Justin Hobart House

Anatomy of a Big House

Big houses have gotten a bad rap in recent years, charged in the court of public opinion on multiple counts: for maxing out the permissible square footage on small lots; for dominating traditional neighborhoods of modest, post-World War II houses; and, most egregious of all, perhaps, for conspicuous construction — for simply being bigger and more luxurious than the other houses on the block.

And, yet, architecturally speaking, does big and new necessarily mean bad? Of course not; though the majority of the time, yes. Does big mean more room than most home owners need? Not necessarily, but probably. Does it mean that big-house owners have more money, possessions and “important” friends than small-home owners have? Without a doubt.

McMansions, Edifice Complexes, Structures on Steroids — call them what you will, but if you do, you probably don’t live in one. And therein lies at least part of the rub. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of new single-family houses last spring was 2,400 square feet. The starter size for McMansions, on the other hand, is between 6,000 and 8,000 square feet, depending on which real estate agent or contractor you talk to. Which means that the average home owner is three times more likely to resent owners of mansions.

Envy aside, however, when well-designed and thoughtfully sited, big, new houses can blend in with smaller neighbors, beautify traditional streetscapes, and significantly raise surrounding property values (something the owners of ’50s capes and ’60s ranches in the shadows of the behemoths often neglect to mention).

Which is not to say there isn’t something to be said for small houses. Architect Sarah Susanka’s The Not-So-Big House has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and revealed a groundswell movement in the past few years. But there’s something to be said for mansions, too. And in the case of Doug and Anna Marie Hansons’ new, 13,000-square-foot Colonial Revival in the Old Hill section of Westport, there’s a huge amount to be said.

The Good Neighbor

Three years ago the Hansons and their two daughters moved to Westport from California, where Doug ran a construction firm. “What drew us here was New England architecture and weather,” Anna Marie says. “We also wanted to be within striking distance of New York City and closer to Europe. And, we’re conservative, and we thought New England was conservative.

“I don’t know why,” she adds.

By the time the couple found out that the opposite might be true, they had already fallen in love with the town and the people, whom Anna found “more down-to-earth than people in California.” They had also bought two small ’50s houses on adjacent properties on which to build a traditional Connecticut home. “We knew we liked the New England style,” she said, “but we didn’t know what that meant — we didn’t know what was appropriate.”

While still living out West, however, the Hansons had subscribed to Westport Magazine where, each month, they saw an ad for J.P. Franzen Architects in Southport. Jack Franzen has done restoration work on some thirty historic houses in the area over the years. He’s also designed a number of large Colonial Revivals, including former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch’s 8,000-square-foot home on Southport Harbor, and he chose the style for the Californians.

“Colonial Revivals were really popular in New England for a long time,” Franzen says. “It is probably the best of traditional architecture and it’s a good style for a residential neighborhood because it has moderate details and is not so ornate.”

Tearing down one of the small houses to clear the building site, the family moved into the other one and, almost immediately, Doug began landscaping the property. “I did it for the neighbors, because we have to live here,” he explains, “and for myself, because I personally don’t like driving down the street and seeing a monster.”

But the house the Hansons had in mind would need more than ground cover. Franzen struggled to diminish the impact of the structure on the streetscape by making it L-shaped, rather than one massive rectangle, and by breaking the roofline into a variety of components. It helps, too, that the property slopes away from the street, allowing the house to maintain a low profile.

In a way, Jack Franzen’s design harks back to architects of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Cameron Clark, who also built mansions in Westport and the rest of Fairfield County. “No one complained back then,” Franzen notes. “Guys like Clark tried to make big houses look smaller than they were, and they were really good at it. I’m far from perfect, but with a lot of the newer big homes today, there’s no artifice attached to the scale of the house — no effort is expended in trying to diminish the scale — and so the impact on the street and neighborhood is enormous.

“Everything has its right place,” he says of big houses in general. And of the Hansons’ in particular, he adds, “It is one of the bigger houses on that street but it does try to show respect for the neighborhood.”

More Is More

With big houses, more tends to be more. There’s more space for more things, for one thing, and the freedom to have not just one of each kind of room, but two.

The Hanson mansion has two major entrances, for instance. Paying respect to the neighborhood, the main, everyday entrance is set at the side of the house, off the long, pebbled driveway and tucked under a substantial porte cochere (a covered entrance porch). By contrast, the entrance fronting the street is more visible but less used; although it is formal and classically architectural — columns with Ionic capitals (or caps) support a pediment (gabled projection) and frame the oversized door, sidelights (narrow, vertical panes on either side of the door) and pilasters (half columns attached to the facade) — it is also relatively low-key.

Inside the front door, a spacious foyer leads not to a central staircase or the living room, as is usually the case, but to a vestibule. What’s the difference? A foyer is an enclosed room — a transition space between the exterior and interior — while a vestibule is a larger, open, lobby-like space. Here it serves as a hub from which to explore the house in all directions.

Touring a house this big is a little like traveling in a foreign country. Ordinary parameters become meaningless. Normal spatial expectations are suspended. Hallways and doorways lead to places you may never have been before. 

