On Location | Sagaponack, N.Y.: Finding Refuge in the Barns

The architect Tod Williams made this Long Island beach house from two barns in the mid-1970s. More Photos »

Lucinda and David Schiff will tell you that the recent redo of the midcentury barn in Sagaponack, N.Y., that is their home each August was the product of a summer romance.

Mr. Schiff, a high-octane talent agent whose clients include Jeff Bridges, Eminem, Sienna Miller and Ethan Hawke, and Ms. Schiff, an artist, live in Pacific Palisades, Calif., the rest of the year, in a 1920s hacienda where they raised their three children. That house took almost two years to renovate, and “we didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to survive another big one,” Mr. Schiff said one bright morning last week.

When it came to redoing their summer place, he continued, “we wanted to work within a budget” — about $100,000 — “and repurpose a lot of what we had.”

A simple beach house, it had been offhandedly furnished with leftovers from previous owners and midcentury furniture that the Schiffs had bought at vintage stores in Venice Beach, Calif., as well as a fine collection of early 20th-century photographs, including those of O. Winston Link. It had always been more of a launching pad than a spot to hang out in. It introduced you to the outside, and off you went.

But inside, Ms. Schiff said: “certain spaces didn’t work. The living room was just weird. You want to end up after dinner being somewhere comfortable. But it just wasn’t comfortable.”

And Ms. Schiff, who is ebullient, strong-limbed and graceful, had been spending more of her time inside than out. All at once, it was beginning to matter that the interior spaces be more welcoming and supportive. Since 2001 (as long as the Schiffs have owned the house, in fact), Ms. Schiff has been living with an atypical meningioma, a noncancerous yet aggressive brain tumor, which in recent years has begun to affect her mobility. Not that you could tell from the way she scrambled up the stairs of the sleeping loft the other day, leading a tour of her “new” old house.

“You have to live in the moment,” she said later, brushing away concerns about her illness. “I’m a Buddhist by default.”

THE HOUSE, as modest as it is, is a notable footnote in the area’s architectural history. Tod Williams designed some pretty significant cultural institutions with his wife and partner, Billie Tsien — among them, Cranbrook’s natatorium and the building that once housed the American Folk Art Museum (now threatened by the Museum of Modern Art’s expansion). But in the mid-1970s, he was still a young architect. And as Devon Fredericks, who was then his girlfriend, recalled recently, he was tired of renovating kitchens and eager to make his mark.

The two were living behind her sandwich shop, Loaves and Fishes, another sort of landmark, and Mr. Williams was encouraged by Ms. Frederick’s mother, Tina Fredericks, the locally famous real estate broker, to buy three acres that were for sale across the street. The property consisted of two buildable lots, one of which had an old potato barn on it.

“I had an idea to be a developer,” Mr. Williams said the other day, explaining how he bought four more barns and moved them to the site, hoping to test himself as an architect by creating two inexpensive dwellings from a combination of these elemental shapes, and then selling one and living in the other.

“I was struggling with ideas about context and change, and I wanted to keep the integrity of the barns, keep what was good about them, their rawness and their simplicity.” (One such detail that still baffles roofers, Mr. Schiff said, is that Mr. Williams hid the insulation between the interior’s rough-hewed plank ceiling and the roof.)

To the 1.7-acre site that would one day be the Schiffs’, Mr. Williams moved the smallest of the barns he had bought. “I think it was really used by the farmer as a garage,” he said. He connected it to the larger barn already there with a breezeway enclosed with a grid of windows.

On the other half of the land, Mr. Williams assembled the three remaining barns into an elegant, modernist whole (you can see that house in this month’s Architectural Digest). In both places, he showed his chops and priorities — showed off, in fact, the fine architect he was becoming — by emphasizing the purity of the barn shapes and the sweetness of the land, and using inexpensive materials for the kitchens and windows.

But Mr. Williams had borrowed the $80,000 to buy the land and the $9,000 to move the barns, and the rates were punishing to a young architect, he said.

“They started at 8 1/2 percent, and in a few years had gone up to 18 percent. I sold the one you’re looking at first for about $150,000,” he said, referring to the one that now belongs to the Schiffs.

