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Architect's Challenge Making 60 Rooms Cozy
New York Times

by Suzanne Slesin

EVEN its architect cannot seem to keep the number of rooms straight. ''I think there are about 60 of them, and 11 or 12 bathrooms,'' Francis C. Klein said of the mammoth private house that he has just completed on a 13-acre property in Fairfield County, Conn.

''What I do know,'' added the architect, who is based in Montclair, N.J., ''is that the house is as long as a New York City block.''

Three floors high, 200 feet long and 21,000 square feet in all, the house was completed last December after a two-and-a-half-year haul: six months to design it, two years to build it. Among its rooms are a squash court, a ballet studio, a dining room for 18, two laundry rooms, a 24-foot-square kitchen, and stair landings big enough to double as children's play areas.

A recent inventory placed the number of telephones, each with 20 lines, at 50. ''They may get more,'' Mr. Klein said. And this is just a weekend and summer home.

''The only new house that I ever heard of on the East Coast that's bigger is Ivan Lendl's and that included an indoor basketball court,'' Mr. Klein said. Yet this house is about a third the size of the Aaron Spelling's two-year-old Hollywood mansion, which is 65,000 square feet. And it has about half as many rooms as Mar-a-Lago, Donald and Ivana Trump's home in Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Klein is no novice to large scale. He said he built about a half-dozen ''pretty large houses, 4,000 to 5,000 square feet, in the Hamptons.'' He said ''a normal house is about 2,000 square feet, and a big house in the New Jersey suburbs is 3,000 square feet.''

The clients, who want to remain anonymous, rent an apartment in New York City. The husband is a commodities broker and squash champion; the wife recently stopped working in his business to take care of their three daughters, all 6 years old or younger. Two older girls from his previous marriage visit often.

The architect said of his clients: ''He is New York and Brooklyn, and Coney Island is especially important to him. She likes simple things - large and simple things.

''She showed me clippings of English country and Shaker houses. He clipped Colorado ranches. I came out of a more shingle-style background.''

Mr. Klein worked for I. M. Pei & Partners in New York before opening his own firm five years ago. Two staff architects, Susan Guppy and Tim Fleck, worked on the project.

At a time when most architects are battling the problems of tiny spaces, Mr. Klein had the dubious privilege of designing a house that would look and feel smaller than it is.

''I call that a real challenge,'' admitted Mr. Klein, whose wife is the owner's sister. ''It was hard to make it human, and it's still pretty hard to comprehend the whole thing.

''Lots of light, big rooms and places to run around were my instructions. They're very informal, active people. Not tuxedo party types.''

Like the proverbial Topsy, the house just seemed to grow and grow. ''We realized pretty early on that it was very, very big,'' he said. ''It was my job to make it work.'' On the exterior, the house looks like a series of cozily scaled buildings - a mini-Main Street. The look is part hunting lodge, part Western ranch, part English country and part Alpine chalet, with touches of Shaker simplicity - a hard-won synthesis of what the clients had in mind.

The house is set on a hill and approached along a winding unpaved road that weaves through heavy woods. The final approach is surprisingly approachable; one could even call the 200-foot-long facade with robin's-egg blue trim quaint.

''Siting was very important,'' Mr. Klein said. ''If you arrived head-on, instead of at an angle, it would have been overpowering.''

The house is clad with Connecticut stone and tongue-and-groove vertical cedar siding with a copper-colored pigmented stain. The wood-shingle roofs are edged in copper, and the drainpipes are copper. The elements of the facade are connected with flagstone and fretwork-trimmed porches (''They had just been to Austria and brought back some pictures of chalets for me to think about,'' Mr. Klein said), and enlivened with what seems to be a catalogue's worth of bay, double-hung, casement and sliding windows and skylights.

''One of the basic concepts was to find a balance between coherence and variety,'' the architect said. ''Although all the normal family relationships take place - for example, keeping an eye on the kids, cooking, entertaining - everything is far.''

The architect compensated by balancing the 150-foot-long hallways with 8 1/2-, 10 1/2- and 20-foot-high ceilings and grouping the myriad windows in inventive configurations. ''Everything is overscale,'' the architect said.

Even the architectural drawings had to be printed on paper measuring three by four feet to be workable. ''When I first showed them to the structural engineer,'' Mr. Klein recalled, ''he thought I had the scale marked wrong on the drawings.''

Four 10 1/2-foot-high Tuscan pine columns define the marble-floored entrance hall, which opens to a 20-foot-high room. ''That's the family room,'' Mr. Klein said. ''There is no room called a living room in the house. This is a very child-oriented family. They don't sit around much.''

For the time being, that's just as well, as the house is essentially unfurnished. Recently a dozen beds were delivered; delivery trucks pull up often. But many rooms are still filled with boxes.

In the 24-by-40-foot music room, there is not only a grand piano but a sampling of the owners' collection of musical antiques, a pinball machine and a vintage jukebox. ''A merry-go-round will probably be next,'' Mr. Klein said.

Only the kitchen and the library are complete. In the library, glass-topped cases hold rare books, while floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with titles that range from ''How to Design and Build Your Own Home,'' and ''How to Teach Your Baby to Swim'' to ''Boy Broker'' and ''Jefferson at Monticello.''

Piles of children's books surround the window seat. ''They really want to encourage reading,'' Mr. Klein said. A staircase leads to the children's wing on the second floor.

He added that inside, orientation was the major issue. ''Even the contractors - 'It's not a house, but an inn,' remarked one - had to think about it by areas,'' said the architect, who was concerned with providing the occupants and their visitors with visual cues. ''This can get very confusing, especially for small children.''

Mr. Klein said construction costs were in the $150-a-square-foot range.

''That's good quality, middle-of-the-road domestic construction,'' said Mr. Klein. ''Luxury building can be double or more. And there are some economies of scale. You pay for the truck whether you buy 3 or 250 windows.''

One potentially astronomical operating expense is air-conditioning. ''They hate it and will never use it,'' Mr. Klein said. ''But they put it in, in case they ever decide to sell the house.''

For the family's use, the architect installed about two dozen ceiling fans. Twenty transom windows, operated by two manual cranks, also provide ventilation. ''Just like in old schoolhouses,'' Mr. Klein said.

The architect also provided two exits for each of the eight second-floor bedrooms, ''in case of a fire,'' he said. ''The balconies, which are both exits and play areas, became an important design element.''

Most of the woodwork in the house is standard-issue including the main staircase with its 60-foot-long balustrade and 200 Shaker-style spindles. But the kitchen cabinets were custom made of cherry, with 110 Shaker style knobs.

Doors, bathroom sinks and tiles were all off-the-rack items. ''That was our attempt to be reasonable,'' Mr. Klein said. ''We didn't ransack the earth to get anything unusual.''

Nevertheless, the quantities are mind-boggling: 14,000 square feet of oak flooring, 1,000 square feet of floor tile, 1,000 square feet of marble tile, 1,000 light fixtures, close to 200 doors and 250 windows.

''That was a nice order,'' Mr. Klein said. ''I think the company sent me a monogrammed pen for specifying their product.''

The house facade is a mini-Main Street with English Country, Shaker, Colorado ranch and Alpine styles.
Four Tuscan pine columns define the house's foyer, which has been paved with marble.
Squash court
Recreation room
Pool bathroom
Pool changing room
Three utility rooms
Locker room
Five storage rooms
Dance studio
Media room
Table tennis room
38 Park Street | Montclair, NJ 07042 | 973.783.0688