Custom Home of the Year
Guesthouses lead a charmed life. No garage to spoil the façade; no laundry room or kitchen storage to bollix the floor plan; all the glamour with none of the grunt work. So designing a great one should be a piece of cake, right? Well, maybe not. Ask John Murphey, the author of this tour de force guesthouse in New York's Dutchess County. For one thing, the Washington, D.C.-area architect explains, this specialized building type walks a deceptively difficult line. "A guesthouse has to serve a lot of functions. You don't know who's going to be there. They could be young or old. It could be two couples who don't know each other." And whoever the occupants may be, he believes, guest quarters should pamper them like royalty while purposely withholding certain amenities. "You don't want to make it too nice. You don't want your guests holing up there and not coming down to the main house." Clearly, Murphey has given the question a great deal of thought, and proof of his theories is amply on display here. An instant hit with our judges, this guesthouse is a model of functionality, clarity, and beauty. While the abbreviated guesthouse program freed Murphey from the constraints of a full-time residence, he took that as an opportunity to raise the standard that much higher for the quality of experience a guesthouse—or any building—can provide.
The project completes a farm-like estate with which Murphey has had an extended relationship. He was project architect—with the office of Hugh Newell Jacobsen—for the main house, which comprises a cluster of hip-roofed pavilions. Perched on a knoll above the main house, Murphey's guesthouse continues that theme, with a symmetrical trio of roof shapes: two for a pair of mirror-image bedroom suites and one for the central living space. The downhill view extends for miles, all the way to the Hudson River, without another building in sight. The living room drinks in the vista with a wall of glass that rises from a bleached oak floor to a 10-foot-ceiling. The ceiling cantilevers 5 feet beyond the exterior walls, providing a sense of shelter to the patio without the imposition of columns. Lit from below by interior and exterior sconces, the ceiling plane also serves as a hilltop beacon for the main house. "We purposely lit that thing so you could dim it up or down," Murphey says, "so you could have a nightlight up there."
The site's exposed perch presented challenges, however. "This building gets a lot of punishment," says Murphey, "so we kind of hunkered it down." The house turns its back to the Hudson Valley's harsh winter winds and drifting snow with a nearly windowless western elevation; it wears a waist-high limestone water table "like a big pair of boots, there to get messy." Retaining walls of locally quarried stone shelter the entry courtyard and terrace a steep downhill slope to the southeast.
Inside, a squeaky-clean simplicity reigns. The plan's BR nearly perfect symmetry and abbreviated palette of materials lend a calming quiet. Pared-to-the-bone detailing furthers the architect's minimalist aims, which he links to an image that contains no building at all. "We were setting the stage for a picnic," he says. "You really don't need much architecture for a picnic. We tried to keep our hand pretty much invisible." The deftness and assurance of the architect's hand were plain to our judges, however. They admired the building's simplicity and praised the design's "great restraint" in responding to an extraordinary site. Said one, summing up the matter, "It's a real classic."