In late October of 2012, as Governor Dan Malloy was closing state highways, Governor Chris Christie was exhorting his constituents not to “be stupid,” and Governor Andrew Cuomo was shutting down the country’s most sprawling public transportation system all in advance of Superstorm Sandy’s landfall, Susan and Torben Weis entered a state of controlled panic. Residents of the idyllic yet vulnerable enclave of Willowmere in Riverside, they were worried about their house, situated on a half-acre lot nearly as close to Greenwich Cove as the law would allow. For six years, with their two children, the Weises had occupied their home, a shining example of building-envelope magic on the coast, courtesy of architect Chris Pagliaro of the South Norwalk firm now known as Pagliaro Bartels Sajda. They regarded the house as their vacation home—at home.
“This house is such a gift,” says Susan. “We wanted to maintain it.”
Winds had reached sixty-nine miles per hour. The Weises had taken all the furniture off the first floor and moved their cars up the street farther away from the water. With evacuation warnings sounding, cell phones ringing and more than one call to their architect, the family eventually sought refuge with neighbors whose house was on higher ground. A nervous energy and friendly bonding buzzed through the air. They watched as a neighbor’s refrigerator bobbed up at high tide from a garage filled with salt water, and saw angry flames engulf houses across the water in Old Greenwich. “A spark just caught,” says Susan. “The fires were terrible. You could smell them.”
At about midnight, the Weises returned home. What they found was that the gentle lap of waves out back had turned fairly ferocious, flooding the beach and clearing the stone wall to the backyard, tumbling over the lip of the pool, climbing up the back steps to the house, and eventually crashing into the crawl space. (They have no basement in keeping with flood-zone regulations.) But the water did not breach their home.
More than three years later, it’s no surprise that the Susan Weis is so generous with her praise of architect Chris Pagliaro, who says, “The concept of the house worked, through a combination of following FEMA requirements and also experimenting with materials.”
Measures like specifying French doors that swing out, rather than in, as is
common, says Pagliaro, provided more resistance to the wind and thus less of a chance that water would enter the house. Casement windows, rather than double-hung windows, achieved the same goal.
Though much of the landscaping was damaged or destroyed, the ceiling in the master bedroom was leaking and the chimney had come loose, by comparison to friends and neighbors, the Weises had been spared.
For a week, they were without power, yet they became a hub for the neighborhood. A few days in, they brought the furniture down from the upper level. They employed landscapers to replace or repair their plants and trees. Eventually they hired a diver to remove the salt from the freshwater pool so that it could resume its April 15 to October 15 season.
Indeed, the 4,100-square-foot structure, comprising of a circular core flanked by sections of various shapes oriented to point inhabitants toward what amounts to 200 degrees of viewing opportunities, was relatively undisturbed.
The design, which anchored the wall of kitchen appliances to the southeast, thereby editing out an adjacent building they preferred not to see, exhibits a deference to the striking panormaic views. Pagliaro says, “Too much architecture focuses on the formality of rooms instead of where the views are. The Weis house is an odd shape [in service of the view] that makes sense only where it is.”
Inside, the residence features the Pagliaro Bartels Sajda signature trim system, in which interior walls are paneled and painted white in a high-gloss finish that bounces light; and crown moldings, reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement, cap the walls in swoopy curves that appear to float beneath a ceiling of exposed beams. The beams are sawn planks of Douglas fir, bleached and stained to replicate the appearance of the sea-weathered cedar shingles on the exterior.
Another firm trademark employed throughout the house is the use of “light cages,” a design detail that adds light and scale via the perforation of interior column capitals with a four- or six-square motif (another signature) through which the light from a built-in fixture is transmitted.
Although the storm brought no direct hit to the interiors, they, like the exterior, have withstood the test of time, according to interior designer Susie Earls who says her original job was to marry Susan’s flowery side with the Danish Torben’s streamlined Scandinavian nature.
“The house is compact and yet it holds the family’s personality,” says Susie, whose firm, Susie Earls Design, is located in Southport. “It’s lived in, and it [contains] eclectic things.”
Chief among the personal touches Susie points to might be Susan’s colorful collection of abstract art, much of which hangs in a sun-splashed gallery-in-the-round on the second level under a two-and-a-half story ceiling; Torben’s gleaming nautical gauges mounted on a wall downstairs (he owns a shipping company); and the drapery system throughout the house, which riffs on a maritime theme—heavy, off-white linen draperies fitted with steel grommets and suspended from steel bars that recall the rigging and sails of a sloop at sea. Most notably, the fireplace surround features stones from the Danish coast where Torben spent his childhood.
Susie established the neutral palette—beige, taupe, gray, icy blue—with draperies, upholstery and floor coverings, and with furniture pieces such as the “disappearing” curvilinear kitchen table made in Italy from a maple that matches the floors, and the shiny chrome bar stools with white leather cushions that evoke the compartments of a luxury yacht.
The soothing atmosphere is accented with deft strokes of color and pockets of cool darkness. There is the art—Charles Hinman and Deborah T. Colter among the featured painters—red, green and blue candlestick holders and a vase from Murano adorned with braided glass, and the powder room, which is paneled as the interior of an exquisite yacht might be—alternating horizontal stripes of teak and holly. And then there is the study, a brooding, virile contrast to all the light and bright, where the family celebrates Christmas and where a scorched sunbather might seek comfort.
From behind the breakfast bar with the leather stools, Susan plays short-order cook, frying bacon and eggs—and pressing waffles to satisfy her son’s “obsession.” In addition to moonlighting in an apron, she has hosted poker and mahjong games, parties for Syracuse University and the United Way, and wine education and food pairing events for friends featuring an instructor from her family’s company, a wine marketer and importer of brands like Josh Cellars, Yellow Tail and, for many years, Georges Duboeuf. “There’s always a bottle of wine open in the house,” she says.
Without a basement, the design team met the necessity of wine-storage by tucking a tiny yet commodious glass-fronted wine cellar into a corner of the dining room. It features an automatic blackout shade that lowers during daylight hours to protect the bottles inside from harmful UV rays. In the evening, when the room is dimmed, the wine closet is lit to showcase the bottles.
The thirty-person July Fourth barbecue may be one of Susan’s favorite events because guests can watch the fireworks from Binney Park all the way down to Tod’s Point. The party, which sometimes includes a pizza truck, is in keeping with Susan’s status as an active member of the Willowmere Association. She not only oversees the beach but also organizes an annual cookie exchange and cocktail party. “It is a privilege to live here,” she says, a likely suspect in persuading her brother to move to Old Greenwich and her dad to relocate to Riverside.
“We see full moons across the sky; and when the sky gets funky, we know there will be a rainbow.” A rainbow at the other end of a stormy journey, and a wine glass in hand.