Designing a Tower for a Violinist

Places / March 23, 2010

Jim Childress of Centerbrook Architects and Planners in Connecticut may have found the ideal client.

She’s a world class violinist, and she loves to build.

“She was my first client when I made partner,” he said. “And she’s been my longest-running client ever since.”

In 1995, he began the complete renovation of her house, retaining the roof, but removing everything underneath. The native of Japan who teaches music at Yale University wanted more light inside her home. As the design evolved, Jim learned how much she appreciated woods – like oak for the floors, cedar for the piers and ash for the cabinets. “It’s all New England joinery,” Jim said. “But she always says the Japanese direction came from me.”

By 2003, he was revisiting a music studio for her on the same property, one whose walls were falling in. They restructured that building too, and added even more light through rounded windows. Now, she can rehearse and record there.

Most recently, he added a tower for the complex, finishing it early this year. “She wanted to get up in the air – to have room enough for four or five people to have tea and play music,” he said. “She’s a world class performer, and she’ll give a concert there every year on the first of March to commemorate Bach’s birthday. Everybody comes and sits on the steps to listen.”

The challenges in designing the tower lay in its location atop a garage on the edge of her property line, as well as in height restrictions. There needed to be plenty of space at the top, so a spiral staircase would not have worked. Instead, the stairs are cantilevered out off of the wall, a feat achieved by architect and structural engineer working closely with carpenter Ron Campbell, some wood and a few pieces of steel. “It’s the kind of thing that you can draw, but you really need someone like Ron to do it,” Jim said.

To acknowledge her appreciation of wood, he placed bands of ash plywood around its interior walls.

But why a tower to begin with? “It’s just for fun,” he said. “She’s that way. When I think of that tower, I think of her stature as an artist – of her saying: ‘I’m alive!’”

For more on Centerbrook Architects and Planners, go to:

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Michael Welton

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