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At Home Magazine
July/August 2006

By Stefene Russell

Photography by
Alise O'Brien

Thoroughly Modern Durham

A sloped site, bad dirt and strict municipal guidelines…despite the greatest of challenges, Phil Durham still managed to design one couple’s dream house.

A few years ago, Jay and Denise Levitch inherited a house in Ladue. What sounded like a good deal on paper was, in reality, a headache incarnate. The house was in iffy shape; its sloping lot was diagonally intersected by a dry stream bed, which was used for drainage. That odd topography meant one next-door neighbor’s house was built at street level while the other was back towards the rear of the lot.
They never regretted wrecking the first house, but the couple did lose sleep over hiring an architect to design the new one. They wanted a genuine Modernist abode, the kind you see shining from the pages of Dwell magazine. But finding someone willing to design a beautiful contemporary house on a skiwampus lot—rather than just recommending a traditional house propped up with a retaining wall—was tough.

“He was the only person who was willing, or could do what we wanted to do,” Denise Levitch says of Phil Durham (who has in fact appeared in the pages of Dwell for his brilliant re-working of a pair of Quonset huts in Belleville). “I gave him some pictures from Architectural Digest. The openness was really important, the high ceilings. He interpreted his design from the pictures, and pretty much came up with exactly what we wanted.”

When asked how difficult it is to design a house from a folder full of magazine pages, Durham laughs and shrugs: “Well, that really depends on the client.” In other words, things are never that easy—even with demolition, much less construction.

“Tearing down the old house took a lot longer that we’d hoped,” he says. “We found bad soil under the house, which is why it was in such bad shape, so we had some remediation to do, so we started a little bit late.”

“But it turned out okay—it always turns out okay,” Denise counters good-naturedly. Luckily, razing the old house was the only unpleasant part of the operation. Durham was excited about the prospect of designing an unabashedly Modernist house (as opposed to the Etch-A-Sketch contemporary buildings that sometimes get labeled as such) and describes the Levitches as “the perfect clients—they knew exactly what they wanted.” Denise says she thinks “everyone should have Phil design their house.”

“I wanted walls that would make it like a gallery, so we could show off our art,” Denise explains. She and her husband also wanted wooden barrel-vaulted ceilings, as well as lots of space and light.

So adjoining the graceful, curved ceilings on the main floor are windows that run the length of the house, like glass walls. Both floors have them, giving the house an almost dollhouse-like openness, though a lushly planted backyard and a privacy wall prevent it from feeling too exposed. “You feel like you’re outside, almost,” Denise says. “The dogs like it. They can watch everything that’s going on. They get a fabulous show.”

To deflect heat, the windows are treated with Low-E solar control glaze, topped with an additional coat of Solarban.“And hopefully,” Durham adds, “all the trees we had to cut down that we didn’t want to will grow in and protect it a little more.” In the meantime, the windows are equipped with white fabric power blinds.

The inside-outside feel is further enhanced by the fact that some of the walls extend right past the panes. “This is the main exterior stucco,” Durham says, pointing out a living room wall made from panels. Set into the wall is an off-center fireplace with an L-shaped mantel that runs all the way to the edge of the wall, past the firebox.

“It’s black granite,” he says, patting the mantel. “It’s actuallythree pieces mitered together into a box. It looks solid, but it’s not ... and I’d hate to think what it would weigh if it was.

Durham and the Levitches also agreed on materials, including simple stainless steel for the kitchen countertops. (“My husband likes to cook,” Denise says, “so it was important that we had something state-of-the-art.”)

“We went through a whole bunch of material samples with the contractor,” Durham says. “And then we did mock-ups of the ceiling and the trim—so we had big toys to play with before we started building.”

The only thing he admits to being slightly disappointed with is the downstairs floor, which is poured concrete topped with a finish and sealer.

“Things happen,” he says. “We ended up with a lot more character than we’d originally planned on.” (Denise disagrees with him, interjecting, “I like it.”)

However, Durham is genuinely pleased about the closets on both floors, which hide what will eventually become an elevator—perhaps because this implies the Levitches’ long-term commitment to the house. Knowing that they’re in the house for the long haul has given the couple the luxury of settling into the house at their own pace, bit by bit. It’s been about a year since they’ve moved in, but they’re still fine-tuning things, learning how to keep the water in the backyard fountain clear and adding bamboo plants in giant planters on the deck just outside the master bedroom.

“It’s been a very slow inaugural cruise here, hasn’t it?” Durham says. “ Yeah,” Denise replies. “I guess it’s like—well, we don’t have any children, but I guess it’s like the process of having a baby.”

“But with a house,” Durham quips, “no stretch marks.”