Positively West Fourth Street: Cozy Architect Couple Says Pshaw to Postmodernism

While New York goes about its modernist business these days, slamming into glassy walls, over on 183-5 West Fourth Street sits a most unusual house. What is this place? There are no Barcelona chairs, no rough pillows with blue and brown squares. Only a bust of Diana with a moon on her head, a very large looking glass, heavy silk drapes, all inside two adjoining red brick houses with a rose arbor over the door sitting between the street’s tattoo parlors and gummy water pipes. Who lives here? Architects Anne Fairfax and Richard Sammons, who basically think that the wild growth of glass towers in the city are merely weeds.

Sitting in the somewhat Lutyens-style double-height living room and sipping water out of beaten silver mint julep cups, they were asked where they got their raspberry silk sofa, the kind that looks as though it were in a room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “At auction,” moaned Ms. Fairfax, fiercely rolling cat hair off the couch’s arm. “Mother had a terrible fire, just when we were to furnish our home. So we have really nothing.”

The authentic is terribly important to Ms. Fairfax, originally from Virginia, then Hawaii, and her husband and business partner, Mr. Sammons, West Virginia and Ohio, both in their 40’s. So too are the glorious architectural achievements of the past. To turn one’s back on human history, as the cold, flat-walled crowd might, is “foolish, and antihumanist,” they say. Their clients believe the same, many of them in Florida and Connecticut—one with a house on 600 acres, with a custom gun cabinet; and then there are all the renovations of townhouses and Park Avenue apartments for Manhattan celebrities: Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Liv Tyler, scandal-plagued news baron Conrad Black, playwright John Guare and his wife, Adele Chatfield-Tayler, president of the American Academy of Rome, who likes the character of Fairfax’s and Sammons’ residential work so much she wrote the introduction to their book by Mary Miers, American Houses: The Architecture of Fairfax & Sammons (Rizzoli, 2006).

Leafing through their book, with its range of Jacobean, Italian Rustic, Neo-this and Neo-that styles and the kind of houses that look nice with snow on the roof, shadows of branches on the lawn—houses with billiard rooms, flower rooms and boot rooms, and also Jeffersonian loggias, occuli, corner porches, Chippendale fretwork, octagonal rooms, Mount Vernon floorboards and Doric order for the chimney—it came to mind, with a shudder, that Fairfax and Sammons might be postmodernists (a word with 20 different meanings, in this case historically vampiric time travelers). “Absolutely not,” Mr. Sammons said.

“We never accepted modernism in the first place,” said Ms. Fairfax. “‘Modernist’ usually means ignoring or rejecting the lessons of the past which have developed building techniques that celebrated the tectonics of building. How many fabulous cornices have you seen in your life?”

Madly trying to remember.

“They serve a real purpose by shedding the water away from the building.” In modernism, in which the cornice is seen as a useless ornament—“one is left with a dirty stain.”

Mr. Sammons teaches at the New York-based Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, which he co-founded in 1992. Ms. Fairfax is chairman of the board. Members of the design world are showing up at lectures with ever-increasing frequency, they say. “They’re not the phony ones of the 80’s,” said Mr. Sammons. “They can tell the difference between Ralph Lauren and the real.”

The couple, who met at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, lived in a 265-square-foot apartment on Bank Street for 10 years while building up their practice, with a 30-person office on Gansevoort Street in the meat-packing district and another in Palm Beach. When they bought the West Fourth Street place in 2000, it was “at least one level lower than Section 8 housing on the interior,” Ms. Fairfax said; virtually every surface had to be redone.

But the double house came with even more layers of history than the usual New York building. The 1880’s house on the left was a stable to the house behind it, and was later lived in by landscape architect Annette Hoyt Flanders. On the right was a sculpture studio of the designer of the Pierce-Arrow hood ornament. This was 1919, during high bohemia in the West Village, when everyone was up all night doing who knows what. Both were purchased in the 1920’s and joined together by Armand Hammer as his New York residence. No relation to Arm & Hammer baking soda—though he bought a large number of shares in later life—the late Mr. Hammer was a collector, industrialist and exporter of pharmaceuticals and inexpensive pencils to the Soviet Union. “He was nuts,” Mr. Sammons said. “His own aesthetic was absolutely the cheapest possible stuff, parquet floor …”

“A vinyl base,” Ms. Fairfax sniffed.

Off the double-height living room was a secret room: “the Black Pearl,” the couple calls it, painted a smooth black-blue with white trim, like an officer’s coat; a room that hardly anyone wants to leave, they said, especially after cocktails. When the shutters to West Fourth Street are closed, not a sound comes through.

“People need shutters,” Ms. Sammons said. “Not double-paned windows.” Positively West Fourth Street: Cozy Architect Couple Says Pshaw to Postmodernism