Architect Norman Jaffe, FAIA, dominated modern architecture in the Hamptons of the 1970s and ’80s in much the same way the architects of Sea Ranch dominated a certain strip of coastal land in Northern California. The echo is no coincidence. Norman studied under Joseph Esherick, FAIA, at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1950s and worked for a time in his office. With William Wurster, under whom Norman also studied, Joseph Esherick founded Berkeley’s famed College of Environmental Design, which combines the disciplines of architecture, planning, and landscape design. The goal was to tie architecture and landscape together into a seemingly inevitable, cohesive, creative whole.
Eventually, Norman migrated east to New York, and ultimately moved out to Bridgehampton to start his own firm. There, he applied what he had learned about synthesizing local building traditions and materials and incorporating cues from the landscape. The result was his own brand of robust regional modernism. While his work did not approach the scope and unified vision of Sea Ranch, he did leave his mark on the area with more than 50 houses and other buildings—most notably the awe-inspiring Gates of the Grove synagogue in East Hampton.
Many of the houses he designed have been lost to disrepair or replacement, as the Hamptons have gentrified and densified over the years. His own house, built shortly before his untimely drowning death in 1993, was facing a similar fate when Nick Martin, AIA, and his clients happened upon it. Although it occupied just a tad over an acre in Bridgehampton, the property is remarkably private. Tucked among horse farms and vineyards, it borrows everyone else’s expansive acreage.
As desirable as the site and provenance were, the amount of restoration the house and its outbuildings needed was daunting. “I do a lot of this—finding unladen projects with the potential for a lot of work,” says Nick, who leads both an architecture firm and a building company based in Sagaponack, New York. “When we found Norman’s house, it was in quite a state of disrepair. But I immediately realized the value of it.”
It was one of those projects where the deeper you dig into it, the more budget you allocate away from design flourish and into defect fixes. “We had to lift one of the buildings to fix the foundation,” Nick recalls. “A lot of the budget went into the basics of remediation.” And yet, with some strategic and sensitive edits and ameliorations, the house is truly transformed. It’s still irrepressibly, recognizably “Jaffenese,” as Nick calls it, but there’s also a newfound elegance and restraint that even Norman might have gravitated to had he survived into the new millennium.
Nick’s steepest hurdle as both the architect and the builder on the project was Norman’s expensive tastes and meager budget. His goals and ambitions for his own house were grand, but he cut corners to meet them. “His house was kind of like an Inca compound,” Nick explains. “He had planned east, west, north, and south elements, but died before he could finish all of them. His concepts were strong, but there were important and interesting things that were not at the right scale, not built well, or not built at all.”
There were leaky skylights, and lots of them. There were level changes, and lots of those, too—both inside and outside the house. There was an unrelenting, overwhelming amount of wood and rustic stone everywhere as well. All of these elements are hardcore Norman Jaffe signature items, so Nick had to tread lightly in his changes.
Simplify and unify were the guiding principles. And that approach started at the very beginning of the property—at the entry sequence. “The big move was in changing the circulation pattern of the vehicles,” says Nick. “The best view is to the south, where there’s a tree farm, but that’s where the garage and all the parking was. And there’s a horse farm to the north-northwest of the property we wanted to engage. So, we ran a longer driveway up to the north and lowered it to make the horse farm more visible, and now you don’t see the driveway from the house.”
Nick turned the former garage into a studio for the wife, and Norman’s standalone office was reconceived as a guest cottage and studio for the artist husband. A new basement gives him even more room to work. “He likes the dark,” says Nick. The old, leaky skylights were removed, and a more modest number of new units added back between the rafters, freeing up more space for art display. New cedar walls replaced lackluster drywall. And new, pared-down fenestration in both buildings conveys a more serene, controlled composition.
On the main house, Nick flattened the exterior and interior level changes that disrupted axial views. He also eliminated a double-height, raised circulation space topped by skylights between the living room and sliding doors to the pool. That allowed him to expand the usable living area on the main level and to extend the master bedroom above it.
A new window wall system replaced the skylights and the sliding doors, opening up views for both the living room and the master bedroom to the pool area and a new Japanese-inspired garden beyond. “The window wall was quite an important element, because we wanted to connect visually to the garden,” says the architect. “The husband was especially involved in the architecture and the landscape, bringing his artist’s eye to the project. I’m also a hobbyist arborist, so I was involved in selecting where new plantings would go.”
The focal point of the new garden is a Japanese maple; and offset from the tree is a 20-ton glacial erratic rock that required three cranes to put in place. The goal was to complete Norman’s original vision of a balanced fusion of architecture and landscape.
The team renovated and lengthened the pool by a third, added a hot tub, and re-decked the pool terrace in bluestone. The terrace segues into green slate in the living room, where it acquired a glazed finish with a touch of sheen. There’s shimmer, too, on the living room ceiling—the result of a delicately faceted Venetian plaster treatment. The reflectivity brightens and activates the interiors, mirroring the movement of the pool and landscape in an abstract way. “The finish has an eggshell-like radiance to it,” Nick observes. “When you’re in that space, it’s really quite beautiful.
The other big design overhaul occurred in the master bedroom. Wood was removed in some areas and added back in others. “We added the hand-hewn cedar beams and made that extensive closet system with a Japanese feel about it,” says Nick. “The wood for the closet system is center-matched veneer. And we used cerused white oak for the bathroom vanity and flooring.”
All the buildings were re-shingled and re-roofed in white cedar, with a complicated collection of flashing details. “It looks simple, but shingle on shingle on shingle with a compound edge is very complicated to do,” he explains. New insulation was blown in and a Zip System and vapor barriers installed for moisture control. “It’s essentially like a LEED project. We are very serious about water tightening.”
Ultimately, more was taken away than added in this rehab project. A greenhouse, breezeways, and pergolas were removed. No square footage beyond the existing envelope was added, but the space was reapportioned and optimized. And that’s the way Nick likes it. “We prefer to cleanse and purify space rather than add more. That’s the difference between us and some other architects out here. We don’t build large-scale boxes of steel and glass that are only large for their own sakes.”
Plans and Drawings
Placing the Rock
Bridgehampton, New York
ARCHITECT: Nick Martin, AIA, Martin Architects, Sagaponack, N.Y.
BUILDER: 4MA Builders, Sagaponack
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Walter Stachecki, Landplans, Bridgehampton
PROJECT SIZE: 2,888 square feet (main house); 835 square feet (artist studio); 394 (studio)
SITE SIZE: 1.25 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $500 a square foot
PHOTOGRAPHY: Conor Harrigan; Chris Foster; Dell Cullum; Nick Martin
CLADDING/ROOFING: White cedar perfection shingles
DOOR HARDWARE: Baldwin
HUMIDITY CONTROL: Santa Fe Classic Dehumidifier
HVAC: Mitsubishi (small studio)
INSULATION/HOUSEWRAP: Tyvek; closed-cell foam
ROOF WINDOWS: VELUX
THERMAL/MOISTURE BARRIERS: Grace Vycor, Zip System
WINDOWS/WINDOW SYSTEMS: Western Window Systems