LaGuardia Receives Design Award

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First, it was 30 acres of abandoned potato fields on Potato Lane in Sagaponack, pushed up against the Atlantic shoreline.Next, it was home to the “Record House”—one of the first dune cottages by famed architect Norman Jaffe that earned him national acclaim.

Then, it was a storm-wrecked beach, pummeled by a string of nor’easters that ripped up the coast.

Today, it is an oasis transformed by LaGuardia Design, which was recently named the recipient of the highest award of Excellence by the American Society of Landscape Architects for the self-sustaining, eco-sensitive landscape. After being wrecked by a series of storms in 1998, it only took LaGuardia 16 years to build the landscape.

“When we started this, I was a young man,” 52-year-old principal Christopher LaGuardia laughed last week, pouring over plans at his Water Mill office. “I think it’s a great project with a great story.”

The saga begins in Manhattan, 1969, with an ambitious couple—Sandy and Stephen Perlbinder—in their 20s, their two little girls, a single-engine airplane and a big dream.

The family was looking for a weekend getaway not too far from the city. And when they saw Sagaponack—its vast farmland, open skies and proximity to East Hampton Airport—they were sold.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes,” Ms. Perlbinder said last week during a telephone interview. “It was amazing. It was like Kansas. We thought we’d take one little corner of it and build a house, and farm the rest. Never develop it.”

That is exactly what they did.

Attracted to Mr. Jaffe’s design aesthetic, which strayed from the “white modern boxes” of the time, Ms. Perlbinder said, the couple hired the architect without hesitation. And after countless hours reviewing plans, and a few trips to Japanese Kabuki theater, they considered him to be a friend.

“We were kind of in it together,” she said. “We were all young and we were all on the same wavelength. It was really a special project. It was amazing to go to his studio and just have him sketch.”

Within a year, the Perlbinders had a “gorgeous piece of sculpture behind the dune” for about $55,000, she said of the original cost of the house, one inspired by the surrounding farmland, barns and pictures of Mayan ruins that the couple had snapped from their plane while flying over Mexico.

The 3,400-square-foot minimalist structure put Jaffe on the map. It was photographed for a number of magazines, Ms. Perlbinder said, racking up national awards and recognition—and understandably so. The architect used only natural materials, primarily Douglas fir in this case, and positioned the house 50 feet from the ocean among the dunes.

“You could build like that in those days,” Ms. Perlbinder said. “It looked pretty stable in those early years. We just decided to go for it. Unfortunately.”

For the first 13 years, the house was a dream. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. The first time the Perlbinders rescued their home was in 1983, after a faulty heater sparked a fire that destroyed the entire east side. The second time was 1998, after a devastating El Niño winter unleashed its fury.

“The house was standing up straight on its piles, but the ocean was underneath it,” Ms. Perlbinder recalled. “It had taken out the stone wall just behind the dune. Took out the southern decks, the beachside decks. And the water was swirling under the house. Our neighbor’s house was washed away. All the houses on that line had to either move back or go.”

In the days that followed, Mr. Perlbinder put his foot down: the house would stay. They were going to fix it. The only problem was that they wouldn’t have Jaffe’s help. He had drowned five years earlier during an early morning swim in Bridgehampton.

“I think [Jaffe] would be very happy with what was done and what was not done,” Ms. Perlbinder said. “I actually think he would love it because it’s, essentially, his house. And it even looks better. You can see it more clearly.”

The first step was moving the house back 350 feet. Once it was unmoored, crews slid it onto stacked steel I-beams greased with Ivory soap. Then, cranes dragged it onto the potato fields so smoothly that an empty bottle of Perrier on the kitchen counter didn’t even tip, Ms. Perlbinder said.

That was the easy part, she said. The hard part came after—and that is where landscape architect Mr. LaGuardia stepped in. He knew the house well. After all, he’d worked for Jaffe from the late 1980s until his death, he said.

“For me, it was very personal,” Mr. LaGuardia said the project. “I wanted to do my best.”

When the landscape architect approached the job, Jaffe’s creation was hovering three stories in the air on stilts, resembling a tumbleweed in the flat field, he said. In order to rebuild the dunes underneath it, Mr. LaGuardia needed 30,000 cubic yards of fill. And, so, he dug a 1½-acre hole on site and built a pond.

“That’s a big pond,” he said. “In order to reduce the scale, we divided it into little bays, which is the concept of a ‘hidden shoreline’ so it doesn’t feel too grand. Scale it down so it was more residential feeling and not like a lake.”

The 60,000-square-foot pond is surrounded by thickets and self-sustained by aquatic plant life and fish—sunfish, bass and other native species that appeared before the pond was even stocked, he said.

“I just looked down and there were fish in there,” he said. “They must have come in on the feet of birds. It’s pretty amazing what fresh water does, how it just propagates life. We have foxes there, too. The whole food chain. Fresh water, nothing like it.”

Keeping in line with Mr. Jaffe’s minimalistic vision, Mr. LaGuardia drew inspiration from Montauk and his hometown in upstate New York, he said, where he grew up in the rural context of dairy farms, rolling hills, native vegetation and a certain calm that he strove to replicate.

The dunes—built 17 feet high to allow the first-floor terraces to rest at the same elevation of the house—were contoured into long rolling berms, staggering in east-to-west lines, similar to the natural dunes and the ocean waves. A fescue meadow atop the dunes accentuates the sculptural quality of the earth, he said.

“We tried to integrate rather than decorate,” Mr. LaGuardia said. “You get caught up around here where things become very ornamental and glammy. The clients did not want that. They wanted the opposite. They wanted a non-landscape. They just wanted to put their house back together and create a nice setting for it.”

Simultaneous to the land rebuild, the Perlbinders enlisted their son-in-law, architect Cristian Sabellarosa, to design a 4,000-square-foot addition—doubling the home’s size with two wings on the east and west sides, while keeping the original house intact.

“Once it was freed from the dune, we were able to add to it in a very beautiful way,” Ms. Perlbinder said. “And I never wanted the surrounding landscape to look like a park or a flower garden. I just wanted it to be what it was: wild. I don’t know if I had a complete vision for it, but sometimes you need a person to help you find the vision. And with Chris, it just worked. I’m just thrilled about this award. He so deserved it. He’s so talented and he’s so good, and I didn’t even realize how important it is and was to him.”

The ASLA award for Excellence is as big as it gets, Mr. LaGuardia emphasized. He will accept the award at the ASLA Annual Meeting on November 18 in Boston.

“It’s like winning the Oscar,” he said. “For landscapes. I’m glad to have finally won it. I think every landscape architect aspires to win it sometime in their career.”

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