Renovating Marcel Breuer's Stillman Houses: The Boys on the Hill

Jeremy Bittermann

Many can sympathize with arduous renovations, but for one ambitious Connecticut couple, the restoration of modernist homes is virtually an education in design.

When driving in Connecticut among the grand white historic homes on Litchfield’s North Street, only the leaf blowers and the late-model cars clue you in that it’s not the mid-1800s. But turn down a narrow lane and the 19th century is swiftly replaced by the middle of the 20th with two flat-roofed houses nestled low into a green slope and painted pale colors in deference to their high-street neighbors.

In 1949 Rufus Stillman, president and CEO of the nearby Torin Manufacturing Company, saw the now-famed house that Marcel Breuer created in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and decided that his family of five had to have a Breuer, too. Breuer would design four projects, referred to as Stillman I, II, and III, as well as a cottage, for the family—all in Litchfield—along with close to a dozen buildings for Torin. Stillman also seeded the town with work by Breuer’s colleagues; the house next door to Stillman I was designed by John M. Johansen, a former student, in 1953 for the Huvelle family. (Stillman had sold the land to friends with the caveat that they had to build modern.)

Stillman was obsessed with modern living. So too are Joseph Mazzaferro and Ken Sena. The couple, who have no architecture background, first came to Litchfield in 2003 to look at a $300,000 listing for a Breuer house. It turned out that the price on the realtor’s ad was missing a zero. But the next year, they got a second chance, snapping up the last house that Stillman built with Breuer in 1973—the 800-square-foot Rufus Stillman Cottage.

While living at the cot
tage, the couple became fas-cinated by its history and 
began the journey to be
come experts in all things
 Breuer. “We had some 
questions and talked to 
Breuer scholars, and one of
them said, ‘Why don’t you
 call Rufus?’ ” says Sena. So
they visited him while he
 was living at Stillman I, and 
he and “the boys on the 
hill,” as he called them, became friends. When he
 died, in 2009, “we were really scared someone woul
come for the land,” say
 Mazzaferro, and tear down 
the house. After some back-and-forth, the boys bought Stillman I. When the Huvelle family put their house on the market, the only offer they got was from someone who wanted to tear that down as well. Two years later, Mazzaferro and Sena bought that one, too. “Stillman became addicted to the architecture,” says Sena. “We got the same bite.”

The couple spent four years doing renovations, dividing responsibilities roughly along professional lines. Sena, a research analyst, handles the archival info and reconstruction planning, while Mazzaferro, a creative director in advertising, deals with interiors, finishes, and furniture. The curbside facade of Stillman I is mostly blank, with tall ribbon windows and a jaunty cable-stayed canopy over the front door. The house’s lack of pomp caused locals to nickname it “the chicken coop.” Around the back, under the large windows, panels in four bold colors pop. One of Breuer’s signature floating staircases reaches down to the pool. A mural by friend and neighbor Alexander Calder adds a surreal land- scape to the rural ensemble.

The house is now (mostly) as Breuer left it, from the charcoal ceilings to the black- and-white Xanti Schawin-sky sound-wave murals on the fireplace. Mazzaferro and Sena tore off later additions of a study and a screened porch, restored the exterior’s colored panels, removed an orange ceiling, and entirely repainted the murals. “We wanted to get back to clean,” says Mazzaferro. “We kept going back to the photos of when the house was first built.”

They consulted the Breuer archives and spoke to scholars and Breuer’s still-living associates to reconstruct the original footprint, materials, and finishes. The blue paint for the rear facade had to be ordered from Europe— American blues don’t reflect light in quite the same way. They took down the water-damaged poolside wall and rebuilt it, tracing the original Calder design and repainting it with the permission of the artist’s estate. They spotted the Schawinsky artworks in a vintage copy of Interiors magazine (a previous owner had painted over them), using the images to replace them faithfully.

They did change a few things. “You have to draw the line somewhere,” says Mazzaferro. “We were not trying to create a time capsule.” Where Stillman I had bare concrete floors downstairs, the couple added slate, copying the paving pattern from elsewhere in the house. They put white Corian countertops and new appliances in the kitchen but kept the black, white, and wood palette in the bathrooms. Their efforts on the house, as well as the cottage, earned them a prestigious Citation of Merit from the Docomomo organization in 2014, the first ever for a residential project.

Along the way, Mazzaferro and Sena learned so much about Breuer that they are currently constructing a Breuer-designed addition to the cottage, as well as renovating Breuer’s house for designer Vera Neumann, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Mazzaferro studied fine arts at New York’s Pratt Institute, where he remembers Johansen, then a professor in the architecture department, walking around “like a Jedi master.” For Sena, “this is an opportunity to train under a very gifted architect.” Now he has architect dreams himself: “At some point in the future, I would love to design my own house.”

Image Credit: Jeff Boucher