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Academy Rewards

A pair of photographers employed a pair of architects (they're all buddies) to transform an aging schoolhouse into a modern marvel.

A pair of photographers employ­ed a pair of architects (they’re all buddies) to transform an aging schoolhouse into a modern marvel.

It was a nervy move for a pair of New York photographers to buy an 1850 schoolhouse in Milford, Pennsylvania. Not only was the former Milford Academy an ancient, arklike wooden structure, but it wasn’t in the strongest repair, the previous owner having commenced a renovation that was never finished. Fittingly, the new owners, Richard Renaldi and Seth Boyd, found dry land by recruiting their architects two-by-two. It just so happened that those designers were among their closest friends.

One architect is 39-year-old Andrew Magnes, who at the time worked for Leroy Street Studios, a small but cutting-edge New York firm. The other, 34-year-old Koray Duman, a transplant  to New York from Los Angeles, was striking out on his own.Renaldi and Boyd had been friends with Magnes since the late 1990s; later, they introduced him to Duman, and the two architects became friends. Indeed, all four had taken road trips together, attending Burning Man twice in various configurations.

Still, Magnes and Duman had never collaborated. Their friends, however, had high hopes, 
knowing both were far from your stereotypical designers with large, prickly egos. In fact, the reinvention of the one-time academy promised to be another adventure.

The decision to employ both Magnes and Duman had been made without much fuss some months before. Before buying the schoolhouse, the photographers were eyeing another place, a Victorian, which, according to Duman, “needed some simple renovation in the entrance area.” They had asked each of their architect friends for advice on the prospective job, and, liking what they heard, a collaboration was born.

When Renaldi and Boyd settled instead on the 2,250-square-foot shell in Milford (population 1,654), however, the scope of the project took on a whole new character.

After its life as a school, the Academy was converted into a boardinghouse, which hosted actors performing at Milford’s once-thriving resort. By 1904 the structure had been rotated 90 degrees and turned into a family home. Now Renaldi and Boyd, fondly described by Magnes as “highly modern bohemians,” wanted it reimagined as a place where they could live and work.

The couple run Charles Lane Press, a publishing house devoted to high-quality books that, according to Boyd, "aim to give the photograph the respect it deserves." They needed a space amenable to their projects, full of light, quiet, and friendly to contemplation. Designing a multistory interior that fulfilled such lofty goals not only became a test of Magnes and Duman’s ability to collaborate but stood as among the most ambitious commissions that either had taken on.

Over the last five years the four friends had talked and argued—sometimes for hours on end—about art, music, and architecture, so Renaldi and Boyd were confident giving their architects carte blanche. “They left the design of the overall space to us,”  Magnes recalls. “They were interested in seeing how we would approach a building and thus get an insight into the design process.”

At first, Duman and Magnes individually made drawings to share with the other.  Later they drew together at Duman's small Manhattan office in Chelsea where Renaldi and Boyd would come over to see the results. “We were so excited to go to these meetings,” recalls Boyd.

On occasion, each architect would present a different solution. In the open master bathroom there was the problem of where to place the toilet: Magnes’s idea was for half the bathroom, including the toilet, to be glassed off; Duman designed a small partitioned area for it in one corner. In the end the stairs to the attic were rerouted above the bathroom, thereby creating a natural space in which to locate the commode.

Considering the success of the final design, the architects’ initial differences seem inconsequential. “If you know the other person well, you understand more easily what is behind their ideas, so designing together is much less of an ego issue,” says Duman. “Well, you could say he’s the hair-puller and I’m the scratcher,” Magnes jokes.

Before long their easy working relationship produced a singular vision. Both saw the school as such a fine example of the white clapboard structure that prevails in Milford that they resisted the idea of installing an anonymous contemporary interior. Instead, they sought to embrace both periods of the building’s history when making all design decisions. "The relative simplicity of the historic exterior needed to be mirrored by a comparable feeling in the inside,” says Duman.

Because the interior for the most part had been opened up, the flow of light from the copious windows—14 around the lower floor, 18 around the upper—was spectacular. The architects decided that the open areas of the original interior—two classrooms with almost nine-foot-high ceilings—should return: On the lower floor they designed a large living room and above, an equally spacious master bedroom suite, each a generous 43 by 13 feet. Adjoining the latter is the once-controversial bathroom.

The new construction, such as the partition walls that run down the spine of the house, remains far away from the original outer shell, though certain details in the old structure—like a walnut floor and a more contemporary window trim set back slightly from the sill—were updated in an effort to honor both eras of the home’s existence.

On the other side of the house, the architects and their clients loosened up. As the new rooms are self-contained and don’t impact the open spaces, they felt free to leave off the historical sympathies in favor of a somewhat flashy brand of modernism. They installed a bright and airy stairway above which they placed three windows; at the base, an aluminum screen defines the stairwell and foyer.

Though the architects were given free rein, 
Renaldi, the color expert of the group, didn’t want the whitewashed interior of the open living spaces to dominate completely: Open the door  to the guest bathroom and you’re greeted by lavender walls. As chef of the house, Renaldi's fingerprints —and proof of even more collaboration are also evidence in the kitchen, at the rear of the house, where marble countertops and a range of smart appliances round out the design.

Reflecting on their work, the architects see what an opportunity their friends gave them. “This was the project that inspired me to go out on my own,” confesses Magnes, who founded his own firm, amProjects, in late 2008. Duman, partner in Sayigh + Duman, also found his confidence boosted. Sitting in a tiny office above Broadway, he says, “My professional goal is to continue doing experimental projects like this.”

Still, Renaldi and Boyd are the true beneficiaries. In recent years, taking photographs along the way, they have ventured to Thailand and Malaysia, embarked on a self-guided safari in Namibia, and taken their annual cross-country drive. But their revamped academy, says Renaldi, “is so beautiful and light we want to spend more and more time right here.” Thanks to their architect friends, they have found inspiration at home.

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