Tag Archives: hip and hidden

I Got Rhythm

context viewA townhouse, from 1860, was torn down on this site, which then became a vacant lot. In 1957, Metal Masters Company Inc. erected a one-story building for the manufacture and storage of toys – Herman H. Kline was the architect of record for the steel, wood and corrugated structure. In 1972 the then-vacant warehouse was demolished and in its stead was built this three-story, single-family dwelling with garage, by Nick James Chimes & Associates.

Simple and yet not so simple, unique in form but, in its use of brick and dark green trim, referential to its 19th-century rowhouse contextual neighbors. There is an architectural rhythm to the facade and, compared to its neighbors, an unusual balance of space.

in situ


Each story of the house has its own ratio of positive to negative space: the long, narrow, vertical windows with openings the same width as the spaces between them create a second story as a colonnade; the first-floor openings line up with those above, but having only two spaces creates the illusion of piers at the ground level; and the third story is recessed almost into nonexistence for a set-back deck with a single-plank railing, resembling a cornice, giving a narrow building on a narrow lot a wider feeling.

The minimal decoration between floors is a brick banding that enhances the horizontality as well. There is a playing with space – the openings are not just functional openings, but design. The language spoken here is architecture, giving us not just a practical building but a building with design intelligence, structural and subtle, not trying to be more than what it is but doing it in a very appropriate and sensible way.

facade view


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James Rose, a landscape architect, chose a neighborhood in a far northern part of the Garden State to build his nature/nurture opus in 1953. Ridgewood, New Jersey, originally a village, became an upscale suburban enclave in the early 20th century.


Situated on a relatively tiny corner parcel is Rose’s experimental vision, an intermingling of manmade and nature, structure and plant life – all looking as if they have grown together into one new hybrid species of manufactured materials and native ones – a kind of RoboPlot.

So hidden, on first viewing the property from the street, we thought it was an abandoned site since it appeared overgrown and indistinct as a recognizable house and yard, especially in comparison to the coiffed neighboring lots: the usual suspects of small-scale British-style country estates on half-acre lots. The thing is, the other properties are the ones out of place; it’s just that they are the majority.


Rose was influenced by Asian design, and the openness of the house to the garden makes you think that you are in Oahu rather than New Jersey, the overall effect of his efforts is a bit surreal and theatrical with a blurring of the edges of where nature begins and built environment ends, because the two are so inextricably linked in this domicile.

It’s such a pleasant surprise, a gift in an otherwise cookie-cutter environment; the small lush estate has a playful seriousness, a fascinating use of building materials and the magician’s hand when it comes to a happy merging of architecture and landscape. His sense of space and how to use it is impressive because, after walking in and out of the house and garden, you feel that it is a much larger place than it really is. And his pipe-dream-made-solid does achieve a true and improbable balance. Hip hip hooray!

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A most hip and hidden house can be a house that was never intended to be lived in. Teahouses have a function but not for dwelling in the sense of sleeping. A teahouse is a respite from the world, a place of refreshment and harmony. It is often hidden in the woods and is a small, simple space. It can take many forms but it has essential characteristics of Japanese wooden-house architecture, built specifically as a place for the mind to be freed from worldly cares. Its simplicity, its small scale, its thoughtful arrangement of space, light and design, make it programmatic on the one hand and, on the other, an aesthetic object to be revered.

This teahouse, at the Humes Japanese Stroll Garden, on Long Island, N.Y., is magical. As you meander through the hillside moss garden, encountering stone steps, steep grades and compelling overlooks, one of your final destinations is the teahouse. It is diminutive, geometric, beckoning – much like a folly or gazebo in a European landscape. But it has a higher purpose, as a spiritual way-station, a place of contemplation. Its grids and formal shapes structure your experience; and, yet, there is something freeform and suggestive about its feel, its textures calm and welcome: an empty vessel to be filled by whomever encounters it.

O, that residential architecture were so loaded with feeling as this teahouse is. This one is generous in its interaction with its site, welcoming and embracing the landscape around it and adding a bit of style and simple geometry to its natural world. It is a perfect pairing of natural and manmade, contrast and conjunction, yin and yang.

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Sometimes there is a generalized bowing to a specific style. This alteration, refaced in 1954 by Pepper Associates, replaced the brick front wall in a joining of two 19th-century rowhouses, now four bays wide. In 1959 this was a two-family residence, but in 1994 it became a single-family with a deck added by the husband-wife design build firm, Foster-Willson.

