A Modern New York Salt Box: Drawing on Colonial and Shaker Homes

A singer and a Broadway producer build a cutting-edge nontoxic home with Colonial and Shaker inspiration.

| November/December 2006

  • Fusing Shaker-style woodwork with sleek, stainless-steel appliances, the kitchen is uncluttered and elegant. “We prefer to keep it simple and healthy—without lots of gadgets or electronic devices,” Cathy says. “We have just three appliances: the refrigerator, stove and dishwasher—no microwave, toaster oven or coffee maker.” The wood countertop is from a maple felled during construction. “We decided to have it milled for sentimental reasons,” Michele says. “It’s nice to know the tree lives on in our home.”
  • Michele, whose father is an antique dealer, grew up loving the classic New England painted blanket chest that now sits in the living area. Above hangs a 19th-century folk-art Hudson River Valley landscape painting that the couple appreciates because of its childlike whimsy.
  • “Cathy and I agreed we wanted a living room, dining room and kitchen that flowed together, even though it’s not a historically accurate floorplan,” Michele says. Architect Dennis Wedlick created this open space with a ceiling that slants from 13 feet to 9 feet. Insulated, double-glazed windows and French doors let the couple appreciate views in a way upstate New Yorkers never could have 200 winters ago. Dramatic nighttime lighting is provided by a non-electric “candelier” over the dining room table and pendant lights made from rewired Victorian gas lampshades.
  • A Shaker chair, one of a set of four, was a cheap tag-sale find. Michele and Cathy refurbished the rotted wicker seats with supplies from the nearby Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York.
  • The home’s wood-burning fireplace warms the open living room in less than an hour on a wintry morning. Its soapstone surround stores radiant heat, much appreciated by Marguerite, who curls up on an antique rug from Michele’s childhood home.
  • Cathy Grier and Michele Steckler’s Columbia County, New York, home beckons visitors in from the cold. Endowed with the stateliness of a pair of saltbox houses, it also features more casual screened porches and terraces. The building is sited so it receives passive solar heat in winter and shading from the roof overhang in summer.
    Photos by Michael Shopenn
  • The Shaker-railed stairway climbs to the guest bedroom that Cathy uses as a music studio. The door leads to the home’s “sunset” porch, an ideal place for watching the ebbing colors of a wintry sky.
  • Although the homeowners usually come and go through a mud room off the kitchen, the formal entryway sets the tone for this elegant house. A pottery umbrella stand filled with walking sticks—handy for jaunts through the woods—directs visitors down the corridor to the airy living room.
  • An overstuffed red chair invites people into the cozy study. “This is our smallest room, and it’s a haven,” Michele says. “It’s the place one of us is likely to go for a nap.”
  • Cathy loves soaking in the reproduction clawfoot tub and gazing out the window. The house’s cabinetmaker, Don Keith, created the sink base from cherry wood. A storage space is tucked beneath the eaves.
  • Marguerite basks in the late-afternoon sun on an 18th-century rolled-arm loveseat, another family antique. The bedroom is shielded from electromagnetic fields, and a kill switch turns off all electricity in the room when the couple sleeps. n addition, the all-natural mattress is free of fire-retardant chemicals; linens are organic fibers. The antique, four-poster bed is fitted with a new headboard that expands it to queen size. Above, a colorful painting from Haiti depicts a local fruit market.
  • Homeowners Cathy Grier (left), a singer/songwriter, and Michele Steckler, a Broadway producer, relax with their griffon, Marguerite.

Four years ago, when Cathy Grier and Michele Steckler started dreaming about a home in upstate New York, they came up with a wish list that might have seemed unattainable to some—Michele desired a graceful, historic structure while Cathy wanted the airiness and sustainability of a modern home. With time, lots of research and some compromises, the couple now happily resides in a house that embodies both.

Set amid 15 acres of woodland and fields in Columbia County, south of Albany, the home could be mistaken at first glance for two historic houses bridged by a slope-roofed modern addition. In reality, its 21st-century architecture blends timeless, old-fashioned quality and new green technology—a creative mix, much like the residents themselves. Cathy, a modernist with a passion for a healthy environment, is a blues and folk singer/songwriter. Michele, who loves all things antique, is a Broadway producer who works with Disney Theatrical Productions on projects such as the stage versions of "The Lion King" and "Tarzan."

"I’m flattered when people ask whether this house is a renovation," says architect Dennis Wedlick, who designed the home to blend into the region’s historic architectural style. "Cathy and Michele wanted a house that was gentle on the environment and as healthy as possible, yet they wanted it to suit the landscape and the area’s rural flavor."

Wedlick designed two separate saltbox-style houses joined in an L shape by a contemporary, glass-enclosed living room/kitchen/dining room. (Saltbox architecture—named after Colonial salt-shipping tins with a similar shape—features asymmetrical roofs that slope from two stories to one.) The guest room, which doubles as Cathy’s music studio, is upstairs in one house with a study below; the master bedroom and bath are located in the other, above the kitchen and dining room.

The couple originally considered buying an old house but never found one that spoke to them. They decided instead to build with nontoxic, eco-friendly materials. When they discovered rural property overlooking scenic rolling hills, the two native New Englanders swung into building mode. "With time, I became as passionate as Cathy about healthy building," Michele says. "Truthfully, I’ve never looked back and wished we had bought an older fixer-upper."

Hardhat time

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