If, say, you were to leave the Hansons’ vestibule and head west, you would trek through an exquisitely decorated region (the living room) and arrive in the grand piano alcove. Is it really necessary, some might ask, to expand a living room just for a piano? For this piano, yes. When in Vienna several years ago, Doug and Anna Marie visited the Bösendorfer factory, famous for its handmade instruments. They had ordered a seven-foot, four-inch model, but on a tour of the factory they saw a demonstration recital on a nine-foot-six-inch Bösendorfer Concert Grand, made from wenji wood. They designed their living room around it.

Back to the tour. If, on the other hand, you lit out from the vestibule and went due north, or straight, you would pass through a seven-foot-long, arched and paneled passageway — a rare, magical space that is rarely encountered in a home. Although it connects the front of the house to the kitchen, family room and rear decks and patio, the passageway also serves to separate those public and private spaces; pocket doors at the far end allow the family area to be closed off from the vestibule.

Room for Great Rooms

It’s uncanny, but many houses have certain rooms in common. Then again, perhaps it’s just because they can.

One mansion must-have for a number of years now has been a serious kitchen, with room for gathering and appliances for entertaining in high  style. The Hansons’ kitchen has a teak- and granite-topped island that seats twelve, and two Sub-Zero 7000 series refrigerators that hold enough groceries for a month.

But the jewel of the kitchen is the six-foot La Cornue oven — the limited-edition Range Rover of the oven world. Made in France, and finished in a forest-green porcelain enamel, the model features two convection ovens (one gas, the other electric) plus a cooktop and grill. Joists under the kitchen floor were doubled up in order to support the cast-iron centerpiece. And it is used. “You have no idea how easy it is to cook a great turkey in that oven,” Anna Maria promises.

For fair-weather cooking, French doors off the kitchen lead to patios and an enormous outdoor fireplace with a rotisserie and pizza oven.

Formal libraries also appear to go with the territory. Actually, they’ve been in style for hundreds of years, but it’s rare to find them paneled entirely in black walnut. The room, which was custom-milled by Christopolous Design in Bridgeport, doubles as Doug’s office. (Christopolous also milled the wainscoting found throughout the house.)

One amusing criticism of big houses concerns the master bedroom, which usually gets phrased something like, “Who needs a suite of rooms just for sleeping?” If life were just about need, however, and bedrooms just about space for lying down, the couple could curl up comfortably enough in one of the boxes the Sub-Zeros came in. Instead, they opted for the kind of luxury hotel accommodations they had experienced in their travels abroad. Off a second-floor foyer with a smaller, slightly less grand Bösendorfer piano, French doors open into the bedroom with fireplace, his-and-her closets large enough to open as retail shops, and a master bath suite worth working hard for: separate bathrooms, vanities, dressing rooms and a commodious, light-filled bathing space with a spa-quality tub. As in the other eight bathrooms in the house, the exquisite tiles and fixtures are from Waterworks in Westport.

In California, the Hansons never had a basement, so in Westport they may have gone a little wild. Actually, “basement” isn’t spacious nor gracious enough of a word to label this lower realm — not when the basement stairs are a carpeted staircase with its own vestibule and major hallway. The roughly 3,300-square-foot area contains a shuffleboard court, game room with pool table and video-game console, pottery room, home fitness center (minimal waiting time for machines) and, needless to say, a media room.

Even the “mechanical” room is cool. Its concrete floors and walls painted battleship gray, the spotless space is command central for the state-of-the-art German furnace, radiant-heat controls, and the wireless network that runs the rest of the house.
 
The owners’ favorite room on this level, though, is a cavernous wine cellar and tasting room, agleam with antique chestnut floors and a chestnut table handmade for them in Florence. “We don’t drink at all,” Doug says, “but we like to entertain.”

Shortly after Doug and Anna Marie moved their family out of the little house next door and into the new house, they threw a dinner party in the wine room for the design and construction crews. After dinner, when Anne Marie suggested they go upstairs to the living room, the guests remained seated, staring at her, until she added, “Or we could stay here.” They resumed talking and drinking.

Big and Cozy   

Of course, great rooms don’t guarantee quality of life, any more than a big house equals a home. What helps make the big, open spaces in the Hanson house warm and familial is their human scale. The first floor ceilings are nine feet — not ten feet and eleven feet, which is the going height in many McMansions — and eight feet on the second floor. This also reflects the house’s intent: It’s not trying to impress or overwhelm, it just wants to be lived in.

What is highly unusual for a house of this size and splendor is its balance of elements: open and enclosed, public and private, formal and casual. “My feeling about formality is the way you live in the house,” says Ann Clark Miletti of Clark Interiors in Fairfield, the decorator, and a granddaughter of architect Cameron Clark.

Ann picked out rich drapes of damask and silk for the living room and master bedroom, and sheers (handmade lace backdrops behind the drapes) to provide a gauzy, dreamy screen to life outside. “You can have formal window treatments,” she says, “and still live casually.”

By dividing a palette of colors among the rooms, she was able to decorate each room separately while maintaining a family of tones and a warm flow.

And that integrity came from the owners, not from blueprints or swatch books. “I think it works so well because Doug and Anna Marie didn’t get all wound up trying to fill big spaces with things,” says their contractor John Ludwig of J. P. Ludwig Builders, Inc., in Wilton. “The house was designed around the furniture and things they’d owned for years.

“For a brand-new house,” he adds, “it has a great old-world feel, and, for a big house, it’s very comfortable.”

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