A House by the Sea - Bunny Williams, Schafer Gil, Christian Brechneff, Angus Wilkie, Page Dickey, Jane Garmey, Roxana Robinson (2016)
I. PLANNING AND BUILDING
“We knew we wanted a house where we would really live outside, a house where the ocean breezes would blow through, and a house that would be a place in which we could gather our friends and family and entertain easily.”
PLANNING AND DESIGNING
When it came to planning our island retreat, John and I both knew we wanted a traditional, classic house. We also knew we wanted a house where we would really live outside, a house the ocean breezes would blow through, a house that would be a place in which we could gather our friends and family and entertain easily. Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta introduced us to Cuban architect Ernesto Buch, a most modestly understated and gentle man with perhaps the best eye for classical detail I have ever met. Ernesto worked for the great architect Allan Greenberg (who told me much later that he had never encountered anyone with a better eye for proportion and scale).John and I returned to New York giddy with excitement and went through every book we had on southern houses of the Mississippi Delta, a style of architecture we both adored.
Several months later, we met with Ernesto again in Punta Cana, arriving laden with pictures of our favorite houses and a description of what we dreamed of and how we wanted to live. We all walked the property, which I came to learn was a big hill of solid coral (la colina translates to “the hill”), and Ernesto immediately saw where the house should be placed. We went off to dinner and talked and talked about houses we loved, the three of us in complete agreement. The next day Ernesto appeared with a sketch of what he thought could be the basic plan of the house and his vision for the exterior. With some minor changes and a reduction of size, it was exactly what we had imagined.We spent that day refining the plan.
John’s greatest desire was to have a large high-ceilinged living room (he loves big furniture), so Ernesto sketched this in. He designed for it a beautiful tray (recessed) ceiling with a perfectly proportioned cornice. I added triple-hung windows—I had always loved the ones designed by Thomas Jefferson for Monticello—as these keep air moving through the house while avoiding the banging of French doors in a breeze, something I really dislike. (Triple-hung windows are ideal for high-ceilinged rooms: You can open them all the way and walk under them easily, or just open the top sash for circulation if it is a windy day.)
The planning phase was thrilling for me; I had done such planning often with many of my clients, but never just for John and me.
Ernesto went away and put all our ideas and dreams into actual plans for building the house. He returned several days later with a sketch of the almost-perfect house—which, with a few changes, became the final plan.
Building a house in the Dominican Republic is a truly unique experience, and one I came to love (despite many moments of chaos). There is a world of difference between the climate of New England (where we live) and that of Punta Cana. And when it comes to construction, there is also a world of difference between the methods, available building materials, and labor customs of the two countries. All these things we had to learn as we went along.
The first bit of confusion arose when we requested a cost estimate to compare to our budget for building the house. Junior Peña, our contractor (and Oscar de la Renta’s domino partner and friend), had never been asked for such an estimate before, and I immediately knew that his first calculation was far too low. Junior went off to refigure the costs, and when a more accurate budget was agreed upon, work began.
I went to Punta Cana every six weeks over the year and a half it took to build the house, growing more excited each time—and learning more about how construction on an island is done. First, I saw no toolboxes; everything was done by hand. Even cement was mixed manually on flattened cardboard boxes—I never once saw a mechanical cement mixer. One day I came in on a noon flight and arrived to find the site empty. Absolutely no one was around.When I finally opened the door to a guest room, I discovered all the workers taking a nap on the cool stone floor to escape the midday heat. On another trip, I noticed that a window had been installed in the wrong place. A comedy of errors ensued as I tried to explain the situation to the foreman, who looked at me in seemingly complete puzzlement. We searched high and low for the building plans, which didn’t seem to be in use or anywhere in evidence. We finally found them wadded up in a garbage bag in the proposed laundry room—all of Ernesto’s beautiful architectural drawings! (In fact, had it not been for Ernesto and his associate Javier, I have no idea what would have been built.)
