A TRIBUTE TO CHARLES GWATHMEY
FEW PARTS OF THE WORLD felt the passing of Charles Gwathmey last month as poignantly as the Hamptons, a region whose architectural riches owe him a debt.
It was a home for his parents, artists Robert and Rosalie, that propelled Gwathmey to near-instant fame in 1967 at the age of 28. The 1,200 square-foot Amagansett home was unlike anything else in Eastern Long Island then, remembers John Caramagna, the builder who oversaw the project and eventually relocated to East Hampton to work with Gwathmey.
The two had been converting a Manhattan brownstone basement into an art gallery when Gwathmey approached the contractor with a set of drawings for his parents' home, stating that he was looking for a builder out East. "He came back to the site discouraged and upset," recalls Caramagna. "No one out there understood what he was asking them to build." Caramagna volunteered himself and his cousins for the job and was employed by the architect for decades since then.
"The footprint was so tiny, it blew us away," says Caramagna. "It was very exciting to create a wonderful space from nothing—from a vacant lot."
In 1968 Gwathmey formed a partnership with Robert Seigel, with whom he went on to build notable civic and educational projects such as the Fogg Museum at Harvard and an addition to the Guggenheim. The pair grabbed headlines designing homes for celebrities like Steven Spielberg, Faye Dunaway and David Geffen.
But it is his early and mid-career residences that he's remembered for—and the Hamptons has the lion's share of them. On the heels of the home and studio for his parents he completed another pair of twin structures for the Steel family in Bridgehampton.
The juxtaposition of two buildings on one lot intrigued Preston T. Phillips, a Bridgehampton architect who celebrates 25 years of practice this year. "I came out of school as Charles was hitting his stride," he says. "There were two houses near the end of Ocean Road on Surfside that were fascinating. No one else was doing a dialogue between two adjacent houses. That really captured my imagination. In the mid '70s to '80s he was a force to follow. There was always something exciting coming out of this office."
Gwathmey's contributions here helped define the Hamptons as an architectural destination, somewhere a long driveway was as likely to yield a house resembling an artful jumble of children's blocks as it was a seaside estate. Unlike many of his peers, Gwathmey didn't heed to a lot's context; he viewed Hamptons fields as a "clean palette" where he could further ideas that were consciously dedicated to form.
"These houses weren't so much about making a better world as they were about making a better weekend," wrote Alastair Gordon in Weekend Utopia in 2001.
By the time the '80s arrived, Gwathmey was firmly established and at work on the high-profile, 11,000 square-foot house for François de Menil. At his side were project architect Bruce Nagel and a young associate named Daniel Rowen, a student of Gwathmey's at Yale whom the principal had plucked as an intern and later named part of the team.
"I'll never forget walking the de Menil property for the first time. That's how I discovered East Hampton," recalls Rowen, now a full-time resident. (Rowen had drawn the elevations for the de Menil house, which was completed in 1983, and later, when Larry Gagosian moved in, Rowen kept the gallerist as a client.)
The architect's impact as a mentor is arguably greater than the structures he left behind. From 1965 through 1991, Gwathmey taught at schools such as Pratt, Cooper Union and Columbia and held professorships at Harvard and Yale. "He was truly a great, great teacher," says Rowen. "That is often overlooked, because he was so well-known as an architect. But through his contributions as a teacher, Charles' range was even wider than in his own work. His ability to give students advice was brilliant."
Most of his friends and colleagues are quick to gloss over his professional achievements in favor of praising Gwathmey the man. Rowen's sentiments echo many of his peers':
"Charlie was a larger than life character—handsome dimples and a smile. He had a certain kind of stardom that was nearly as much about his personality as his incredible ability. He was a very complex man, deeply warm and loving and terribly charismatic."