Case Study: River House by Joeb Moore & Partners Architects
Artists have been known to revisit canvases again and again, each time with a new vision of what it could become. Somehow, they feel, the work is never quite finished. There’s always another new idea to explore—something else needed to make it whole. River House in Greenwich, Connecticut, is just such a work of art—one that is seemingly forever “in progress.” For the last 25 years, its progress—the visions and revisions—have been spearheaded by architect Joeb Moore, FAIA.
But the story of this significant house begins even earlier than Joeb’s arrival on the scene in the mid-1990s. It reaches back to the 1960s, when a regionally important architect, Gray Taylor, designed the original house on the property for himself and his family. Back then, architects were embracing nature in ways that we now understand can threaten the very qualities they sought to mine. Turning Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous quote on its head, Gray Taylor designed his house to not be of the water but in the water.
The bold living room volume of his original building strides right into the middle of the stream—a hovering box atop four columns, the water flowing beneath. According to Joeb’s office, there was even a “pop-up fishing hole” in the living room from which you could cast directly into the water—perhaps while sipping on your Manhattan.
And yet, only this one grand room really addressed the river and the ecosystem that surrounds it. The rest of the house largely turned its back on the setting. “It was a linear bar connecting to a square over the river, creating a T shape,” says Joeb. “The drama of the space was entirely in the living room—in the square—with that view straight up the river. In the linear bar, even the dining room had no view.” It was a little like those midcentury View-Master slide viewers that focused your attention straight ahead, to the exclusion of any periphery.
The siting of that volume and its view have grown more precious over time, as evolving environmental regulations have made it impossible to replicate. At the same time, the audience for these early forays into modernism has grown ever more passionate.
When Gray Taylor’s family decided to sell the patriarch’s house, they found in its buyers (and Joeb’s eventual clients) not just advocates of modern architecture but aficionados of modern art. It was the 1970s, and the couple had recently relocated from California, where they owned another magazine-worthy modern house.
“They were ahead of their time as collectors of large format, Post-World War II art,” says Joeb. And they bought the house to showcase those big works of art. Over the years, as their family and collection grew, they remodeled the house, implementing a strong black and white theme, while “filling in the T” between the river volume and the linear bar.
By the 1990s, their daughters had grown up and moved out, triggering the desire for a more substantial re-envisioning of the house. This is when they turned to Joeb, with whom they had discussed some smaller projects over the years, and began phase one of their enduring relationship.
“We did a new family room for them, a two-car garage, a courtyard, and a walled garden space,” he recalls. “We also did a new entry pavilion and a new arrival sequence to the front door.”
The firm’s work on the project won local and regional AIA awards, and launched a great friendship and collaboration that flourishes to this day. Joeb Moore & Partners went on to design other award-winning projects in New York and Florida for the couple, now in their 80s. “Their houses are all about art, space, and light,” says the architect.
Since then, the family patronage has grown to include the next generation. One of the couple’s daughters, now married with children of her own, bought the house from her parents and approached Joeb for another big reinvention.
“The original property for the house was largely in the wetlands. It had no backyard, and our client had three energetic boys,” he recalls. “But we had been called in to design a renovation for the adjacent property, which had belonged to Gray’s sister. We did the plans, and then the owners decided to sell instead. We put them together with the daughter and she bought it.”
Suddenly the canvas for the next reimagining was much enlarged. “Our client wanted a larger landscape area, a larger play area for the boys, and a larger connection to nature all around. This new lot gave them room to really expand,” says Joeb, who began work on the multi-year project in 2016.
Although the house has nearly doubled in size, the remodel was as much about taking away as adding on. And it was about sharpening all the connections among rooms and the important axes of the house—the broadside parallel to the water and the perpendicular procession from entry to living room. All major rooms now engage the river views, whether from a glazed corner or a sidewall of windows or multiple exposures of glass.
A new guest suite, designed and built for the parents, is set at the far end of the house. Theirs is an immersive river view, as it should be. And while it’s linked to the main house by a long fenestrated corridor, it reads almost like a separate guest house. That corridor extends from the guest suite, past the new garage, a new mudroom, the expanded and remodeled kitchen, a breakfast area with a stunning corner view up the river, and the family room. Ultimately, it joins the main axis of entry.
“That axis of entry is a very important spatial sequence. It’s an enfilade condition,” Joeb explains. “From the front entry gate—a concrete portal you pass through—past the garden terrace, and then finally to the front door. Inside, you now have a 12-by-60-foot hallway leading to the living room. We opened up both sides of the living room fireplace to the water view, so now it’s as if the hallway doesn’t really end—it becomes the living room. With both axes, the re-engagement with the river dramatically changed the house.”
Transparency and Reflection
In the original house, the architectural drama was centered on the living room volume. In the latest remodel, the long corridor from the guest suite to the main entry hall is its own virtuoso move. While occupying a respectful physical distance from the water’s edge, it generates a mirror image of the river and vegetation across its frameless, reflective window wall. It broadcasts nature directly onto the house. Below the corridor, a window wall to the new playroom and gym has a more transparent finish, revealing the bustle within.
