A modern creation that brings in the beach
Photographs by Olson Photographic LLC
Whenever I design a home,” says architect Roger Bartels, “it’s so you enter to the best part, which is the view.” Bartels, of Norwalk-based Bartels-Pagliaro Architects, is the mastermind behind the MacShane residence on Fairfield Beach Road—a house that suggests a gray steamship docked on the beachfront, every inch custom detailed to subtly reflect ocean, sand, and ship. It begins at the driveway entrance, with metal lampposts built to resemble sleek, squared lighthouses, a theme that will be picked up inside the home. There are a series of portholes in the home’s two garage doors, and a pebbled path leading to the oversized stainless-steel and glass door is embedded with sea creatures—a dolphin, a crab, a fish.
The project held special appeal for Bartels, who owned a much more rustic home—still standing—farther down Fairfield Beach Road in 1979. It’s a fishing cottage on stilts where his former neighbors, Fairfield University students in a rental dubbed the Animal House, once plugged a storm-damaged picture window with a waterlogged couch to continue partying. Doug MacShane affectionately refers to Bartels’ former cottage as “the weirdest house on the road.” Bartels himself looks a bit like he just wandered in from the beach, wearing a slightly disheveled plaid shirt and brown loafers, sunglasses perched on his head. He had expanded that old house to twice its size by hand and still thinks way outside the box when it comes to design.
He also relishes a challenge. Due to flood restrictions, Bartels couldn’t put anything on MacShane’s first floor but the garages and an entranceway—and due to the lot’s narrow and deep orientation, the case for the majority of houses on the street, he had to find a creative way both to maximize space and height and to showcase the oceanfront view and light from every room. His solution was two-fold: a very steep Dutch gambrel roof—and a whole lot of windows. Looking at the house from the sand-side, the homage to an ocean vessel is unmistakable. Each of the two main floors is nearly a solid wall of glass, those on the sides in square grids, those in the middle gloriously frameless. Two top-and-bottom stainless-steel decks with mahogany railings echo ship decks.
It’s a fitting theme for husband-and-wife owners MacShane and Christina Tan, CEO and executive director of MT Maritime Management Group in Westport, one of the top chemical and product tanker operations worldwide. The couple’s own 31-foot trimaran sailboat, “Nice Tri,” is moored in Fairfield.
Inside the home’s entranceway, a three-story spiral staircase leads to the upper floors, in white stainless steel with mahogany treads, the first indication of the light, airy tones that will carry throughout the residence. “It took them four days to get that staircase in—it was hell,” says MacShane, who wears a buttoned-up pastel shirt, tan slacks, and has a shock of white hair above his tanned face. Joe Speranza Construction, based in Weston, was behind the building, and Speranza says the custom staircase weighed some 15,000 pounds, and that “all of the round woodwork of the stairwell had to be pre-finished before the rest of the home was even sheet-rocked.” In all, the home took 17 months to build and won the construction and architect firms a Best Custom Home award in the 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot category from Connecticut Builder.
On the main level, the sand-hued maple floors, the weathered ceiling beams, and the rough gray stucco in the fireplace mirrored in a contrasting arched wall are all designed, says Bartels, “to bring the beach inside.” Four white steel lighthouse pillars frame the living room: a room dropped two steps for an unobstructed ocean view. The tops of these pillars have square, see-through holes, and they provide warm light on dark (and sometimes stormy) nights. “The light cages are structural steel,” says Speranza. “They are actually holding the house up.” White steel ceiling beams are embedded with aqua marbles that allow the light through, reminiscent of sea glass. Says the architect with a smile: “I had 25,000 marbles in my office—I didn’t know what to do with them.” He’s brought the ship inside, too: a room holding books and a black divan that MacShane jokes is used for “atonement and reflection” is floor-to-ceiling, smooth-sanded fir, and invokes a captain’s quarters.
Some of the touches reflect the owners’ contributions, too: the figurative artwork, the teal dining-room chairs and royal-blue living-room couch, the built-in steamer in the galley kitchen, a recommendation from Tan’s sister, who trains chefs. But it is, in general, a house big on space and short on things. “The main idea is openness,” Tan says, describing how Bartels designs by ceilings, not doors, so that there is a sweeping continuation from one space to the next. And it was because the owners wanted to fit a second guest bathroom on the upstairs level that their home now holds what they call “the famous shower.
To make room for a second bathroom, Bartels designed a shower stall of blue, laminated, opaque glass that curves into a point in the hallway between the two guest rooms like a ship’s hull. The wood atop this pointed blue shower completes the hull, portholes and all. “It’s really one-of-a-kind,” says Speranza. Every detail has been designed specifically for the home. “There is no such thing as a normal closet in the house,” says MacShane. “You have to have piano-type carpentry to have a closet.” The master bedroom is dominated by the beachfront view, with 11-foot arched windows, a specially designed tall and narrow dividing door opening to the upper balcony, and white curtains that lower like sails.
Out in the water, a young man stands, shirtless, and casts out his line, the only person visible on this private stretch of beach. Seeing him, MacShane says, “Now that’s the smartest guy in Fairfield.”