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Litchfield County TimesHOME STYLIST IN SOUTH KENT by Kathryn Boughton
Pick up a real estate brochure or look at houses for sale online and you will find dozens of “Colonial” houses offered. In an area steeped in history, the cachet of an often-romanticized past lingers well into the 21st century, but few modern Americans, with their emphasis on technology, comfort and convenience would truly embrace the kinds of homes our forebears found elegant. Fewer still recognize the architectural differences among the kinds of homes built over the centuries in this country.

“Colonials sell,” observed Kent architect John Milnes Baker, who says that real estate agents sometimes call him to verify the style of a house going on the market, but then fall back on the allure of the Colonial past in their advertising blurbs. Mr. Baker, who is the author of two well-received books—How to Build a House with an Architect and American House Styles: a Concise Guide—says that many people refer to Victorian houses as a style. “But Victorian is not a style, it is an era,” he said, “and there are about eight styles associated with that era. Is the house a Queen Anne? Renaissance Revival? An Italian Villa? Gothic Revival? They are all part of what people think of as Victorian.” In his little review of architectural styles, Mr. Baker traces the evolution of American architecture from its roots in Europe. Each section of “American House Styles” begins with a historical overview of the period, followed by a concise commentary on each style. The author then highlights the specific design details that distinguish one style from another, using elevation drawings to illustrate the details clearly.

John Milnes Baker portraitHe notes that early Americans brought with them their building conventions, but soon adapted them to the American climate. In England, for instance, where skies are frequently overcast and temperatures cool, there was no need for a porch to shade the house from the driving American sun. Roofs, which were thatched in countries where wood was scarce and the weather milder, were covered with shingles in America, to better withstand the rigors of our winters. And, while America continued to draw on European models for the appearance of its homes—mimicking the Georgian homes of England as that style developed and moving on through the Greek Revival in the early days of our own Republic—truly indigenous styles also developed. “There are three indigenous styles I talk about in the book, the Craftsman, the Prairie and the Shingle style,” said Mr. Baker.

But all these styles are simply the envelopes that encase the interiors and Mr. Baker says that it is the function of the house that is the important factor when planning an abode. “The thing is, the average homeowner has no idea what an architect does,” said Mr. Baker as he sat at the island that separates the kitchen from the living room in the spacious South Kent home that he designed for himself and his wife, Liddy, when they moved from their previous home of three decades in Bedford, N.Y. He said an architect starts with a concept of how the house will be used and then designs a “partie,” explaining that the partie is “the acorn that becomes the tree.” “Mini-parties” are designed for each use of space in the house. “You have bubble diagrams for each space and then you create some kind of spine to connect them,” he said. “Architecture is made up of spaces that are linked together [in a logical way]” he said. “It has nothing to do with style.”

He recalled one client that he designed a house for who kept asking what style the building would have. He kept assuring her that it was the character of the house that was important rather than the imposition of a style such as Colonial or Cape Cod. “I said if you don’t have a good floor plan, you don’t have a good house.”

That night, he sat down and did four or five drawings of different style houses that would incorporate the floor plan he had devised for her, demonstrating that the exterior envelope had little bearing on what was inside. Indeed, in his “American House Styles,” he incorporates the same device, using the same interior layout—a simple, two-story house with four bedrooms—in his explanation of each historical style, from the steeply pitched roofs of Early New England Colonial houses to the turrets and grand porches of the Queen Anne style, to today’s Postmodern “multiple eclecticisms.” By starting each drawing with the same plan and adding the essential characteristics of each style, the architect ensures that the reader does not become confused by additions and later embellishments.

Understanding that the floor plan is of greatest importance, Mr. Baker said the initial meeting with a new client is dedicated to discerning the client’s needs and dreams. The first meeting may also include a visit to the site as the lay of the land could also dictate certain aspects of construction.

He used his own home in Kent as an example of the kind of things a client might bring to the table. Mr. Baker insists that he had always wanted a pub in his home and that was the first design element he addressed, complete with bar, pool table and glowing gascoals fireplace. The first - and second-floor living spaces, more traditionally, are designed for efficiency, comfort and flexibility for relaxations and work. “I built our home in Bedford 30 years before I designed this one,” he said. “By the time we were ready to move, our lives had changed—our children were grown and we didn’t care about the local school systems any more. When you are 60-plus and you get in the car to go for a drive, there are two things you talk about—where shall we live and who should we have over for dinner.”

