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New on the National Register: A magnificent Modern in Armonk, NY

September 24, 2010

Exposed steel, white brick, floor-to-ceiling glass and all the crisp clarity of the International Style brought together in a compact residence nestled in the woodlands of suburban New York. That would describe the house completed in 1957 at 11 Tallwoods Road in Armonk. Following a 2007 rescue and a multi-year restoration project, the current owners—DOCOMOMO New York/Tri-State members Todd Goddard and Andrew Mandolene—went the extra step of nominating their house for listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The house was officially listed in August.

The Tallwoods Road House is a fine example of the International Style masterfully translated from its commercial core to single-family dwelling. The single-story house is a taut rectangular volume of 95 feet x 25 feet—nine 10-foot bays plus 2.5-foot cantilevers at each end. The layout is sharply articulated by the exposed steel structure. Painted matte black, the steel frame is in stark contrast to the white glazed brick infill of the East elevation and the continuous floor-to-ceiling glazing along the West elevation. A cantilevered steel canopy marks the main entrance and is repeated across the depth of the house where sliding glass doors open to the 95 x 15-foot terrace. It is surely a contender for the longest terrace in Westchester County. The slab foundation rests partially on exposed natural rock outcroppings and partially on a garage tucked under the southern end behind a stone veneer wall.

The house was designed by Arthur Witthoefft and completed in 1957. Witthoeft earned his architecture degree from the University of Illinois and a masters degree in urban design from Cranbrook Academy of Art where he studied with Eliel Saarinen. He worked for Minoru Yamasaki briefly before joining SOM’s New York office in 1954 and was at SOM at when he designed the house in Armonk for his family. He launched a private practice in 1962. Eleanor Witthoefft was an interior designer and selected most of the finishes and furnishings. The Witthoefft family lived in the house for 32 years. After their departure in 1989 the house had two less sympathetic owners. For seven years it sat vacant when not being used by a local contractor for storage, all the while sustaining water infiltration damage and disappearing behind an overgrowing landscape.

Goddard and Mandolene relocated from Los Angeles upon finding the house and began restoration, but not before asking Witthoefft to act as consultant. The project was no small patch and paint undertaking as work included going into the slab to update heating, AC and plumbing; restoring the original aluminum window frames and retrofitting them with double-pane insulated glazing; replacing skylights with units from the original manufacturer and replacing the tar and gravel roof with EPDM roofing.

The house’s interior finishes epitomize the period: travertine fireplace, black slate hearth, stainless steel columns, white tile of all varieties, teak cabinetry. Because of water damage, Goddard and Mandolene had the plaster ceilings and walls removed and re-applied by hand to match the original. To bring back the look of the unsalvageable white floor tile they had the restored concrete slab scored in 5 x 5 foot grid and coated with glossy white resin—a surprisingly convincing solution according to discerning eyewitnesses.

The Tallwoods Road House qualified for National Register nomination under criteria C: “property embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction or represents the work of a master.” The “characteristics” of our favored period are embodied here: mass-produced industrial materials used to elegant end, a simple yet highly functional plan, private and public zones, and a house in perfect repose with its surrounding landscape. Witthoefft brought the International Style full force to his house, humanizing the tenets of large-scale corporate design in the process. Within the scaled-down structural steel skeleton he showed how the ideals of the Modern movement could be employed for modern living—four kids and all. Goddard and Mandolene go the next step, with a restoration that shows how houses once ahead of their time can flourish on the sheer force of timeless good design.

© Rob Mandolene
© Rob Mandolene