Building a House in the woods, of the woods
Photographs by Phillip Ennis
Nestled among the boulders overlooking the Pound Ridge Reservation is a striking piece of art that twinkles in the sunlight. “We very much intended to build a work of art,” notes Michael Kagan, of the 5,000 square foot home that he and his wife, Olga, commissioned.
“Our inspirations for starting the project were our art collection and classes on architecture that Olga and I took together. Architecture and architectural art speak deeply to us.”
The Kagans raised their two sons in a Tashkovich contemporary in a wooded hollow adjacent to the Hiram Halle Ravine. Over the years, the couple collected art, filling every nook and cranny of their family home with pieces they loved. “I never thought we would build a house, however we wanted an additional bathroom, an office, and a workshop,” recalls Olga, a Russian-born, independent film producer. “We did play with the idea of remodeling the house, but there are limitations to what you can do.”
“The aftermath of the financial crisis made large land parcels inexpensive,” recalls Michael, an equity portfolio manager, “so we purchased the land for the house in 2009.”
The Kagans subdivided the 3-acre lot, donating a portion to the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy, to provide a connector for animals to pass between adjacent preserves. They hired KieranTimberlake, a Philadelphia-based architecture firm to design a house. “Michael found KieranTimberlake in an architectural book, and we fell in love with Loblolly House that Stephen Kieran, one of the partners, designed,” adds Olga. “We realized that if anyone can build a house on the rocks, it’s KieranTimberlake.”
“When I wrote our initial letter to Stephen Kieran describing the house program, I said that we were looking for ‘a house in the woods, of the woods,’” says Michael, who grew up in Bedford and Pound Ridge and serves on the board of the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy.
After some initial discussion, Kiernan and his team were invited to walk the forested property with the Kagans in order to identify a building site. “We were immediately drawn to the ridge itself,” Kieran says of his team’s response.
“Just beneath it were two rock-enclosed ‘rooms’—one positioned below with another space adjoining it above. Separating these was a small ravine, carrying water from a crevice in the ridge to the wetland below. Within the rock rooms, we proposed placing three shifting volumes that would gently respond to the site’s natural slopes and plateaus.”
“Stephen knew that we loved what they had done with the cedar façade of the Loblolly house,” says Michael. “They presented us with three siding options: reflective panels, vertical wooden dowels, or textured concrete. I know that they were excited when we chose the reflective panels.”
Once the design process was complete, the Kagans looked forward to seeing their new masterpiece take shape. “We were very excited to see the panels in place,” says Olga, of the combination of brushed stainless steel, polished stainless steel, and zinc-coated copper. “They finished the first section in the winter, and the reflection of the snow was quite magnificent.”
A long driveway now zigzags up the to the ridge where New Canaan-based contractor Prutting & Co. built Olga and Michael’s dream home—two structures connected by a glass-enclosed bridge. “This project was a true collaboration,” says Olga. “From the architects to the builders to the sub-contractors—everyone was excited to see this come together.”
The first structure has a bluestone base to mimic its natural rock surroundings while the panels above reflect the light, trees, and sky. Just inside the front door, an oversized Frank Stella provides a splash of color while a floating staircase, inspired by graphic artist M.C. Escher’s work, rises upward.
En route to the second floor, the stair treads transition from bluestone to white oak, and the views shift from art to nature and back again. “Russian Fairytale,” a tapestry by quilter Audrey Nichols, hangs from the ceiling to the staircase landing, enabling guests to view different woodland vignettes as they ascend.
At the top of the stairs, a long hallway, punctuated by deliberately placed skylights, leads to the bedroom suites and a combined office and gym. The bridge to the living and dining structure is to the right. “I love that from here, you can see the exterior of the house,” Olga notes as she heads toward the public spaces. “You’re inside but you can see the beautiful skin outside and the reflection in it.”
A gallery, designed to accommodate the Kagans’ art, serves as an entry point to the second structure with a passageway leading straight ahead to the expansive great room. The Eggersmann kitchen makes a dream workspace for Olga, who is an enthusiastic cook and entertainer. The family’s grand piano sits center stage in the adjacent family room which is anchored by a bluestone fireplace. A member of Caramoor’s advisory council, Olga looks forward to hosting benefit performances here as well as on the outdoor terraces. Tucked behind oak-veneered walls is a state-of-the-art media room.
The interior spaces were decorated in an understated manner, so as not to compete with the beauty of the architecture and Mother Nature just outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. When it came to choosing fixtures, finishes, and furnishings, Olga and Michael consulted with both KieranTimberlake and Victoria Lyons Interiors, but often relied on their own instincts.
Stepping outside to admire the sunset and its glow in the exterior panels, Michael acknowledges that the home took a great deal of time and effort to design and build, but it was worth it for art’s sake. Stephen Kieran suggested that the Kagans’ house is an alternative to Phillip Johnson’s glass house in New Canaan. “With his, you look in,” the architect noted. “With the Pound Ridge house, you see a reflection of the outside.” A house in the woods, of the woods, indeed.