For the next few years, Mr. Williams recalled, he lived on the other property, which had no washing machine, and sneaked into the house he had sold to do his laundry. “Until, of course, I was apprehended by the new owners,” he said. “By then, Devon had dumped me, and my finances were down the drain. I was just desperate to sell. I felt like such a failure.”

“When I was able to sell the second property, I put the money into our studio on Central Park South,” he said, referring to the one he shares with Ms. Tsien, “where we’ve been ever since. So in a way, it was a great experience, though I swore I’d never be a developer again.”

OF COURSE, he was a very good developer. The Schiffs, whose laid-back affability belies the stereotype of the Hollywood class they are a part of, were moved by the home’s simplicity: three bedrooms, a sleeping loft and a tiny kitchen, with wide plank floors and rough barn doors hiding pantries and closets, all nestled in bayberry and wisteria, butterfly bushes and rose of Sharon. In August 2001, they bought it from the actress Carey Lowell for $1.3 million. They are the third owners since Mr. Williams sold it in 1979.

But the summer romance they described was a new friendship with James Huniford, a designer and artist whose aesthetic touchstones are agricultural, botanical and biological: belt covers and grain sifters, seed pods and fish bones.

Lanky, shy and surfer-handsome, Mr. Huniford, whom everyone calls Ford, is not the sort of guy to lose his head over a glazed chintz or a ruched silk. In his own house, a century-and-a-half-old saltbox a few blocks from the Schiffs, you’ll see steel welding discs hung like sculptures and swordfish bills in glass vitrines. The Schiffs loved how he deployed these objects; they also became fond of Mr. Huniford’s two young children, to whom Ms. Schiff has become an unofficial aunt and playmate.

The matchmaker was Kathryn Schenker, who is Sting’s manager and an old friend of the Schiffs’. “Ford has a way of creating these incredibly calming canvases,” Ms. Schenker said. “I knew it was crucial that whoever helped Lucinda would really respect her spirit.”

Mr. Huniford and Ms. Schiff worked by e-mail, as so many designers and clients do these days. Mr. Huniford would send three choices of, say, a side table (how about a metal-and-wood speakeasy table, with hidden drawers for playing cards?), and the Schiffs would pick one. He brought in some of his favorite belt covers and grain sifters. (Artifacts that he buys in multiples and stores in his Chelsea warehouse include lab beakers, vintage agricultural tools, American pottery, vintage signs and billboards.) He arranged small metal chicken cages in a grid on a wall (Donald Judd is a hero of his).

And he found a mahogany-and-chintz American Empire sofa at a store in Bridgehampton, N.Y., pickled the wood and used a teal-and-bronze fabric from Lee Jofa. It sounds awful, but it looks wonderful.

The Schiffs bought the house in 2001, so they could be close to their daughter, Kaylie, who was beginning her freshman year at New York University. After they dropped her off at school on Sept. 10, they flew home and didn’t see the house again until the spring. Kaylie, however, took refuge there as soon as she could, taking as many Californian dorm mates with her as she could fit into a rented van.

“It was a bittersweet introduction to the house,” Kaylie said ruefully last week. But “since then, I’ve become obsessed with the house. I think it’s so beautiful. I’d live there forever if I could.”

Kaylie, now 30, and her husband, Richie James Follin, are moving in for four months this fall, to record an album for the New York-based indie rock band Guards, which they belong to. Her brothers, Mickey and Henry, 27 and 20, are also musicians; their band, White Arrows, plays what their father calls “psychedelic indie pop.” All three children use the last name Church in their work, “a long, complicated inside joke,” Kaylie said, “and now I can’t remember why it was so funny.”

The Schiffs answered a question about their own ages with this story: when she was 24 and he was 26, they were fixed up by Mr. Schiff’s boss at the William Morris agency. Mr. Schiff said, “I was just a floating secretary then, but my boss pretended I was a proper agent. She told me that there was a really adorable young actress who had just broken up with her boyfriend. But she told Lucinda that she knew an agent who might work with her.”

Ms. Schiff said: “I kept running to the bathroom, trying to keep myself calm. The next night we had our first date and we’ve been together ever since. That was 35 years ago. You can do the math.”

Her husband reflected: “Life in L.A. is all-consuming, even though we’ve done our best to maintain some separation and dedicated ourselves to raising our family. But the house and being here is a great way to gain some perspective.”

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