A real estate pro saves and restores a John Fowler midcentury modern in Weston, adding décor gems found on weekend excursions.
photography by Chris Bartlett
On a Saturday morning in November 1999, Jim Gricar read an ad in the New York Times Sunday real estate section that seemed too good to be true. An unaltered, award-winning four-bedroom modern on a two-acre stretch along the Saugatuck in Weston, one of three Fairfield County communities he had been canvassing in his six-month search for a weekend retreat. It was available for sale by the owner for $549,000. “That price was just so wrong,” he says.
A lover of modern architecture and late twentieth-century furnishings, Gricar dialed the seller and begged to see it. But the seller was cautious. The son of the original owners, a psychiatrist and his wife who’d commissioned architect John Fowler—a protégé of Yale’s Paul Rudolph—to design it, he explained he was not yet ready to show it. Gricar prevailed—he is the general sales manager of Halstead Property after all—and by Tuesday morning he’d written a check for the deposit and drawn up a contract. Within a month, he had moved in and begun a comprehensive restoration project he’s dubbed “loving it back to life.”
Built in 1963 and tucked into a little horseshoe of a lane off the main drag through town, the house is a time- machine marvel, a vestige of the bold modern architecture movement and all the unencumbered promise it brought to bear on modern society. A 1968 American Institute of Architects Connecticut Design Award-winner, the structure is a cantilevered arrangement of six levels, each of them equivalent to half a floor of space. Clad in cedar clapboard inside and out, it features only a single steel lally column and is situated on a sloping pie-wedge of a lot in which the widest part of the east-facing wedge—the crust of the pie slice—lies along the river’s edge. Its assortment of innovative—if inconvenient at times—characteristics epitomize the axiom that form should follow function: plate-glass windows are justified with the exterior cladding so as not to disrupt the structure’s sleek silhouette—or the view with distracting mullions—gutters extend four feet off the building and drop rainwater in multi-story waterfalls that terminate in small piles of stones for filtration; open staircases, Dutch doors, and a stairwell fan facilitate ventilation in lieu of windows that open; sliding panel-doors serve as privacy screens when needed; and forced hot-water heat through the floor provides an “embracing warmth.”
“I have made a point of adapting to the house,” says Gricar, a self-described clotheshorse who points out that his home offers almost no closet space, a reality he says he has been able to endure because he’s there only on weekends “I haven’t tried to adjust the house to my habits.” The bulk of Gricar’s work consisted of sanding—and then staining—the cedar planks and oak floors. It was a year in which a random orbit sander and a respirator were his only companions. “It was like living in a gerbil cage, there was so much dust,” he says. “Every morning when I woke up I’d reseal my mattress in its plastic bag. I just worked and slept.” Even the kitchen, which he had feared might be the one feature that required a complete renovation using new materials because it was so worn from use by a family of four, including two boys, proved salvageable. After experimenting with the sander on a cabinet door, he discovered an appealing grain that bridged the divide between the upper and lower cabinetry, and promptly refinished them using the original stains specified in the architectural drawings. “It was the best thing I ever did,” says Gricar, who had never restored a home before this one. “It slowed me down so that I could focus on what I was doing in the moment. It was really enjoyable, very therapeutic.”
Once he’d completed the heavy lifting, Gricar was free to furnish and decorate the house, an activity that allowed him to liberally indulge his decorative passions: shiny and shag, lime-green and chocolate-brown, all of it worthy of at least an audition for a part as the set of an Ice Storm remake. Scouring flea markets, estate sales, and auctions throughout the state of Connecticut (and a few in Miami), he brought home a slew of prized pieces: a Hans Wegner Papa Bear chair; a glass dining table by Le Corbusier, which he paired with brass-and-chrome high-backed side chairs upholstered in dark chocolate velvet; a pair of Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs as well as a black Barcelona chaise, which he placed in the front foyer as a coy nod to the psychiatrist who originally used the room for seeing patients; a pair of James Mont armchairs only Gianni Versace could love; a table from Paul Evans’s “Skyscraper” series; and, his pièce(s) de résistance—a set of Eero Saarinen executive dining chairs in their original fabric with the Knoll Park Avenue tag still attached. His shopping philosophy, he says, is to acquire individual pieces he loves without worrying about how they’ll look together in a room. “It’s a crazy mix, but if it looks right, it’s right,” he says.
By 2004 or so, Gricar was ready for a new embellishment that could extend his ability to entertain to the outdoors. He put in a twenty-foot by twenty-foot white-bottomed pool—“when you fill it with water, it takes on that ’70s crystal blue,” he says— and surrounded it in a patio made from the same Hamden red stone that had been used for the chimney fifty years prior. The one salient architectural feature that appears in the plans but was never built was a cedar-plank fence that would have extended from a midpoint on the lot’s southern perimeter up the hill to the street. Gricar took the drawing and flipped it, and wound up with a fence that runs down the slope, and not only matches the house but also provides privacy for pool guests. Then about five years ago, the homeowner gave his retreat a final touch: a full-service Hollywood Regency–style cabana inspired by those at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Featuring built-in seating and a bar, it is wired for sound, an amenity that enables Gricar to indulge his era-appropriate tastes in music—Rat Pack staples such as Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin, and ’60s jazz artists Herb Alpert and Stan Getz to name a few. With his weekend retreat complete, it was no surprise that last summer this long-time supporter of marriage equality used it as the setting for his wedding. On a Friday afternoon in July, Gricar and his partner gathered a hundred friends on the patio by the pool and there, under a canopy of chestnut trees, sycamores, beeches, and pin oaks, the two took their vows. “I am really grateful to be in a state that affords me a right that I and everyone else deserves to have,” says Gricar, who adds that his life in Weston is the fulfillment of the quintessential New England ideal he cultivated as a child. “Now I know what people mean when they say their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives.”