Beyond Modern and Traditional

Every Merrell House Tells A Story
The house offers long views toward the ocean from the second floor living areas and the third floor office and roof deck. Below, James Merrell pauses during a recent visit. Durell Godfrey Photos

Even years later, James Merrell likes nothing more than returning to the houses he designed.
Stepping inside a Sagaponack oceanfront house one recent afternoon, Mr. Merrell, its architect, didn’t focus on anything he might have done differently. Rather, he thought back to the time when the glass-and-granite house was taking shape, and even farther, to when it was only lines scratched on a piece of paper. He also thought about the neccessary decisions that swallowed up the better part of two years — from 2008 to 2010.

“I like going back to places. There are discoveries here that took a very long time,” Mr. Merrell said as he stood on the upper deck, looking out across the wetlands and ocean to the horizon. “You discover something in every project you didn’t know before.”

 Mr. Merrell said each of his houses takes on a story of its own. At Sagaponack, the story was “cracking the villa,” or juxtaposing a modern, upside-down beach house with Villa Emo, a grand estate designed in the 16th-century by the famed Italian Andrea Palladio. Needless to say, Mr. Merrell had his work cut out for him.

For Mr. Merrell, words are important. They’re also a frequent source of frustration. He finds contemporary architecture grossly polarized into modern and traditional. “Everything with a pitched roof and shingles is traditional and everything with a flat roof is modern,” he said. “I wanted to create an ambiguity, or a tension between these two concepts.”

 Mr. Merrell holds architects to blame for the absence of new, widely held descriptive language. “It’s always the first thing a client says, that they want something really modern or they don’t want something really modern. Then they quickly start talking about numbers or bedrooms.”

Walking through the new house in Sagaponack on a steamy day in late June, Mr. Merrell was struck first by the bright afternoon light. “These are the things you try and think about beforehand,” he said, noting the golden geometric patterns that had formed on the walls. “But seeing them in action really helps you think about the next house.”

When beginning the project, Mr. Merrell wanted to build a house for Jeffrey and Samira Sine that didn’t compete with the natural beauty of its surroundings. “It’s a question of the ego of the house. To what degree is the architect calling your attention to the house and to what degree is the architecture drawing your view out instead?”

Still, the Sagaponack house, at 7,000 square feet, cuts a striking figure. Standing out front, crepe myrtles flank a staircase made of dry-stack granite blocks. Twenty steps later, one enters the house on the second floor, which has an open kitchen, living and dining rooms, and the master bedroom and bath. The upside-down organization, with five bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor, allows maximum exposure to the view from the living areas.

Because the house is right at sea level, a basement was not permissible; the third floor contains a small office with an adjoining deck and hot tub. The interior is largely of white oak that has been fumed with ammonia, a finishing technique that darkens wood without adding extra pigment. Because the light in glass houses can be severe, Mr. Merrell designed rolling, wall-sized mahogany shutters for shade.

Mr. Merrell relocated to the South Fork nearly 25 years ago with dreams of someday designing such a house. A white, futuristic three-bedroom house from the 1964 New York World’s Fair is across the wetland. It is listed on VRBO, a real estate website, for rent at $1,964 a night.

“Clients here are interested in architecture as opposed to building houses,” he said. “There aren’t many communities that support that kind of creative architectural expression.” The South Fork’s proximity to Wall Street — and its six-figure year-end bonuses — also helps. Though Mr. Merrell takes on projects costing between $600 to $2,000 per square foot, he said he always searches for clients willing to undertake an open-ended exploration. He considers his work “unavoidably personal” and not for the faint of heart.

“Designing and building a house can be one of the most open-ended, wonderful, frightening experiences of self-expression that you can have in your life,” he said. “Most people it will scare the pants off of. It’s so frightening. Ultimately, the process becomes a mirror and it’s a question of whether you’re willing to look into it.”

Mr. Merrell, who is called Jim, is 59, cerebral, and slight of stature. He generally wears slim cut jeans, pastel button-down shirts, and leather loafers and often talks about the East End’s architectural history. His Sag Harbor office was formerly Thomas Harris’s studio, where he wrote “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Over the past five years, Mr. Merrell has seen a resurgent interest in modern houses, with younger clients, in particular, hoping to avoid duplicating the more traditional places they grew up in. “We live in such a complicated society and minimalism expresses a sort of ideal simplicity,” he said. “They don’t want complicated ornamentation. They want to retreat to their Zen box.” On the other hand, he has also been called on to rehabilitate traditional houses.

Mostly, he designs second (and third) vacation homes. “When I think about houses here, I think of them in contrast to people’s main houses or apartments, and that this experience should be different from, speak to that other side of themselves,” he said. Many of his clients have an idealized notion of a weekend house as a place where family and friends converge in a natural setting, away from the worries of work and the stresses of daily life, he said.

As an undergraduate, Mr. Merrell studied history at Trinity College in Connecticut. Two years later, he received a master’s degree from the Yale School of Architecture. Some architects live in what he describes as an “architecture bubble,” while he believes having had a liberal arts education — particularly, his exposure to philosophy, history, poetry, and language — was critical.

Born in Indianapolis, to a family that moved into Philadelphia’s Main Line, Mr. Merrell said their summer home near Petoskey, Mich., which was built at the turn of the last century, was a “storybook house,” one with magic in it. “It’s one of the things that inoculated me from a purely modernist educational training,” he said. “There are wonderful things about old houses.”

Since 1991, Mr. Merrell and his wife, Susan Scarf Merrell, a novelist, have lived in a pitched-roof house of his design just outside the Village of Sag Harbor. They have two grown children, Maggie, 23, who recently graduated from Cornell University, and Jake, 19, who just finished his first year at Bard College. A decade ago, the couple bought a three-and-a-half-acre parcel, which included wetlands, on North Haven. It’s been empty ever since. After every big storm, Mr. Merrell goes to check on it, surveying the damage and making sure the marshland is still intact.

In much the same way that the second homes of his clients allow them to create fantasies of an ideal life, Mr. Merrell has an image of the house he would build on North Haven. But there is a difference of opinion with his spouse. While he envisions glass and high ceilings and a flat roof, he said his wife prefers “cozy, confined spaces” surrounded by a million books. “She wants me to hire an architect.”

Sitting on the shaded, downstairs patio in Sagaponack, with ocean waves crashing in the background, he said, “Building that ideal is a commitment. Ultimately, every house is a responsibility. At some point, you have to go and cut the grass.”

Crepe myrtles flank a 20-step staircase made of dry-stack granite blocks.
A steep staircase leads to the ground floor. Right, recliners face the ocean in the master suite.
Rolling mahogany shutters help modulate sunlight at the rear of the house.
The family room, adjoining the kitchen, looks out over wetlands.
A fire pit can be lighted for outdoor comfort on chilly nights.
In the kitchen, gold-leaf glass tiles reflect sunlight throughout the day.
Durell Godfrey Photos