Tolan House Renovation Preserves Gwathmey Legacy - 27 East


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Tolan House Renovation Preserves Gwathmey Legacy

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Brendan J. O’Reilly on Jan 11, 2023

Nick Martin, the principal of Martin Architects in Sagaponack, got his start in architecture with Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, the firm of modernist Charles Gwathmey, one of the famed architects known as The New York Five.

Martin was able to draw on his experience working for the late Gwathmey when he recently designed the renovation and update of the Tolan House, a residence in Amagansett that was one of the first that Gwathmey ever designed.

The 1970 Tolan House is named for its original owner, actor-producer Michael Tolan, whom it was built for.

“It’s a dream come true,” Tolan told the magazine House Beautiful in 1972. “And within the agreed-upon budget. It’s incredible.”

The house, which is next door to a house Gwathmey had designed for his parents, changed hands twice since Tolan owned it, according to Martin. It had been through some renovations that were not sensitive to the original design.

The most recent owners, Yulia Fomenko and Susheel Kirpalani, found the house on the market in late 2019 and jumped at the opportunity to live in and preserve the house, while other potential buyers had only seen a land opportunity and would have gladly demolished the structure to make way for something new. They brought in Martin to renovate the house in keeping with Gwathmey’s concept.

Martin said the new owners “wanted someone who understood the modern vernacular and Charlie Gwathmey.”

Martin had attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where Gwathmey Siegel offered a competitive program for students to work for the firm.

“I was able to win that award and work there, and then I worked for a few years beyond that period,” Martin said.

While with Gwathmey Siegel, Martin worked on a number of notable projects, including the Michael Dell House in Austin, Texas, and in New York, 717 Fifth Avenue, the Steuben Glass gallery and the Guggenheim Museum.

“And so I got to know Charlie pretty well, and then later in life, he asked me to work on a project with him,” Martin recalled. “And unfortunately, he passed right after that.”

Gwathmey died in 2009 at age 71.

Martin said that Gwathmey was an incredible human. “He had a great drive and ability and a sense of creativity. …” he said. “The way he saw things and the geometries and sculptural ability that he had was just remarkable. And Bob Siegel was really an amazing businessman so the two together were a great place to start a career.”

When Martin Architects was hired to update the Tolan House, there had been a number of changes that needed to be undone.

“We had to gut it and then bring it back to the original quality, and then we added our own touch to it,” Martin said. He described it as a technical project, as well as a creative one.

One big change is that a piece of the ground floor was eliminated to make a gateway between the two halves of the house.

“And then we added additional windows and doors and rainscreens and all kinds of interesting elements that would have been, I think, used by Charlie today had he been around that weren’t available to him at the time, like channel glass and LED lights and green building practices — all kinds of home energy systems — to make it a more updated house that has the original concepts and geometries,” Martin said.

The gateway was originally conceived as a way to facilitate a 5,000-square-foot addition and a courtyard that did not come to fruition. “The design changed, but the opening up of the house still made sense,” he said.

As it currently stands, the house is 1,970 square feet, which is tiny by today’s standards in Amagansett.

“All these original houses out here were meant as summer retreats,” Martin pointed out. “They weren’t built for the year-round resident, and so there was quite a bit of work to make it into something that could withstand the winds and winter weather.”

To ensure Tolan House will be comfortable and efficient in all seasons, it was gut renovated.

“We opened up all the walls and blew in insulation,” Martin said. “We had a HERS-rater involved, and we replaced all the doors and windows and brought in different HVAC — everything that you would expect for a modern house. But to keep all of that within the tight boundary, it felt like we were working in a boat. We couldn’t really change certain things about it because we wanted to respect the legacy, and the architecture was really about creating some opacities, some transparencies and some voids in the geometry and basically bringing it to the original level.”

The home has two decks, one that’s level with the second floor and another that’s even higher, offering an ocean view and a look into the house through a large glass panel.

An existing black fireplace and chimney was replaced with a freestanding, floating, red modern-style chimney. The red was chosen because it goes well with Gwathmey’s own use of color.

“Charlie used red and yellow and blue in his colors for accents, which is sort of a Mondrian original modernist movement, so we just played with that and used those colors, Martin said.

For the pool area, Martin Architecture worked on a cantilevered deck. Charlie Marder of Marders in Bridgehampton was responsible for updating the grounds.

“Charlie also worked with Charlie Gwathmey in the early days on the house next door, so he was definitely the right candidate,” Martin said.

Martin Architects and Marders worked together on a labyrinth that wraps around the pool and leads to an underground bermed area.

“There’s quite a bit of landscaping done around the property, and I would say it was kept within indigenous and native plantings that optimize the resources in the environment of the house, but also there was some grafting of the willow trees that was quite interesting done by Charlie,” Martin said.

Adding grafts to the aging trees was a solution to retain the trees while increasing their volume and improving their appearance, rather than planting new trees that would take years to mature.

The grounds also feature a tennis court; a retractable rainscreen stops tennis balls from striking the house’s windows and people passing by.

Among the interior amenities are a Russian banya spa with a translucent infrared sauna and cryogenic plunge pool. The kitchen is by Henrybuilt, and the home construction was by Martin’s 4MA Builders.

“There’s a movement out here that’s trying to isolate and save a lot of these important legacy projects, and I think this project can show how you can enhance — and make more interesting, possibly — and keep to the current standards of building practices while holding on to the original houses rather than just tearing them down,” Martin said. “There’s an awful lot of demo going on of houses. I think historically and culturally, we should consider these houses as important and worthy of holding on to.”

He expressed his gratitude that he was able to work on an existing house without “butchering” it into submission, and he encouraged a culture of reuse.

“The most important part of the project is just finding a great client who believes in us and believes in the history of the project and moving forward in a way that makes it something unique and special while holding on to the legacy,” Martin said.

The updated Tolan House has been featured in the book “Hamptons Modern” by David Sokol and will soon be published in Architectural Digest. It also earned a Design Award for Historic Preservation/Adaptive Reuse from AIA Peconic, the East End’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

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