, Robinson wants current and future generations to enjoy it, just as she did when she was young. “My fondest hope is that my children and grandchildren have the same kind of connection,” she says. “They’ve been coming every winter at Christmastime and during the summer, which I love.”
Other Alice Washburn Award honorees:
New Construction, Excellence: Lakeside Georgian Estate, Greenwich (Charles Hilton Architects, Greenwich)
Inspired by the 18th-century British estate, the “Belton House,” and using David Adler’s 1928 “Crane Estate” in Ipswich, Massachusetts, as a point of departure, this extensive new lakeside estate blends classic Georgian charm with a sleek, cleaner interior.
Additions/Renovations — Merit: Victorian Cottage and Barn, Fairfield (David Scott Parker Architects, Southport)
Part of the Fairfield Museum and History Center, this rare working-class cottage and barn constructed in the Carpenter Gothic style by local builder Northrop Brothers in 1888 barely escaped demolition 100 years later. In recent years, the derelict structures were revitalized into a valued community space.
Additions/Renovations — Commendation for Restoration: Sun Tavern, Fairfield (David Scott Parker Architects, Southport)
Also part of the Fairfield Museum, this 1780 tavern was the social epicenter of colonial Fairfield and hosted Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and George Washington. The landmark building was stabilized and restored between 2005 and 2017.
Accessory Buildings — Excellence: Teak Pool Pergola, Greenwich (Charles Hilton Architects, Greenwich)
An eye-catching backyard feature in the famed, Olmstead-designed Khakum Wood neighborhood, this new teak pool pavilion fits well in the gardens at the edge of a pool terrace. It was designed to complement an English Georgian house, and was inspired by both traditional Japanese pavilions and the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Additions/Renovations — Merit: Classic Georgian Restoration, Greenwich (Douglas Vanderhorn Architects, Greenwich)
A strikingly restored 1915 brick Georgian estate saw a design process that followed the owner’s respect for history and artifacts, with every aspect down to antique radio plugs and call buttons meticulously documented.