A dramatic, cantilevered house suspended in space.
Overlooking Cone Hill Road and the distant Berkshire Hills, a rectangular glass-and-steel house juts out of a hillside, drawing curiosity—and disbelief—from motorists and motorcyclists, cyclists and joggers, and just about anyone passing by who catches a glimpse. Whoever designed this home in West Stockbridge is certainly no ordinary architect, but one with a vision and a skill at problem solving.
This particular cantilevered house is far more ambitious than is typical, extending fully half the length of the 90-foot-long structure. The architect, also the homeowner, is Warren Schwartz, who takes on transformative challenges and manages to turn the ordinary into extraordinary. To realize such a fantasy, Sarkis Zerounian, a structural engineer from Newton, required 24 feet to be excavated into the hillside in order to lay a concrete foundation strong enough to allow the cantilever’s free-style suspension at a startling 45-degree angle to the property’s slope.
Schwartz and his wife, Sheila Fiekowsky, a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, came to West Stockbridge in 1986 and lived in a striking, octagonal, stucco-and-wood home that he also designed, on the same 18 acres. By 2006, the wooden structure had become weathered, and Schwartz jokingly described it as “the bug-of-the-month house.” The couple razed and replaced it with one made of concrete, steel, and glass—with not a speck of wood. The new house resembles an artful sculpture by day and a giant, glowing firefly by night as it seemingly hovers over the landscape.
The contemporary home took one year to design and another to construct. Builder Chris May in Richmond was the perfect fit for the unique project because of his commercial experience with construction materials like cement and steel. “Despite the challenges, it was a unique opportunity for us all to work with an architect who thinks out of the box, working in a creative way,” says May. Everything, all the equipment from the drill to the back hoe, had to be brought up the hill. “All the people involved,” continues May, “everyone from the crane operator to the structural engineer, met the challenges.”
Schwartz and Fiekowsky moved into the finished home just in time for the BSO’s 2007 summer season. Fiekowsky, who studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at Yale, where she gained a masters in musicology, has been with the BSO since 1975. Despite her accomplishments as a violinist, Fiekowsky never misses a day without practicing on her Hieronymus Amati II. A dedicated master, she cocoons herself in her home studio, rehearsing for upcoming performances or choosing a piece from several of her favorite composers, which include Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Hayden. Her personal routine is as disciplined as her professional one. Every morning, she either walks or runs three miles with the couple’s black standard poodle, Oberon, and also does Pilates. After the summer season in Lenox is over, Fiekowsky continues to tour with the BSO.
Bill Hudgins, a principal clarinetist with the orchestra, introduced her to the West Stockbridge Chamber Players, whose performances raise money for the West Stockbridge Historical Society, located in old Town Hall.
“One day during intermission,” Fiekowsky recalls, “we were chatting and Bill mentioned what they were doing to support the restoration by the West Stockbridge Historical Society.” She told him she’d be willing to get involved since she had lived in West Stockbridge for more than 20 years. Soon after, she was invited to join the group, which doesn’t have a regular schedule but sells out just about anytime they perform. When she’s not playing the violin, Fiekowsky loves to cook, bake, and eat fine food. A regular at the Cambridge Institute of Culinary Arts, she has developed an educated palate that makes her critical of most restaurants. The Thursday farmers market in West Stockbridge is a favorite desination to find fresh ingredients.
Not to be outdone by his wife’s accomplishments, Schwartz holds a bachelor of architecture from Cornell and a master of architecture in urban design from Harvard. He’s also founder of the AIA Award–winning Boston architectural firm Schwartz/Silver. And he has taken up painting, a sideline of his skill as an architect and artist.
The cantilever design he chose to replace the previous house demonstrates Schwartz’s ability to turn reality on its head. For example, the plain front entrance gives no hint of the surprises within. Inside, the house exudes a subtle ambience of expectation—the prelude before the sensational drama to come. First, on the right is a bedroom that Fiekowsky uses as her practice room. The décor inside is simple except for one of Schwartz’s colorful paintings on the wall. Down a small flight of steps is a second bedroom with en suite bathroom. Then, along a hallway, past a staircase that goes up to the roof or down to the lower level, is the main living area whose color scheme is black, white, gray, and one or two brightly colored pillows.
Here the magic comes alive. Everything is subtle, not to distract from the architecture—not the plush white sofa, the chairs or coffee table interfere with the sensational vibrancy of the space. Schwartz has used a contextual approach which allows the inner space to integrate with the natural world outside. The impact is breathtaking, with views stretching 270 degrees across the landscape, into infinity. Natural light flows through floor-to-ceiling walls of glass panels, enhancing the sense of spaciousness. “The whole idea,” explains Schwartz, “is to give the impression of floating in the view. It’s where the outside environment meets the inside.” The IKEA kitchen, the one Fiekowsky always wanted, completes the living space.
Downstairs is the third master bedroom, with en suite bathroom, and Schwartz’s windowless studio. Without any external distractions, Schwartz paints. Nearly all the artwork throughout the home are his creations. Above the living area is a roof-deck, accessible through a motorized sliding door. The concrete platform not only helps support the structure below but adds another expansive dimension to the 1,200-square-foot house. Unlike some decks, this one has no furniture, nothing to distract from the phenomenal, panoramic view.
Light, space, and inspired design all contribute to the stunning beauty of this house. Here, art, music, and nature conspire to create a unique, soulful energy that brings the outside in and the inside out. Or, as Ezra Pound put it, “A real building is one on which the eye can light and stay lit.”