Usonia Gem

Architect and Interior Designer: Carol Kurth, FAIA, ASID, Carol Kurth Architecture + Interiors


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Photographs by Peter Krupenye

A photo of the original home. 

The Usonia Masson house has a long, famous history. It was built in 1952 by architect David T. Henken, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, who collaborated with and mentored Henken on this project. Henken and some other New York City dwellers dreamed of building a cooperative community of homes to raise their families. Henken contacted Wright and started creating this home in Pleasantville.

The owner asked that it be built close to a brook, have views to the northwest, and maximize sun exposure. The design is a triangular plan with simple detailing and long, straight runs. The space is divided into public and private areas. The house has been renovated twice before this last renovation: First, a carport was added, in keeping with the scale of the home. The next, by a different architect, was much more substantial, and it “sadly dwarfed portions of the original design,” according to Kurth.

Kurth and her team not only designed the architecture in this renovation, including a rear addition that mimicked the original home’s triangular geometry, they also worked on the interiors. “In this case, the interior design was more about creating dynamic interior spaces, bathroom environments, and built-ins,” says Kurth. “Our team created a design solution that married the home to the previous renovations and was characteristic of the original architecture and design intent.”

(L to R) A view of the home’s exterior post-renovation and a look inside the home, where built-ins make the most of the designed space. 

Along the way, they ran into their own set of challenges.

“All homes in Usonia must go through a rigorous design-review by the board, in addition to all local and state reviews,” says Kurth. “The existing bedrock on the site was a significant issue both in terms of expense and the ‘unknown.’ The original home had radiant heating, and connections to those zones were buried in the concrete-slab work. We held our breath throughout, hoping that all of the systems would still tie in and work, which they did. Contractor Michael DeSisto used to live in the house, so he knew more about the structure and infrastructure than just about anyone.”    

Creating solutions for these challenges was just one part of this project. Kurth wanted to keep true to the Wright vision of the home when making changes to the footprint and updating the design.

“On the exterior of the new addition, we used cypress siding, a material Wright used in Usonia and other projects,” says Kurth.

(L to R: After and Before) One of the bathrooms, renovated with the house’s design history in mind. 

She also used similar materials on the interior. “The staircase and integrated brick bookcases are a very Wrightian-inspired part of the house,” says Kurth. “Working with original brick and developing an integrated look was challenging. It looks simple now, but I assure you, matching present-day brick to the existing home was quite the endeavor.”

But not everything Kurth envisioned was to be. “I wish we could have used steel windows and doors,” she says. “Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater is a good example of how this home would have looked aesthetically with the integration of steel window detailing. The existing home had extensive wood doors and windows, so we continued that materiality in the new addition.”

The finished product is an ideal marriage of Wright and Henken’s original vision, the two subsequent renovations, and Kurth’s desire to create a modern space that is perfect for the homeowners.


Favorite Things: 

“I love the triangular geometry and how we developed the triangular butt-glazed window [below left] that intersects between the bedrooms,” says Kurth. “Another element that I like is the punctuated circular skylights [below right] that illuminate what would have otherwise been a dark hall but is now accented by luminescent circles that are fabulous by day, as well as exciting at dusk.”


Carol Kurth’s Historical-Home Tips

► Either work with the original architectural style — or contrast it. “That’s the first and most important decision,” says Kurth.

► Be prepared for a time commitment. “Renovations take time,” says Kurth. “From design decisions, meetings, approvals, and bidding. Project preparation prior to being shovel-ready can take far longer than one might think!”

► Find the elements that define the house and then preserve those.

Kurth incorporated natural elements into the master bathroom.

► Move out. “My number-one recommendation for homeowners embarking on a major renovation is to move out and to not live in the home during the renovation process, especially an extensive renovation,” says Kurth. “It’s much better for a project to have weekly or biweekly site meetings and see the progress, rather than living through less-than-favorable conditions during construction.”

► Invest in lighting.

► Set aside funds for additional changes, as Kurth notes that the scope of a renovation project often creeps up:  “Both changes by necessity and those by desire (the ‘I just have to have that’ syndrome),” she says.

► Don’t do all kinds of cosmetic improvements without looking at the basics. “Invest in the infrastructure, HVAC, roof, etc.” says Kurth.

 

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Usonia Gem

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