But there were concrete considerations in planning for their new home, as well. Mr. Baker likes to sail and he didn’t want to be more than an hour from his sailboat. “And we had lots of friends in Bedford we wanted to keep in touch with,” he said. They looked into towns such as Roxbury and Cornwall before finding their current site in Kent. “I liked the ambient light,” he said. “I got topographic maps and placed the house. We bought the property in 2000 and every year [until we started to build] I kept coming up with plans. Then, on a plane flying into Shannon, Ireland, I had a blank piece of paper on my lap. By the time we landed, the plan had gelled. When I came home, it just kind of drew itself. Our kids have all said it is like the house in Bedford, only better, but my son said it is a good thing we didn’t have the pub when he was a teenager.” The house, large enough to accommodate visiting contingents of children and grandchildren, is, nevertheless, zoned to be energy efficient.

Liddy Baker said the final design started with the question, “Where do we live in the house?” The answer was, of course, in the kitchen and living room, so the first-floor design focuses on a flexible open space that combines the two functions. “It is possible to create contemporary houses that will never feed dated,” Mr. Baker said. “I think houses have to be flexible. For instance, we did not feel the need to have a formal dining room.”

He pointed to a table near windows that look out over the property. A table that he made, it can seat two or open to seat eight. By moving a couple of chairs in the living room, joining the table to another with the exact same width, and covering both with a table cloth, the couple can accommodate 20 diners with little fuss or fanfare.

Mr. Baker said that such flexibility in housing designs first appeared with the advent of early central heating when “very fluid open floor plans began to appear.” An architectural historian, Mr. Baker is no fan of many of the houses built in the latter decades of the 20th century and the early 21st century, however. “The McMansions are so God-awful,” he said. “I hope people will come down to more realistic design. Instead of showing off by being bigger than the neighbors, they should show off by building better than their neighbors.”

BACKGROUND | Mr. Baker was educated at Middlebury College and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. He specializes in residential design for both new houses and remodeling and is licensed in 12 states. His work has appeared in numerous architectural journals and three of his designs were among Better Homes and Gardens “Home Plan Ideas: Top Ten All-Time Favorites.” One of these houses, “an elegantly simple contemporary saltbox,” was featured as the “readers’ all time favorite.” He has taught courses on the history of the American house at The New School in New York City.

While he still pursues his career in his upstairs studio in the Kent house, his active mind is engaged by many other interests as well. Bitten by the genealogy bug long before it became fashionable, he published “The Baker Family and the Edgar Family of Rahway, N.J., and New York City” in 1971 and his home has become a depository for family relics as well as ephemera such as letters and diaries. He is also an avid folk singer, a predilection be shares with his 4-year-old granddaughter, Lilly. His love of music developed early and he recalls his own youth when he used to sit under the window of his neighbor, folksinger Richard Dyer-Bennett, to listen to his music.

“Later when I went to boarding school, I tried to join the glee club so I could go to dances,” he said, “but I didn’t know how to sing.” He got a guitar that he didn’t know how to tune, but by the time he took a college English class on popular ballads, he was sufficiently versed to offer to sing the songs for the class. He expanded his performances to include programs at camps and libraries, but during a summer of working on Cape Cod, his employer delivered a cautionary that settled his feet on the path toward architecture.

“I was working as a carpenter for a house builder in Wellfleet,” he said, “but I was singing nights in the Driftwood Room in Provincetown. Sometimes we would party all night long, and I would go to work the next morning without any sleep. Finally, my boss said I had to decide whether I wanted to be Frank Lloyd Wright or Burl Ives.”

He chose Frank Lloyd Wright, but his love of music has never ended. “I have kind of a loud, vulgar voice,” he quipped, “but I do have a memory for words.”

Recently he returned again on his annual excursion to Ireland where he took part in the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle in Donegal. “Each year they have eight so-called invited singers,” he said. “In 2003 I was invited. There is always a theme and the year I was invited it was Urban Ballads and Country Songs. I did a program of railroad songs.”

Published: Monday, April 26, 2010