A Fine Composition
What does it take to convince a veteran architect to knock down a piece of his personal design history? Turns out, not much. Just ask Warren Schwartz, principal of Boston’s Schwartz/Silver Architects, who has spent the past 40 years designing prominent residences and buildings like the funky New England Aquarium entrance. One of his early successes was a love letter of a second home he designed in 1986 for his wife, Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Sheila Fiekowsky. Iconic, strange, and sweet, the 1,200-square-foot, octagonal building on a hill in Lenox was published in 14 magazines; for more than two decades, its rocket ship–like appearance intrigued editors, architects, and curious passersby alike.
But while the home’s visual appeal endured, its charm eventually wore off for the couple. “I loved that house, but I swore I wouldn’t live another day in it,” Fiekowsky says. “We called it the Bug-of-the-Month club—it was wood and vulnerable to every kind of infestation. Plus, everything in it smelled like mold, even our clothes.”
So, three years ago, Schwartz decided to destroy the house and start fresh. “I said, ‘Sheila, we could keep trying to save this house, but I want to raze it,'” he explains. Needless to say, Fiekowsky wouldn’t mourn the loss. “I really wanted to start new…and have an Ikea kitchen,” she says with a conspiratorial wink.
So how did the older, more experienced Schwartz distinguish himself from the fortysomething Schwartz who designed the first home? For one thing, he realized that steel, glass, and concrete make very tight buildings, meaning less rot, fewer bugs, and lower heating costs. The vertical design of the original structure necessitated a circular staircase, which Fiekowsky twice fell down while holding a child (they emerged unscathed). Consequently, the new house is styled like a ranch—all on one level. And while the first one had been put together by a novice builder in an attempt to save money, the new home was constructed and engineered by a corps of seasoned professionals.
As with all of Schwartz’s work, there’s more than a touch of fantasy in the design. “I knew you could cantilever one-third of the length of a 90-foot house, but I kept sliding the connection back,” he says. “One-third of a cantilever is standard architecture. Pushing it to one-half is magic.” To create the remarkable 45-foot cantilever, he consulted with Newton-based structural engineer Sarkis Zerounian, who built the roof and literally hung the floor from it. Radiant heating is embedded in the concrete floor, and the home has central air conditioning and a heat pump. Fiekowsky got her coveted Ikea kitchen, too.
It’s not easy to design a building that appears to jut so strongly into the landscape. For such drama, Schwartz had to make the house very long and narrow. He achieved this by “railroading,” or lining up, the three small bedrooms, leaving just enough width for a corridor to run down one side of the house. The slim, bright hallway arrives in a glass-enclosed living room with a 270-degree view of the Berkshire Hills, which is where the couple spend most of their time. Fiekowsky and Schwartz furnished their new 1,600-square-foot home sparingly, with minimal, inexpensive pieces so that the architecture—and the incredible vistas—could take center stage.
When Fiekowsky plays at nearby Tanglewood in the summer, the house is filled with friends and fellow musicians who come to enjoy her great cooking and impromptu concerts. “The acoustics are amazing,” she says.
“People always asked me if I had designed my dream house, which I thought was a dumb question,” says Schwartz. “That said, I did dream this up after seeing the sun rise over the Grand Canyon from a huge flat rock. I wanted to recreate the experience by making a platform to look at the sky—particularly if it stuck out like the rock into the canyon—and then putting a roof over it. Voilà! Dream house.”