Story by John Torsiello
One might call it a “house on a hill,” but the dwelling off Maple Street in the Milton area of Litchfield is more than that. It is, indeed, a work of art.
The “Marsters House,” as the home is referred to, is viewed as an important and rare example of the “platform house” design of Edward Larrabee Barnes, one of the preeminent early modernist architects of the 20th century. Completed in 1953, the subtly beautiful Marsters House has survived with very modest changes and is a wonderful homage to the skilled work of Barnes. Originally conceived for Ted (a classmate of Barnes at Harvard) and Kathy (sister of Rufus Stillman and a patron of Marcel Breuer on multiple Litchfield homes) Marsters, the house sits on a grid of rectangular indoor and outdoor rooms.
Barnes graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 1942, studying under Breuer and Walter Gropius. Barnes founded his own firm in 1949 and had a prolific career until his passing in 2004, as both a practitioner and teacher of architecture (Harvard, Pratt and the University of Virginia). He is well known for his design of art museums around the country, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Dallas Museum in Texas. His residential work, including a “platform house” design of his personal residence, was the subject of a recent exhibit at the Katonah (New York) Museum of Art, which he also designed. The American Institute of Architects awarded him the AIA Gold Medal, its highest honor.
The property consists of 9-plus acres and has many original details still in use, including a white concrete pool and a standalone four-car garage, the latter emulating the home, which was designed to blend in with a natural environment that includes gardens and large trees.
Original interior features include cork flooring, a heated slate floor living room, cabinetry, shelving and a dining table designed by Barnes for the house. In 2015 the house was featured on a Docomomo tour of Litchfield modernist buildings. The organization documents and preserves buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern art movement.
“We were very excited and honored to work with the owners of this property to find the next steward of the Marsters House. It’s an authentic midcentury work which is important to both our community and the design world at large,” said Stacey and Pels Matthews, principals of The Matthews Group at William Raveis Real Estate, who listed the property, which sold for $1.4 million. “We also love that it’s a lived-in house – not a museum – and will reward the next occupant with its fabulous layout and style as either a full-time or weekend home.”
According to the book “Litchfield: The Making of a Town,” the platform house was designed to establish a functional indoor-outdoor relationship. The permeating idea was to extend the building’s foundation, the footprint, if you will, to support a kind of platform that functioned as a “terrace without walls.” The Marsters House is designed in a Z-shaped pattern in which Barnes “pivoted” two narrow wings around a large slate paved living area that includes a grand masonry fireplace, the stones of which are believed to have come from Roxbury.
The home’s foundation sits in a rectangle of green space with an interlocking pattern of paved walkways and squares of lawn. Mary Barnes, who was an architect as well as a decorator, imbued the interior space with unique furnishings by noted contemporary furniture makers, including streamlined chairs by Danish designer Hans Wagner and upholstered pieces by Knoll International, a trendsetter in textile design. As mentioned above, a dining area of the home still contains a sleek table designed by Barnes that gives off the impression of the bottom of a boat.
The Marsters home was owned by the Swomley family, Bruce and Emily, for 19 years. A visitor was invited in to see firsthand Barnes’ brilliance in detail, he creation of a warm, light space that is architecturally clean, functional and open. Also on display is Barnes’ noted ability to merge the inside with the outdoors. The formal living room was impeccably furnished by the Swomleys. The interior décor of the home was chosen by the owners so as to work in synergy with the modernistic stylings of the architect.
When the house was built in the early 1950s, the tall maples, pines and specimen trees, including a gorgeous copper beach, were not on the property. Rather, they were planted to frame the home, the maples acting as natural Romanesque columns that serve to offer a sense of serenity, security and permanence to the home and its landscaping.
The living area, with its bluestone floors, has large windows and sliding doors and offers views of the open fields of nearby Bunnell Farm. Another side of the home, which sits at an elevation of around 1,100 feet above sea level, faces southeast, and when the trees shed their leaves in late autumn, the views open up to the hills some 10 to 15 miles in the distance.
“We are sitting in the inside living area,” said Bruce Swomley, “and beyond the windows is the outside living area, just as Barnes designed it to be. The home features radiant heat but much of the interior, because of its positioning, is warmed even in the winter by ample sunlight that streams in, with the large trees cooling the interior during the warmest days.”
A walkthrough of the home displays Barnes’ brilliance in creating spaces that are interconnected but also offer privacy. A dining area with pleasing robin eggshell blue walls, features the aforementioned Barnes table and sweet views of the outside. The room leads directly into an ample kitchen, which in turn flows easily into a long walk way that takes one to the bedroom wing. Much of the cabinetry, shelving and closet spaces were built into or tight to the walls of the interior so as to conserve on space and prevent visual distractions. A cool little Barnes twist was to place in each bedroom a corkboard that could be used for variety of reasons. Each aspect of the home has a purpose and function, yet is not utilitarian in any way.
The 3,500-square-foot home, the red doors of which contrast exquisitely with its cypress siding painted black (there is also some stone exterior), sits within a stone wall that forms an island oasis.
“Barnes built the stone wall, then sited the home inside it,” said Swomley. “All the trees were planted with a purpose, and we did very little to the home, except to turn one bedroom into a pantry and laundry area. This was a wonderful home to raise a family in and we will miss it.”