The Great American House by Gil Schafer III

My wife and I have plans to build a home on a little bit of land soon. But we've been entangled in the purgatory like process of acquiring building permits from the city. I feel I am not alone in thinking that all blackholes originate from the basements of bureaucratic buildings. However, we can see a smidge of light coming from the end of the tunnel and are starting to piece together what we want from our next home. This means my weekly screen usage has increased due to a budding passion for building inspiration boards on Pinterest. Categories include gravel driveways, guest bathroom wallpaper, butler pantries, and staircase wine rooms.


It was through this thankless research I found the work of Mr. Gil Schafer III. He is an award winning traditional architect based in New York City who I've come to admire for his passion and ability to design new homes with old souls. To understand exactly what Mr. Schafer does you only have to read the succinct summarization on the inside cover of his 2012 book, The Great American House: Tradition For the Way We Live Now:


As a traditional architect, Gil Schafer specializes in building new "old" houses, as well as renovating historic homes. His work takes the best of American historic and classical architecture–its detailed moldings and harmonious proportions–and updates it, retaining its character and detail while simultaneously reworking it to be more in tune with the way we live now–comfortable, practical, family-oriented.


Before I found Mr. Schafer's work I thought I was alone and crazy to want a new home styled like its witnessed the passing of generations. But I was relieved to dig into his book and discover that he shares this sentiment. We can have both the essence of being in the middle of a grand houses story, while in actuality we're the authors at the beginning of a chapter-less book. Mr. Schafer accomplishes this feat using the three elements that he deems make a "Great House": architecture, decoration, and landscape.


The first element is architecture. While the moldings, columns, panels, patterns, and overall style of classical architecture conjures deep nostalgia for traditional architecture, Mr. Schafer says we must acknowledge that the layout of the traditional home, the bones itself, doesn't fit our modern lives, "Thus the challenge, architecturally, is to retain the well-loved proportions, details, and character–the feeling–of a more formal, traditional residence, yet balance these elements with rooms that reflect the realities of informal twenty-first-century family life." This means while having two adjacent formal parlor rooms would be interesting... it's much more practical to embrace and incorporate modern architecture layouts that promote openness. However, Mr. Schafer also encourages that there are non-aesthetic things we can pull from the past. When planning the layout of a great house, he encourages us to "think thin", "...historic homes were often only one room wide because, in the days before in-home electricity, their residents wanted to be exposed to the pleasures–indeed, the necessities–of cross-ventilation and sunshine." In contrast, he describes today's McMansions, or any thick home like "...the rings of a tree, their inner spaces get farther and farther away from fresh air and natural light."


The second element is interior design. While Mr. Schafer primarily collaborates with interior designers like Bunny Williams and Miles Redd, including on his own properties, he still shares two primary principles we should consider when decorating a great house: comfort and color. Comfort is something everyone can and will figure out for themselves. I think his main point is that the things within a house should be used. If a room is filled with antiques and furniture that must me protected and stressed over all the time then it verges on becoming a museum and thus stops being a comfortable space. Second, and what I plan on incorporating into our new house is the wide use of color in rooms and hallways. We have been quite tame in our current home with color. I have an accent wall in my office. But within this chapter inspiration for the next house is found on every page in the murals, block stripes, and pattern wallpaper that catch the eye's admiration but doesn't hold its attention in an off putting manner. While I can't share the photos from the book due to copyright, I encourage you to look up examples of some of these rooms, here is a video of Mr. Schafer giving a tour of his Greek Revival home in upstate New York. Notice how all of the white molding and fireplace pop against the walls.


The third and final element is landscape. This is where I've learned the most from this book. Tying the surrounding landscape is paramount into creating a true sense of place for a great house. Mr. Schafer does a wonderful job injecting feeling and the importance of landscape in the opening paragraph of the chapter:


Have you ever visited someone's house in the country for the first time and enjoyed a growing sensation of wonder at what awaits at the end of that long, winding driveway? You may catch a glimpse of the house or of a special view along the way before turning again to find yourself traveling through woods, over a creek, or across a meadow. That sense of mystery and anticipation, followed by arrival, when you finally see the house in full, is one of the more special experiences you can have in a landscape–one that has profound impact on shaping a house's unique character.


For me the above paragraph took me back to my Great grand parents back road mobile home sitting on 20 acres in the Texas Hill Country. It's where my brothers and I learned to fish and wandered through dried up creek beds with a .22 hunting anything with wings. Mr. Schafer reminded me that the area that surrounds the home is as important as the house itself. Thus he believes "...it is important to incorporate landscape design into a projects overall budget from the outset, even if it requires scaling back on other things." On top of that, there are two factors of landscape design that Mr. Schafer mentions. The first is placement, where are you putting the house? Is it nestled within the trees and looks as if it was always apart of the land? Or is it on top of the highest hill you could find? What feels more natural? The second factor is the divide between the formal yard and the "wild." The formality in which you make this divide depends on you. It could be a manicured hedge cut into a modern design or a pile of rocks. It could be plants placed like landing lights on an airport runway from the driveway to the front door. Or it could be a simple dirt country road. Mr. Schafer's only real requirement is that as you get closer to the house the less wild and more calming the landscape should appear.


The above three elements are what Gil Schafer suggests makes a great house. I continue to go back and re-read certain bits and look at the inspiring pictures for channeling that sense of place. And if I ever get the permits from the city maybe I can create my own soon.



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