written by:
photos by:
January 16, 2009
Originally published in Suburbs With Attitude
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.
church renovation connecticut
The undulating white-cedar door is a replica of one Santiago admired at a sushi bar in Japan.
Photo by 
1 / 9
The house is as much a work of art as a showcase for it. The Suarezes are catholic in their tastes: They buy for love not investment, their collection a mix of high and low. In the foyer, prints and drawings acquired over the course of their world travels
The house is as much a work of art as a showcase for it. The Suarezes are catholic in their tastes: They buy for love not investment, their collection a mix of high and low. In the foyer, prints and drawings acquired over the course of their world travels hang along the attenuated S-curve of the wall opposite the front door.
Photo by 
2 / 9
modern church connecticut
With the free-floating birch pod defining the space, and the massive Venetian chandelier accentuating the volume, the great room is, indeed, great. The Suarezes wanted the living area to be a place where the family could be occupied individually while still together. Bonnie works in the kitchen while Santiago (seated on an IKEA couch borrowed from one of their sons until they find something else) works on the computer.
Photo by 
3 / 9
The painting on the landing of the stairs leading to the guest room is a junk-store find. Santiago was especially struck by the incongruity of a New England artist employing such tropical, Gauguin-like colors.
The painting on the landing of the stairs leading to the guest room is a junk-store find. Santiago was especially struck by the incongruity of a New England artist employing such tropical, Gauguin-like colors.
Photo by 
4 / 9
The Jan Larsen Gallery in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood is a favorite haunt for Bonnie and Santiago. That’s where they found the Montauk photograph (“It’s exciting,” Santiago says, “a frozen moment in time”) and coffee table composed of traffic signs.
The Jan Larsen Gallery in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood is a favorite haunt for Bonnie and Santiago. That’s where they found the Montauk photograph (“It’s exciting,” Santiago says, “a frozen moment in time”) and coffee table composed of traffic signs.
Photo by 
5 / 9
The window beside the tub in the master bathroom peers over the living space below and echoes the shiplike quality of the pod, which also contains the master bedroom. Lights reminiscent of portholes and mahogany walls deepen the feeling of being on an oce
The window beside the tub in the master bathroom peers over the living space below and echoes the shiplike quality of the pod, which also contains the master bedroom. Lights reminiscent of portholes and mahogany walls deepen the feeling of being on an ocean cruise.
Photo by 
6 / 9
The Suarezes opted for a cozy bedroom with beautiful details, old and new—lustrous mahogany behind the bed, Baker tables beside it. The long beam overhead replaced the original, but smaller beams above it are authentic.
The Suarezes opted for a cozy bedroom with beautiful details, old and new—lustrous mahogany behind the bed, Baker tables beside it. The long beam overhead replaced the original, but smaller beams above it are authentic.
Photo by 
7 / 9
The family gathers on what is, for now, a postage-stamp-size back porch. The outdoor space will be revisited later, but this house “is not about gardening,” Santiago says. Little by little, he and Bonnie plan to replace the grass with low-maintenance pach
The family gathers on what is, for now, a postage-stamp-size back porch. The outdoor space will be revisited later, but this house “is not about gardening,” Santiago says. Little by little, he and Bonnie plan to replace the grass with low-maintenance pachysandra, perhaps terracing it with a nod to Versailles—art, art everywhere.
Photo by 
8 / 9
On the mantel above the fireplace, a Warhol collage is surrounded by a papier-mâché sculpture of no special provenance, a Vigliaturo glass piece, and a Picasso plate.
On the mantel above the fireplace, a Warhol collage is surrounded by a papier-mâché sculpture of no special provenance, a Vigliaturo glass piece, and a Picasso plate.
Photo by 
9 / 9
church renovation connecticut
The undulating white-cedar door is a replica of one Santiago admired at a sushi bar in Japan.
Project 
Suarez Residence

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.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016
forest for the trees english prefab mobile home facade chesnut cladding
On the edge of a historic park in an English shire, a prefabricated home sets a new design standard.
May 23, 2016
tread lightly australia
A family home on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula is built to blend in with its lakeside setting.
May 23, 2016
jardins party dining room hay chairs local wood floor
A pair of architects help a client carve out an oasis of calm amid São Paulo’s bustle.
May 23, 2016
hwm6zf 1
No matter where you're located or what time of the year it is, having a fireplace in your home is a treasure that’s continuously sought after. Besides the obvious benefits of keeping a fire going through the cold winter months, it can also be a cherished asset that provides an extra level of year-round comfort—not to mention how it can help define the layout of a space by acting as a sculptural element.
May 23, 2016
An office Crosby Studios designed for NGRS in Moscow
Crosby Studios just cares about the essentials.
May 22, 2016
cold sweat seattle floating sauna gocstudio
A cadre of designers let off steam after hours by building and sailing a seaworthy sauna.
May 22, 2016
in the swim off the grid campsite healdsburg california swimming pool solar heat lap pool ipe deck loll designs lounge chairs
An off-the-grid house that is little more than a decked campsite—albeit with a roof—includes a swimming pool for a family that loves to enjoy the elements.
May 21, 2016
A print by Kristina Krogh
From flat to physical, Kristina Krogh masters every dimension.
May 21, 2016
scifi
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 21, 2016
beverly hills living room piano view
Architect Noah Walker, principal of Los Angeles–based studio Walker Workshop, shares completed and work-in-progress residential designs on his Instagram page (@noah_walker). Take a peek at some of the striking modern houses here, and tour the Venice House on the Dwell Home Tours on June 26.
May 20, 2016
ripple effect san fancisco small space yard outdoor monica viarengo pebble mosiac artificial turf slide
A San Francisco landscape designer finds a small-space solution that’s anything but narrow-minded.
May 20, 2016
Oslo living room with light wood floors and wood slab table
A pair of designers in Oslo, armed with tricks for introducing color and daylight, remake their compact late-19th-century apartment.
May 20, 2016
family affair backyard addition portrait
In coastal Massachusetts, a resourceful couple and their equally enterprising children use reclaimed materials to create a versatile 168-square-foot backyard building.
May 20, 2016
speed machine australian beachside prefab archiblox facade colorbond ultra steel cladding queensland blue gum wood
With little time to waste, an Australian firm erects an efficient prefab overlooking the ocean.
May 20, 2016
Christian Benimana at Design Indaba
When he was younger, there wasn't a single architecture school in his country. Now, as part of MASS Design Group, Christian Benimana shares how architecture can heal and inspire Africa.
May 19, 2016
01 1
This Italian villa is serenity incarnate.
May 19, 2016
michael cobb interior
Alternative materials help a house in California’s wine country tread lightly on the land.
May 18, 2016
13266797 1799532953608317 1984666518 n 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 18, 2016
Industrial kitchen built on a budget.
In Austin, Texas, architect Sean Guess forges an inventive industrial kitchen for a cost-conscious couple.
May 18, 2016
great danes dining area
In an up-and-coming area of Copenhagen, a pair of designers and their twin girls inhabit a converted loft, filling it with serious design savvy and a hefty dose of creativity.
May 18, 2016
25687 preview low 1633 2 25687 sc v2com
An 1885 house in Montreal dips a little into its backyard for spare space.
May 17, 2016
modern ecoconscious pavilion walkway roof
A couple’s retirement home on a nature preserve in Carmel, California, emerges as a series of eco-conscious pavilions that rest lightly on the land.
May 17, 2016
Formafantasma's designs for Alcantara's Touching Tales
In a 17-century palazzo, two young design studios explore a very modern material.
May 17, 2016