Architect Peter Pennoyer, FAIA, applied his firm’s "forward-looking interpretation of history" to his own Greek Revival–inspired house in New York’s Hudson Valley. He and his wife, interior designer Katie Ridder, collaborated on the house, which they document in a new book, A House in the Country (The Vendome Press, 2016). ARCHITECT spoke with Pennoyer about the moments of experimentation and lessons learned in designing a house for himself.
In the book, you're quoted as saying: "We didn't want it to be just another white Greek Revival house." Could you elaborate?
I thought that there was no point in building a pattern book reproduction. Not that those are terrible. Some architects do that really well, but what I wanted was a house that took cues from Greek Revival architecture and then made them into a form that was more comfortable with the way we live today. In the Greek Revival houses in this town, the rooms tend to have quite small door openings because they wanted to be able to shut the door to the living room and keep that draft out in the winter. And they tended not to have much sort of axial organization in the rooms. So the house is infused with Greek Revival style, but the plan, especially the ground-floor plan, is almost like an open plan. There is only one room that you can shut off entirely.
How does this project reflect your past ideas about design?
I’d always thought about my own house as being essentially a carved, beautifully detailed box. I’d always been interested in a house as an object in space, which doesn’t have a garage or a service wing attached to it. And I’ve been fascinated by architecture that is there for its own sake and serves no real practical purpose like the column screen on the front of the house. All it’s doing is celebrating architecture. It doesn’t do anything terribly useful, like support a porch, for instance. ... And I’ve always liked to have a skylight that comes down to the first floor, so from the first house I designed, I had a dormer that brought light into the ceiling of the library and then, in turn, that had a round opening that brought light down to the room below.
One thing I noticed right away in the photographs of the house's interiors is how much saturated color was used.
This is really coming from Katie, and I really think it makes the house special. The purples and the mulberry and the yellow and the green. I think that it enhances the architecture, but these are not colors that I would have been able to dream up, ever. ... And also, the house is quite sober-looking on the outside, so it helps that it has red window sashes and a blue metal roof on the porch because it kind of gives you a clue that this kind of sober house has a very colorful inner life.
I was also interested in the detail that you didn’t want the kitchen to be a family gathering place, so you put in an étagère.
So the étagère is just a shelf. I think it's the French word for ladder. It’s just a shelf unit. I just think in any kitchen I design, it’s good to have the chef be able to have his area—well, not the chef, the cook, me—without having people circulating through that area. So in a kitchen, I prefer to have one side for a cook, one side for everyone else. So it’s not that I didn’t want people in the kitchen, it's just that it sort of organizes the kitchen to have an island in the middle. And the étagère allows you to have all your heavy pots and pans out, instead of having to kind of bend and put them under. It’s just sort of an ergonomic trick that I learned from designing a restaurant kitchen years ago.
Is that something that you’ve used in other residential projects?
You know, many people resist it because they don’t want to see their pots and pans. So I would say I'm probably the only client I’ve ever had who actually likes to see pots and pans.
Are there other techniques or details like that—features that you used in this house that a client would not normally request?
I built curiosity cabinets, which are glass cabinets with indirect lighting that allow me to put collections of everything from old drafting tools to scientific instruments to scrimshaw to little bits of models from the office. So most people don’t want that kind of display function in their house. It’s almost like having a little museum case. And I made all the hardware copper-plated, which I don’t think many people like because it does get tarnished.
Does that mean you have a lot of cleaning on your hands?
Well, no. I let it go brown. I don’t mind. I like architecture that gets more beautiful as it ages, and I like seeing things that age gracefully. So for instance, the garage we made with real lime-based stucco, so it’s not elastomeric stucco, which doesn’t allow any water in and doesn’t crack. So the stucco I used is like the old kind that, when it rains, it kind of steams a little and gives off these tiny hairline cracks. That was intentional.
Is that structurally fine?
Oh, absolutely. No, it’s as hard as rock. It’s completely indestructible. It breathes. It’s not like a raincoat, it actually breathes. And it was used for 200 years until someone realized you could mix plastic, essentially, into stucco and make something that’s more impervious. But again, most of our clients would prefer the impervious because they don’t want to see splotchiness after a rainstorm. Or they don’t like the hairline cracks. So I definitely would not ever do that unless a client really signed on for it.
Another detail that I thought was interesting was the concept of having the bedrooms separated from the main hall by a little entrance hall that contains closets.
One practical reason I do that in my projects is that it’s easier to furnish a bedroom, especially a smaller bedroom, if it doesn’t have closet doors in the actual bedroom. It normally means you have a little bit more wall for something like a dresser or a desk. And also, it’s a pleasant thing to have a tiny buffer between the bedroom and the hall. It just makes it feel a little more like your own room.
What was the inspiration for that?
It sounds so silly, but I love traveling and I love hotels, and in really good hotels you usually step into a small space where you have your closet and bathroom and then you go into the bedroom, and I think that works really well, especially for couples when someone might get up earlier or later.
To go back to the exterior for a minute, the book mentions that one of the ways you designed the house so it did not look like a historic home was to oversize the scale of the pieces on the façade. Can you talk about your decision-making on that?
I like simplicity in architecture, I really do, but then I think once you have simplicity, because the basic form of the house is so simple, it is literally a box, right? Then you can do things that are strong and exuberant. So the scale of the acroterion on the front, those sculptural elements, they’re large, but I think they’re scaled right to the house, and I think they do tell you that isn’t an old house. And also, the proportion of the windows in the glass openings tell you it isn’t, the fact that there isn’t a solid front door, I think tells you that it isn’t.
What did you learn from the process?
I’ve learned that you can actually leave out the doors in major rooms and get a kind of open-plan feeling—so you can have rooms that look very traditional but they’re completely open. I don’t think I’ve ever gone quite that far with a client yet. And I feel more confident about not having the stair be part of the main space in the house, that kind of having the stair be something you have to find, having it, in a sense, be more private.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.