In Rowayton, a Narrow House That Feels Wide Inside
Posted June 22, 2018 5:29 p.m. EDT
The house that Bruce Beinfield built on a thin spit of land overlooking a picturesque tidal estuary in Connecticut comes with a whimsical barn-themed facade and a contentious back story.
But despite the initial outcry against the mere idea of the house, its inclusion in the Rowayton Civic Association’s annual house tour last fall led to a spike in ticket sales.
“It was a record house tour,” said Peter Stuart, a local real estate agent who organizes the association’s fundraiser. “Granted, the weather was beautiful, but a lot of people were curious about that house.”
The interest was sparked by much more than the house’s unusually narrow shape and rustic design. When Beinfield, an architect and longtime resident of this villagelike section of Norwalk, first proposed building the house at the tip of a slender strip of land in the middle of Farm Creek in 2013, the plan resulted in community backlash so relentless that he nearly sold the property to kill the controversy.
But ultimately he came up with a compromise: He would build the house closer to the road, out of the creek and with minimal infringement on others’ views. The design that had languished in drawings for several years finally began to take form and was completed last summer.
The house has since earned a residential design award from the Connecticut chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which praised the site plan and the “balance of industrial and vernacular forms.” And, perhaps just as pleasing, Beinfield, 65, said he hasn’t heard “a single grumble” from anyone in the community, where he lives with his wife, Carol, 56, an artist and interior stylist for his firm. (The couple married last year.)
The house is designed to be storm resistant — it sits atop 12 concrete piers to allow flood-level waters to flow beneath it — while also paying homage to the location’s unusual history.
The 0.64-acre property, a 500-foot-long, man-made peninsula, is a remnant of a trolley line used to transport visitors across the water to an amusement park in the early 1900s. The salvaged rose-hued barn siding on the house’s street-facing facade is a nod to the rustic wooden structures Beinfield saw in photos of the long-gone park. And the crisscrosses of lateral bracing on each side of the house reference wooden roller-coaster trestles.
“I wanted to create the impression that this structure had preceded the development around it,” he said.
The street-facing facade is a mere 12.5 feet in width, allowing passers-by to see the water behind it, and the rest of the house is just 16 feet wide. But an open floor plan, 10-foot ceilings and a wall of windows along one side and across the back make the house feel far more expansive.
Exposed ductwork, steel girders and timber beams, along with poured concrete floors, lend an industrial feel to the interior. The open kitchen, which has two sinks and two islands, also has black cabinets and walls, an intentional break from the preference for white in seemingly every new house in Rowayton, Beinfield said. The countertops and fixtures are copper and brass.
Shelving that runs along one wall of the open living-and-dining area is crafted from wooden beams saved from the former Remington Arms factory in Bridgeport, Beinfield said. The fireplace surround in the living room is made of simple gray concrete blocks.
Sliding glass doors at the back of the house open to a garden patio and path to the end of the peninsula, which is occupied by an old, single-story cottage that came with the property. Here, too, Beinfield played up the property’s past, laying new trolley tracks that he commissioned from a rail construction company in West Virginia to connect the house to the cottage.
Three bedrooms are on the second floor, and the third floor is an attic studio for Carol Beinfield. Bruce Beinfield designed the space to feel like an old attic, with worn wooden floors and unfinished wood walls. “Attics evoke a special set of emotions,” he said. “They make you want to explore, and you can see bits and pieces of past lives.”
Carol Beinfield, a flea market devotee, has made sure of that, filling the space with an eclectic array of collectibles, from antique dolls and animal skulls to pincushions. Bruce Beinfield has a small office at one end of the attic, from which he likes to look out and observe the many seabirds who frequent the estuary.
If the compromise house worked out well for Beinfield, the rest of the community seems to have at least accepted it.
“It’s like what frequently happens: People get used to the thing they thought would be very hard to get used to,” said Mike Barbis, an elected commissioner for the Rowayton taxing district and a vocal critic of Beinfield’s original plan. “It’s more or less blended into the landscape.”