Santiago Suarez is a man who craves challenge, a knight errant, if you will, whose exploits are in the realm of the intellectual and artistic. His wife, Bonnie, has been his game companion and adventurer in kind since they met in college in the late ’60s. Three years ago they set out on a quest to downsize from their converted raised ranch in Greenwich, Connecticut, which, with their three sons grown and gone, had become too empty feeling. Having commuted to his film studio in Manhattan for more than 20 years (Santiago directs visually kinetic commercials for the likes of Gillette, Life Savers, and Kellogg’s), Santiago had become attracted to the idea of clean, modern loft living, something “cool, maybe a little Spartan,” but he didn’t want to leave Greenwich. Less than an hour from the city by train or car, Greenwich might as well be another country entirely: It roams and rambles where the city contracts and tapers; it sprawls horizontally where the city funnels vertically; homes in Greenwich seem to be moated by enough greenery to landscape a neighborhood park in the city. In short, it is anything but Spartan.
After a year of searching for the impossible, Santiago tripped over an ad in the local newspaper—“Church for Sale!”—went to the open house “out of curiosity,” and bought the 19th-century structure, once home to a Baptist congregation, the next day. Only then did he start thinking about what to do with it. He spent a year perusing architect portfolios, even interviewing Zaha Hadid (alas, the job was too small), and trolling the Internet. There he found the husband-and-wife team of Alan Organschi and Lisa Gray. The firm’s office in an industrial building in New Haven demonstrated the sort of adaptive reuse the Suarezes had in mind, and when they saw Gray Organschi’s transformation of a firehouse into a café and bar cum music studio cum apartment, they were sold.
They were lucky to have an “open-minded client like Santi,” says Gray, whose approach is not to rebuild slavishly but to save what is original and great and stabilize the structure, “to bring it back to life.” The church had been decommissioned almost 30 years ago and renovated in haphazard, do-it-yourself hippie style, the celestial voices of the choir having long been drowned out by the earthly harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the pews supplanted by shag carpet, and the sacrament replaced with the smell of, um, burning rope. Finding a way for the structure’s iconic form to communicate with its contemporary function was a challenge, to say the least.
By the time Gray Organschi saw the space, it had already been gutted. The Suarezes had wanted to take it down to its ribs to prevent future surprises, so the architects could see exactly what they would be working with. The interior design was “meant to work as a counterpoint to the very simple, dignified, historic building” that serves as its envelope, Gray says, to be distinctly and absolutely “other.” The question was, in carving out space within the space, “how much to let what we were doing show on the outside.” In keeping with the architects’ aesthetic principles, the answer was, as little as possible: to let the exterior walls of the church read as they had been written more than 150 years ago.
With a word changed here and there, of course: Because no one knew what the church’s original front door had been, there was room for interpretation. Santiago commissioned a replica of a sushi bar’s white-cedar door that he had seen in Japan. Its undulating waves tease and invite, telegraphing the idea that a different story is being told within.
As soon as you step into what might be called the foyer and round the corner of its curvaceous wall, this new tale is undeniable. What the Suarezes refer to as “the birch pod,” and the architects describe as “an other life-form that landed there,” asserts that the 21st century has, indeed, touched down in the 19th, invading like a friendly alien. The pod floats above the great room, hovering where the choir loft stood silent as parishioners entered the church. Respecting the old while translating it into the new dovetails with the Suarezes’ aesthetic, which is all about marrying the two, using one genre to soften another: a choir loft becomes a master bedroom and bath; the importance of “journey,” whether spiritual or physical, plays out in the ribboning of the stairs; the old basement kitchen morphs into storage and laundry facilities (because, Bonnie says, “I didn’t want to go down to a bogeyman basement”). The house is, in the end, “all bits and pieces,” Santiago says, spliced together like one of his eye-popping television commercials.
But what bits and pieces! A Venetian chandelier as big and bright as a planet provides the great room’s cen-ter of gravity (or, rather, center of whimsy). Deco screens from a movie theater flank the kitchen; some of their glass circles were duplicated by a glass blower for door panels in the passageways opposite. Paintings, sculptures, and photographs are scattered around the house deliberately, but as casually as a child’s toys, although some prized pieces remained in hibernation for awhile, waiting to be woken from their slumber when the Suarezes found the right place for them. You would think that with 20 feet of vertical wall space, hanging art would be a cinch, but it’s just the opposite, so Bonnie and Santiago took their time, perching a Matthew Rolston photograph here, staging a cluster of cobalt-glass “bamboo” canes there. The fireplace wall, where the church’s altar once presided, is a snapshot of the arching eclectic vision that has directed the process: Neapolitan bamboo is the backdrop for a Warhol collage of Marilyn Monroe, an inexpensive papier-mâché sculpture, a Vigliaturo glass piece from the gallery in Venice where the chandelier and bamboo canes came from, and a Picasso plate.
The Suarezes are also taking their time with the kitchen, perhaps because it is a sacred space for Bonnie, a professional chef whose culinary energy these days is expended largely on the Sunday-night family dinners she “caters” in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, where all three sons live. For now, the island is a slab of marble atop a found base; the counters are constructed with Speed-Rail, a system of pipes and fittings that can be used to build a lighting grid or attach a movie camera to, say, the side of a car to shoot the action within. Speed-Rail also frames the gesso-topped dining-room table. (Yes, gesso, the stuff Renaissance painters slathered on wood panels.) “I’ve been eating on that thing for ten years,” Santiago says.
What started as a personal quest by the Suarezes to reinterpret, “to be excited,” as Santiago says, “to have someone teach me a lesson”—in short, to have their minds blown—has had a similar effect on those touched by the project. Ted Whitten, an early project architect, consecrated the Suarezes’ new home by having his wedding there before the job was done, wires dangling like industrial party decorations. Meanwhile, the contractors learned a thing or two: They had never built a wall that wasn’t straight, had never even worked on anything non-colonial—what, no molding to hide mistakes?—hardly surprising given the traditional nature of architecture in conservative, centuries-old Greenwich. And with its steeple bell sitting on the front lawn à la Marcel Duchamp, the church has become a happy town curiosity—the Suarezes, only just moved in, have already been approached by would-be buyers.
It has definitely been a long, strange trip—for a Baptist church, for the town of Greenwich, and for Bonnie and Santiago Suarez—but the journey is hardly over yet.