When building a house, one has to consider carefully what each room will be used for and then make sure it is the correct size for its intended purpose. When we initially received the plans for the house, the first thing I did was draw up furniture plans for each room. I wanted king-size beds in the larger bedrooms and needed to make sure that each had a long enough “bed wall” with sufficient space for both the bed and ample bedside tables. For the smaller bedrooms in the pool house, queen beds and smaller bedside tables were in order. In every bedroom, I wanted the bed to face the view out the windows. I hate seeing beds in front of windows; I like to wake up and be able to look outdoors.
In the tropics, room planning extends to the exterior of the house, too. Porches are used as outdoor rooms, so I had to make sure all the porches we were going to build were big enough for outdoor living. The loggia off the living room had to accommodate sofas and chairs as well as big chaises facing the view for reading. The west porch would have to be big enough for a large dining table and be able to double as a dining room and entertaining space, too.
We considered the tropical climate constantly. Everything in the house had to accommodate both heat and high humidity. In addition to refrigerators, we made space off the kitchen for a “cold room”—an air-conditioned food pantry that would keep dry goods and vegetables fresh. To prevent mildew, our large linen/storage closet needed year-round air-conditioning, too. For holidays and entertaining, we wanted to make sure we had a large enough laundry room to handle sufficient towels, sheets, and linens (as well as summer clothing) for a houseful of guests. The laundry also had to have large storage closets for lightbulbs, candles, paper and cleaning products, and other such bulk purchases. I confess, I love having a well-appointed laundry room. I almost would rather have a large laundry—where I can also cut and arrange flowers for the house—than a big dining room. It is amazing how much time I spend in it.
“When building a house, one has to consider carefully what each room will be used for and then make sure it is the correct size for its intended purpose.”
A lot of our planning centered on the materials we would use for the building itself. The walls were to be traditionally constructed using concrete block with stucco exteriors and plaster on the interior. The roof was to be made of Spanish terra-cotta tiles.
We wanted to use local materials throughout the interior. We specified the Caribbean coral stone Coralina (the most beautiful fossil stone ever) for all the terraces and floors (except for two guest bedrooms), showers, walkways, and the walls connecting the inside to the gardens. For bathroom floors, I went to a factory in Santo Domingo that did wonderful copies of the colorfully painted concrete tiles used on the floor of Dominican houses in the nineteenth century. The factory had all the old patterns, and one could choose from many colors. Once the tiles were installed, the floors would look as though they had been well preserved for ages; the backgrounds of the tiles vary, as though they have been painted by hand.
And it is this handmade quality that gives La Colina its magic. When you study the details, you see the craftsmanship throughout: in the columns, which are not cast but have been built up by hand, layer by layer. Even the huge building cornices are run into place with knives cut specially to follow Ernesto’s perfect proportions.
Though the house is now finished, I sometimes long for those trips made in the heat of summer to visit the construction site, watching the wonderful craftsmen at work and seeing La Colina come alive. The designing and building of a house is a thrilling time, one I miss.
“Since the house would be built on this hill, the highest point in Corales, we would call this house ‘La Colina.’”
“We fell in love with a dream. The dream was to build a house from scratch—our house—that would be everything we wanted.”
“In the breezeway at La Colina is a long Anglo-Indian bench stacked with straw hats and caps . . . ready for a trip to the shore.”
“A setting that is geared toward comfort and delight.”
“The design situated the main living spaces on the second floor—the piano nobile—to take advantage of dramatic views and to cool the principal rooms with ocean breezes.”
“It is this handmade quality that gives La Colina its magic.”
“Presents from friends (like this exquisite ceramic fruit from Clare Potter) remind me of how much their friendship means to me every time I look at their gift.”
ARCHITECTURE BY GIL SCHAFER III
You learn a lot about someone’s approach to life through a visit to their house. This is particularly true when you stay with Bunny and John at La Colina. But you also learn some wonderful lessons there about how architecture can interact with nature and decoration to create a truly magical experience, especially when the sorcerers-in-charge are those two remarkable hosts.
