Photo © Michael Moran/OTTO

Genius Loci

Bates Masi Architects

Montauk, Long Island, New York

Out There: On one of Montauk's highest elevations, a beach house hugs the hill to make way for the views.

By Laura Raskin

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The eastern end of Long Island, New York, is famous for Modern houses by Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, and Gordon Bunshaft, among others. Each of these architects designed odes to the summer vacation early in their careers, their experiments encouraged by affluent clients and dramatic views characteristic of the area. The East End has been a summer colony since the late-19th century when, notably, McKim, Mead & White were designing Shingle Style cottages here. Stanford White's Montauk Association houses, built in the 1880s according to a site plan by Frederick Law Olmsted, are one famous example.

Montauk, New York's easternmost town, remains the Hamptons' scruffier sister. Its strange mix of high and low combines motels, diners, and beach shacks with Andy Warhol's estate. Rick Scanlon and Alicia Zarou Scanlon, a businessman and art dealer who live in Singapore with their two children, liked this funky juxtaposition. After years of renting in Montauk, they purchased a roughly 3½-acre site on a hill with views of the Atlantic, Lake Montauk, and Gardiners Bay. Then they turned to Bates Masi Architects, a Sag Harbor–based firm, to design a house that would combine the weather-beaten vernacular with Modernism.

The result, which the architects dubbed Genius Loci, is modest on first glance: two cedar-shingled ranch houses connected by a bridge. “We didn't want to be the big house on the top of the hill,” says Paul Masi, one of the firm's principals along with Harry Bates. Neither did the clients. Instead, the 7,000-square-foot house hugs one side of the hill, and its luxuries, of which there are many, reveal themselves slowly.

What appears to be two ranches actually is one wedge-shaped steel and wood-framed volume. Public and private spaces are separated by a 40-foot-long bridge. On the upper level of the main house, the architects placed the kitchen, dining room, and living room in the narrow end of the wedge with views of a meadow leading to the water. They took the traditional gabled roof and set the ridge off-center to focus the view outside. This spatial trick is underscored by floorboards that narrow gradually toward the west.

Masi and his team sank the lower level into the hill for a garage, laundry room, and maid's room. These are connected by a long hallway to a gym, guest room, and playroom. Living on a hill makes privacy an issue when the summer is in full swing, says Masi. Copious glazing in the house is balanced by creative screening, such as the tapered cedar boards that clad the bridge and clerestory windows on the lower level.

Since the Scanlons host numerous guests and parties in the summer, the architects wanted to create moments of discovery, with multiple points of entry to the house and landscape. One of the most dramatic: the bluestone bleacher steps set into the hill underneath the bridge. The surprise reward after the climb up is an expansive view of the meadow and water. Alternatively, from the parking area, visitors can mount another set of stairs to an outdoor fireplace, patio, and entrance.

In designing Genius Loci, Masi and his team thought about what makes Montauk “unexpected,” a word he repeats often about the place and the house. “Montauk has a certain sense of drama to it,” he says, as well as different weather phenomena. “All of a sudden it's socked in with fog, while it's sunny in Amagansett a few miles west.” Masi, 40, grew up on Long Island, and his parents have owned a kit house with no insulation in Montauk since 1965. Bates, 85, spent 10 years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill before establishing his own firm in New York City. He moved the firm to Southampton in 1980.

Masi worked for Richard Meier after college and began working for Bates while he was still at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He moved to Amagansett in 1998 to work for the firm full-time and became a partner in 2000. The firm's 10-person office focuses primarily on regional residential projects.

A rainy day didn't seem to temper Masi's enthusiasm for the town as he drove around the deserted marina in his sand-filled SUV, pointing out Ditch Plains, the scrappy beach famous for its surfing waves. “Besides choosing Bates Masi because of another house of theirs we saw, Paul is a local,” says Alicia Scanlon. “He'll put on his wetsuit on January 15 and go surfing. He gets it. He loves Montauk. I think that's ultimately why we chose the firm.” Scanlon, drawn back to Montauk because of her memories of childhood summers there, says, “The architects positioned the house so thoughtfully and cared about the views from all different angles and rooms. When I first walked into the house, I started to cry.”

Completion Date: July 2011

Size: 7,000 square feet

Total construction cost: Private

Bates Masi Architects
PO Box 510, 138 Main St
Sag Harbor, NY 11963

April 2012
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