Rooms With a View
The Revolutionary Design of Wilton's Round House
Pam Rouleau (gallery below)
New Canaan may have Philip Johnson’s Glass House, but Wilton has Richard Foster’s Round House. And like Johnson’s masterpiece, the Round House also happens to have glass walls. Completed in 1968 and set on just under four picturesque acres on Olmstead Hill Road overlooking Pope’s Pond, the Round House has been compared eloquently to a space ship, and less eloquently, to a giant mushroom. Regardless, it deserves as many architectural accolades as other better known residences designed by architects of the same period, like Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Michael Graves. The house did receive international attention during the construction phase and after completion; articles ran in publications like Architectural Record and the New York Times, and newspapers as far away as Shreveport, Louisiana;Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Paris, France. It also garnered one of 12 architectural awards given out in 1969 by the American Institute of Steel Construction. The Fosters, who owned the house until 2004, received a steady flow of curious visitors, some who simply observed the house from a distance and others, emboldened, who asked if they could have a tour of the interior. But unlike the Glass House, which was turned into a museum, the Round House, has remained a home, and perhaps because of that, has fallen into relative obscurity. Many people in town may not realize the architectural significance of this unusual structure.
Foster, a New York City-based architect who worked with Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson on many high profile projects, including Lincoln Center, the Seagram’s Building and the New York World Fair Pavilion, designed the Round House for his family. The shape—a glass disk mounted on a concrete base—is not its only unique feature; the house actually rotates 360 degrees. In interviews at the time, Foster explained the genesis of his idea. “[I wanted] to take advantage of the varied and beautiful views. The site is a natural amphitheater, and earlier plans didn’t take full advantage of it. When the idea [of building a round, rotating house] came to me, the only problem was finding the right parts.” He said his wife “thought the idea was revolutionary but was all for it,” and added, “As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before in any country.” He was right about that. In 1968, his Round House was the first and only round, fully rotating house in the world.
Designing almost 3,000 square feet of circular and revolving living space presented Foster with a myriad of structural and engineering challenges. The 72-feet in diameter structure rests on a concrete core, which houses a three-ton ball bearing system, the type used for large cranes and warship gun turrets. This system, which he designed, is what enables the 500,000 pound structure above to rotate. The controls, located inside a box no larger than a shoebox and powered by a 1½ horsepower motor, are simple: forward, backward and stop. The rotation speed can be adjusted, enabling the house to move nine inches to five feet per hour, and make from five to 26 full rotations in a 24-hour period. Foster explained that “even at highest speed, motion isn’t perceptible, except by watching changing scenery go by. A complete rotation takes just 48 minutes when the dial is set at top speed.”
Foster also designed a set of complex steel rings and columns to transfer the weight of the cantilevered living space above to the bearings in the concrete core, 12 feet in diameter, below. This system works to equalize the weight in any part of the house at any given time, so that a crowd of people can gather in the living room without having an equal counterbalance in a room on the opposite side of the house. The pole running up through the center of the core is non-structural; it carries waste pipes and electrical and telephone wires from the core to rotating connections in the living spaces.
To enter the house, visitors walk across a circular cobblestone terrace, spanning the width of the structure which appears to hover above. The front door, curved to mirror the contour of the base, opens into a small vestibule and a metal spiral staircase leading up to the main floor. The original layout included nine rooms, but the interior has been updated and today, has been reconfigured to seven: a rotunda/foyer, kitchen, living room, dining room, master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom, an office and a second bedroom with a bathroom. While Foster used floor-to-ceiling panels of glass for the exterior walls to provide uninterrupted views of the surrounding landscape, he carpeted many of the interior walls. “Carpet on walls is good for hanging paintings...it softens the room and when you move a painting, it’s self healing,” he explained in interviews. Today, most of the carpeting has been removed, and replaced with plaster, although the walls of the rotunda are covered in soft grey pebbled leather, and those inside the core still have the original carpeting.
Foster used many durable, low-maintenance materials, including pre-rusted steel for the frame and window mullions and glazed ceramic tiles for the flooring, which have since been replaced with oak flooring. The underbelly of the house and the roof are covered in cedar shingles. A five-foot wide terrace, constructed with a fiberglass-base resin-top material similar to the material used on ship decks, wraps around the entire living space. The 30 floor-to-ceiling window bays include several sliding doors that provide access to the deck.
In the interior, the wedge-shaped rooms radiate from the core, and flow seamlessly into the adjacent spaces. They are simply and sparsely decorated, allowing the views to take center stage. The living room, furnished with sleek contemporary sofas and chairs, opens onto the rotunda, which has a vaulted ceiling. The oval fireplace, made from the same pre-rusted steel as the exterior frame, echoes the curved lines of the house. The original kitchen, described as a “masterpiece of efficiency”, has been updated with granite and stainless steel counters and appliances. It includes a moveable workspace, stored under the kitchen island, ready to be pulled out for more counter space. The en-suite master bedroom has a large walk-in closet, with built-in storage and a bathroom with a curved, tile shower. Because the house lacks a traditional basement or attic, Foster made efficient use of the existing space by designing built-in shelving, drawers and several storage closets. A garage—no, it is not round—adjacent to the house includes a guest cottage with a bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchen. The cottage also serves as the pool house for a rectangular lap pool, located just a few steps away. Although the house is barely visible from Olmstead Hill Road, a long wooden fence running the length of the end of the driveway provides added privacy.
Perched up on its hill, the Round House offers more than spectacular views of the property and beyond, from any room, any time of day. It represents a piece of architectural history. Now on the market, through JoAnne Fisher at William Pitt/Sotheby’s International Realty, the house may not appeal to everyone—lacking 21st-century amenities like a family room, mudroom, and home theater—but no other house in town can beat the views.