Dark turquoise paned windows and iron balcony, Japanese-style shoji-screen wooden entry door covered by a copper roof with wooden brackets – this is a quiet design, and modest … and snazzy. The effect is aided by the perfect natural elements: a less than straight tree, a stone slab rendering an entry porch, a cloud-like foundation planting that one might see pictured in an Edo-period scroll painting. It is a simple alteration in a simple style, a kind of “Japonism” applied to urban architecture, embellishing a plain building. It is, also, a perfect enhancement that does not overwhelm the adjacent houses.

New ownership altered the design making a vague gesture toward Georgian-Federal styles: its entry now a simplified pediment and pilasters, new panel door, black painted shutters; sacrificing all the hipness to create a faux standard issue in the cradle of democracy. Lost, too, are the cloud-like shrubs, replaced by black-box window planters. Hard to imagine why. The tree may go next, erasing all the Asian traces. Sayonara.

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Outback in the City

Our Hip & Hidden credo is that we focus on residential architecture; one reason being that commercial buildings, by their very nature, are invested in attracting attention. In this instance we are on a fence of sorts. This original building was residential and is now a school and performance venue. Given its history, its life has had full and varied use as well as design influences.

This striking facade is actually a rear addition, on a narrow back street, among 19th century carriage houses that are now dwellings. The Second Empire main building, which faces onto another larger street – and which is what most passersby see – was a house built in the mid- to late-19th century by Furness, Evans & Co.; the interior underwent a few renovations by Furness & Hewitt as well as Hewitt & Hewitt, who added a decorative music room in 1902-03. After a makeshift stage was added in 1938 this complex property became the Academy of  Vocal Arts, and has housed a theater and school of vocal training for more than 65 years.

A two-story rear addition by architects McCauley/Sperr in 1981, then Otto Sperr Associates in 1982-83, allowed for partial demolition of an existing garage structure and created a professional chamber theater with stage lighting, comfortable seating and a performance space large enough for a 30-piece orchestra. And the result is this fascinating rear facade: a Postmodern stucco and tile structure with a jutting bay and double porthole doors (that parody the standpipes to their left). 

What draws the curious and intelligent eye are the points of green, the sly reference in its shape to the surrounding houses that are in normal scale with the street, and the opening at the top that lets one “see through” the building. All these elements try to deflect the mass and scale of the addition. The roofline shape is mimicked in the bookending gates, returning one’s focus back to a more human-scale street level.

Almost seditiously out of place among its staid and conservative neighboring structures, it refers directly to the backstage door of Art Deco movie palaces. Not only does it house a stage and sets, but also there is something stage-setty about it itself, something almost illusionistic (very Potemkin Village-y). Within its formality it is far-out. For what it is, and where it is, it didn’t need to have been so clever, but it is that sort of quietly bold thinking that not only typifies the architect but which also makes Philadelphia a hip and hidden haven of risk takers.

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Keeping an Eye Out

There is something eye-like about this cyclopean porthole that draws our own eyes to it – we stare, it stares back – as if the house were wearing a monocle. Yet, it’s not easy to see. In fact, you have to be walking past a certain downtown church, and gaze across its parking lot, because this place can best be seen from the lot; the house hovers above it, and just beyond it, separated by a tiny street. There is a sense of unreality about it, as if it were one of the trompe l’oeil murals that are painted over old building walls.

Not exactly the rose window at Chartres Cathedral, but similar, at least in scale, this circular light is the dominating feature of a renovation made to the back of a mid-1800s rowhouse. The entire building was converted from one- to four-family in 1951, creating a separate unit in the rear of the building which architect John C. Kohlhas, in the late 1980s, altered from one story to two – presumably adding the window at that time. The structure sticks out like a lighthouse, or like a castle tower sitting high on a hill, overlooking its domain … which happens to be churchgoers’ cars.

It is graphic, planar, vectored: the deck above with horizontal railing, the slashing angles, the notches. The roof lines seem to be at opposite angles to the railing but the rail almost seems to hold the pieced house together, finding a balance, a rhythm. It’s a lesson in geometry. Much of the hipness, besides the design in general, is that it didn’t have to be done – there was no need to have made a huge porthole at the back of a house, in a location where very few people would see it. It is gratuitous, it is eccentric. It is cockeyed. And it is appreciated.

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