My first visit to La Colina was in the spring of 2005, when the house was in its adolescence. As the gardens were only just beginning to take shape, you could see clearly all the architectural elements—almost nakedly—and how they were laid out in relationship to one another. Having that experience as a reference point has given me some powerful insights into what the essential elements of a memorable place are and the importance they play in one’s whole experience of it. Seeing La Colina in those early days helped me understand that, while architecture is the framework for your experience there, it ultimately takes a backseat to everything else—and that is precisely as it should be.
“The eye is constantly rewarded with framed views and the promise of the discovery of something new and wonderful at every turn.”
Ernesto Buch designed the buildings. Ernesto is a remarkably talented (and remarkably self-effacing), Cuban-born classicist working between New Haven, Connecticut, and the Dominican Republic. I first met him when I was a student at Yale and he was an architect in the office of Allan Greenberg. At the time, he was designing a spectacular, Lutyens-inspired house, and I was amazed that it was still possible to build something of such grand, confident classicism in 1985. When, ultimately, Ernesto went off on his own, to design houses for Oscar de la Renta, John Richardson, and others, I began to see him as a kind of latter-day Palladio. His work showed that master’s elemental strength and simplicity—as well as that of the English Georgian style—and a scale and grandeur that is much more European than American. Needless to say, his Latin and Anglo-Caribbean sensibility made a perfect match for the tropical setting of de la Renta’s Punta Cana home. And it’s no surprise that Ernesto’s sensibilities were an equally successful match for Bunny and John.
What I love about the architecture at La Colina is that it is not at all showy. It doesn’t have too many tricks up its sleeve, and those you do discover are subtle and powerful. As a design, it is content to be bold in scale, elegantly proportioned, and detailed without unnecessary complexity. The eye is constantly rewarded with framed views and the promise of the discovery of something new and wonderful at every turn.
Among Ernesto’s architectural “moves” at La Colina, I have a few favorites. There is the strong, quirky shape of the main house roof, a nod to Drayton Hall outside Charleston, South Carolina, and suggested by Bunny to break up the impact of the home’s great scale. The exquisitely proportioned garage studio, with its Dutch gambrel hipped roof, greets you upon your arrival. A pair of stately, beautifully detailed gate piers frames the central axis through the entry courtyard. The kink in the axis of the pool and pool house, off the orthogonal of the main house, gives appropriate complexity and visual interest to the relationship between the two structures. And the wonderful way the columns of the pool-house portico, which reminds one of Inigo Jones’s church in Covent Garden, come right down to the water’s edge allows you to sit beside those great big stucco shafts with your feet in the pool.
None of this would matter, of course, without what Bunny and John have brought to the mix. Their partnership is all the more poignant because of their common passion for decoration and gardens, as well as for aesthetic points of view that are so clearly in sync. It’s great fun to watch them go at it with such gusto there, unfettered by the constraints of a client’s wish list or the fear of failure. Best of all, they have made their house a place that celebrates the joy of life and the restorative value of comfort and hospitality. There are numerous places to hide away and read or take a nap at any time of the day; there are delightful and varied places to gather for a drink or a meal; in the guest rooms, you find perfectly appointed bathrooms and dressing rooms, each with ample closet space, mountains of towels, and often a tub and a shower; and throughout the house are all those windows and doors with classic jalousie louvers (coupled with raised panel interior shutters) that give you maximum flexibility to control both light and breezes. Bunny, John, and Ernesto created a setting that is geared toward comfort and delight, and there isn’t a single disappointing corner in the house.
“As a design, it is content to be bold in scale, elegantly proportioned, and detailed without unnecessary complexity.”
It’s not always easy for an architect to sit back and let someone else do the talking, but Ernesto has done so masterfully at La Colina. Knowing that his collaborators would bring such richly articulated layers of their own to the project, he was content to make a handsome frame for the picture of living well that has been so memorably painted by Bunny and John. You end your visit there inspired by their approach to celebrating all that is beautiful in life and committed to living even just a little bit better when you get back home . . . not to mention hoping for an invitation to return next year!
“You learn . . . how architecture can interact with nature . . . to create a truly magical experience.”