“It’s a play of transparency and reflection. The flow of space happens in section, and in slices—vertically and horizontally,” says Joeb. A new stair to the lower level opens visual connections from a new skylight through a perforated staircase to a two-story glass window. “It’s a continuous vertical slice of sky, river, ground all at once. Two thirds of the lower level is glass and open to the river. The grade slopes down to the river, so it’s a whole different view,” says the architect.
Skylights were a significant design feature of Gray’s original design, where they remain most evident in the entry hall. In the remodel, new ones appear in the bathrooms to wash interiors with natural illumination. “White liners give them a burst of light,” says Joeb.
Although the property is now enlarged, its close relationship to the street is unchanged, making privacy a concern. Clerestories and narrow slivers of glazing help maintain occupants’ privacy while bringing in additional light and reducing glare. All windows in private spaces have concealed roller shades, as well.
Invisible and Visible
Also concealed is all the behind-the-scenes work done by Prutting & Company to untangle the knot of so many previous renovations and to bring all systems, materials, and building performance up to today’s standards. “Each portion of the house had unique structural and mechanical systems,” recalls project manager Heath Horn. “Each was like its own separate architectural experiment. Much of the existing structure was deficient and had to be rebuilt from the first-floor deck to the roof.”
Working alongside and even in the water complicated construction greatly. “The project’s siting over the river represented a huge challenge,” Heath explains. “A custom-built cantilevered scaffold platform was suspended from the existing building’s structure. We also built a raft out of dock billets for accessing the underbelly of the house on the river.”
Once adequately shored up, the house received an entirely new palette of colors and finishes, softening the once stark scheme of blacks and whites. “We kept to just five colors—concrete, white oak, glass, plaster, and blackened steel,” says Joeb.
A newly expanded kitchen abandons the now-dated stainless steel look for a sleek, glossy white Boffi suite of cabinets and counters. Large-format Porcelanosa tiles hew to the concrete color scheme, as do the new gray stucco exteriors.
No stone was left unturned in the remodel, including the flagstone for the garden terrace, which had developed an efflorescence since the previous remodel. And, led by Diane Devore’s landscape team, new garden spaces were inserted at the intersections of the additions. Manicured lawns and slivers of grass slicing through paved paths give way to wilder plantings toward the river’s edge. Eventually more growth will overtake garden walls and interstitial spaces, softening the lines between nature and architecture.
The landscape will continue to evolve over time, just as the house has done over the last 50 years. And, lest we think our work in progress has finally come to a close, rest assured there are more projects still in motion. “We’re never fully done,” says Joeb. “We’re still at work on the gym. It’s a living project.There’s always some kind of architecture going on.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Principal-in-charge: Joeb Moore, FAIA; project architect: Devin Picardi, AIA, Joeb Moore & Partners Architects, Greenwich, Connecticut
BUILDER: Prutting & Company, Custom Builders, Stamford, Connecticut
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: Diane Devore, Devore Associates Landscape Architects, Fairfield, Connecticut
TECHNOLOGY INTEGRATOR: Acoustic Blueprint, Norwalk, Connecticut
PROJECT SIZE: 11,000 square feet
SITE SIZE: 4.5 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHER: Timothy Schenck Photography
CLADDING: Stucco, Thermory
COOKTOP/WALL OVENS: Gaggenau
ENTRY DOORS/DOOR HARDWARE/LOCKSETS: Solar Innovations, Pivot Door Company, Accurate Hardware
FOUNDATION: Reinforced cast-in-place
GARAGE DOORS: Raynor
HVAC: Hydro-Air, hydronic radiant
INSULATION/HOUSEWRAP: Sto Gold Coat liquid applied
KITCHEN SYSTEM: Boffi
LIGHTING: Juno Lighting, Hunza, Eco-sense, Bega (outdoor); TECH Element, LED (indoor)
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron, Crestron
MILLWORK: J.G. Ferro and Company (custom)
OUTDOOR FIRE PIT: Raw Urth Designs
OUTDOOR GRILL: Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet
OUTDOOR REFRIGERATOR: Sub-Zero
PAINTS: Benjamin Moore
PIPING: Pex, cast-iron drops
ROOFING: Standing Seam Lead Coated Copper, EPDM
ROOF/TRUSS SYSTEMS: Flat, Trus Joist
ROOF WINDOWS/SKYLIGHTS: Lynbrook Skylights
SHADING: Thermory Lattice
SINKS: Corian, The Galley (kitchen)
TUBS: AF New York/ Caroline Beaupere Dune S68 (main bathroom), WetStyle
VENTILATION: Panasonic Whisper, remote fan
WATER FILTRATION: Pentair Everpure
WINDOWS: Solar Innovations
WINDOW SHADING SYSTEM: Lutron Solar