Lessons from Living in a House Designed by William Wurster

From taking tours of other Wurster designed houses, I have observed that he typically made creative use of circulation elements such as stairs to create a dramatic effect in otherwise fairly ordinary plans.  For the thirty-five years we have lived in our Wurster-designed house, I have never ceased to marvel at the beauty created by its simple curved staircase.

View of the curved stairway with the projecting window.

Midway between the first and second floor, a large, projecting window offers a view of distant trees and lights the space. Wurster approximately doubled the wall depth to accommodate this window.  The design permitted simple construction and was relatively inexpensive for such a dramatic custom treatment. Furthermore, it enhanced the experience of going from one level to another.

The upper landing leads to each of the three bedrooms and features a solid bannister overlooking the stairs.  The center point is a rounded element that also is finished to match the plastered walls.  A light hangs over the top of the rounded center and a fixture was chosen that is a simple glazed cylinder.  This stairway is the one dramatic element in an otherwise simple and plain house.  The lesson is that stairways are an opportunity to add spice to the relationship between form and function.

Construction drawing for the projecting stairway window

Every time I look out of the windows in the house, I am stunned by what often appears to be an artful arrangement of what is on the outside.  The single pane opening means that the outdoor space is virtually part of the indoor space. Although  in a time of awareness of energy efficient design, a large, single paned window becomes more problematic–especially when they are made operable–windows and their detailing are of prime importance to the beauty and livability of a home or a workplace.

Single paned windows can frame and organize landscape views

When you are seated inside our house and look out one of the ground floor windows, you can see the ground as well as the horizon and sky.  Wurster designed the window openings on the ground floor to be at a height above the floor level of approximately 27 inches.  The result is a strong visual connection between the outdoor and the indoor space.  There is no sense of floating or of being in a tree.  The design is one of being literally grounded, even in a setting of almost overwhelming long-range views.  The ground plane is made part of the view.  This detail reinforces all aspects of the connection between indoor and outdoor space.

Placing windows near the floor allows sightlines to the ground.

10 Responses

  1. adrienne klein says:

    To the author and others knowledgeable of Wurster homes, It’s time for me to conduct some repairs and updates to my Wurster home and I would like referrals for architects and contractors who can help me make some decisions and execute the projects.

  2. Carol Deering says:

    I would say ditto for our house next door! I’m so glad you decided to build this house for your mother-in-law in 1981, on the flat portion of your lot, where Wurster had planned a tennis court. Because you were able to “see” and “live” the positive design aspects of your Wurster, you were successful in designing them into 68 Twain. We too are enjoying those Wurster elements that you write about – without the added maintenance of those extra 40 years! ~Thanks Jay

  3. Kate says:

    We are in the midst of renovating a Wurster home for sale,and it has been tricky to find the right balance between updating and staying true to the original plan for the house. The house has been our family home for over 50 years as I was the third generation to be able to enjoy the true beauty of the home. William Wurster really did an incredible job of blending the indoor and outdoor elements to come toghter seemlessly.I love this home and the clean beautiful lines of it.

  4. Robin Chiang says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay on what good architecture can achieve. I am reminded that Wurster practiced what the College of Environmental Design was meant to teach. The relevance of its original mission has not diminished.

  5. Thank you, for commenting!

  6. Mac McGinnis says:

    Very enjoyable, Sally. Certainly, it points up the aspect of time in appreciating architecture — and the personal insights of a sensitive observer add richness to the writing.

  7. Jay- Very thoughtful. What strikes me is that both the designer and the resident are so in sync as to be able to communicate to one another, or others, over such a long and enduring relationship. What a nice goal for an architect to try to achieve. Hope all is well with the family.
    Best, Rob

  8. Dan Gregory says:

    Jay this is excellent and demonstrates Wurster’s remarkable ability to focus on ordinary but essential elements and make them memorable, like the stair and the stair window. You deftly explain some of Wurster’s key concepts, as in your felicitous phrases “functional simplicity” and how “the ground plane is made part of the view.” Bravo. I might want to steal some of this for my Eye On Design blog…

  9. Thank you for the comment!

  10. Wonderful to read your thoughts about living in Wurster’s house, Jay. Thank you!

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