Bringing It All Back Home
Relying on local materials, local craftsmen, and the land her family has farmed for over two centuries, a New Yorker rediscovers her Midwestern roots.
Rattled by 9/11 and worn down by 34 years in lower Manhattan, artist Lauren Ewing wanted to build a retreat where she could escape the city for a few weeks or months at a time. Ewing, a sculptor and Rutgers University art professor, considered sites in the Northeast but eventually turned to the 500-acre property in Vincennes, Indiana, that her family has farmed since 1806. The house she designed—–a version of the venerable Southern-style shotgun house, updated with a modernist flair—–has given her a place to unwind and reconnect with her Midwestern roots.
I went away to school when I was 17, and for the next 40 years I basically came back here occasionally on vacation, and that was it. After 9/11, I had witnessed not only my whole life but also my whole neighborhood and community change overnight.
I decided to build a house in a place that was kind of a refuge, where I could be self-sufficient if I needed to. And I wanted to spend time with my brother, Mark, who was just seven when I went away to school. I had looked in other places. I thought, Well, I’ll build a house on Cape Cod or Long Island, because
I’m a kayaker and I love the water. And, you know, the real estate prices are just insane. I wanted to be efficient about what I did and I built this whole house in Indiana for $300,000.
I’ve always loved what I call “the wisdom of poor architecture.” I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, with my brother, and I realized that it was the shotgun house that I really loved. It’s eccentric in its proportions. It’s what a kid draws when he draws a house; it’s an archetype of a house.
So this is just a big shotgun house: a single gable that runs from end to end without any beams and was efficient to build. I knew I could get 60 floor joists that were exactly the same and 60 roof trusses that were exactly the same and that I could create a shape that would remain true.
This is a two-bedroom house with only one bathroom, a kitchen, and a very large studio/living room. There are decks on both ends—–including a reading deck off my bedroom. And then it has a full basement, which houses one of my studios and is poured concrete, so it’s wonderfully cool.
There aren’t a lot of windows on the front of the house. One of my themes was to come into what looks like a closed space and then have the whole house open up when you walk in.
I wanted to make something that was going to be easy to take care of, too, so I sided the whole house in corrugated metal, the kind that’s usually used in the great big distribution warehouses that you see off highways. But I like it because the coatings of color are baked on, and the siding has a 25-year guarantee. For the exterior I picked Wedgwood blue. The walnut trees are yellow and the maples are orange and yellow, so it looks absolutely stunning in the fall. It’s a very cool, very recessive color—–almost the color of a shadow—–so it doesn’t stand out. It sort of sits back.
My brother did all the road building, landscaping, and tree clearing. I used a local company to make the doors, and a glass company that puts windows in grocery stores to do my studio window. I used solid Indiana limestone for the steps and Indiana sandstone for the hearth. The entire house was built with local materials and local craftsmen. These weren’t exotic choices, but they’re practical.
One of my extravagances was to get Canadian maple for the studio and hallway floors, because I wanted something that was almost pattern-free. One of the bedroom floors is maple that was taken from this site, and the other bedroom is ash, which was harvested on-site as well. All of the cabinetry is made from wild cherry, which we have in another field on the property.
The whole house opens up to the north, so I never turn the lights on until nine o’clock at night in the summer. I get this wonderful colorless, shadowless light all day long.
I wanted the front of the house to look out on this wonderful little valley, which goes through the most dramatic changes. It’s beautiful here. It’s just a different world, and it’s a world that I basically didn’t have time for as a younger person. As I get older, I want to have time for it. I want to be here. It’s easier on my body and my brain.
I love New York. There’s the most critical and interested art audience in the smallest geographical area of any place in the world, so it’s very intense. And I like that. But I like this too.