The Opalinski residence is located in Ware, Massachusetts, a former industrial town known for manufacturing shoes. The original brick ranch house, built in 1964, has a surprisingly elegant formality that is sharpened by its sprawling green lawn and the circular driveway leading to the front entrance. As visitors enter through the front door, the impeccably preserved aura of the 1960s that characterizes the exterior transforms magically at the entry threshold into a blend of brilliant white, warm wood and subtle lighting effects. Tracy and Paul Opalinski commissioned Miller Pollin to renovate the main level of this large, classic ranch.
The couple had inherited the house from an uncle, Edward J. Urban, a prominent Ware businessman and life-long resident. In 1959, Urban founded the American Athletic Shoe Company, one of the largest ice-skate manufacturers in the country. The house had changed little over the past fifty years. Indeed, the basement, an entertainment lair complete with yellow tufted leather bar, wood paneling and poker table, is preserved as a historical snapshot of the 1960s. The new owners wanted their house to convey Zen-like calm. They also wanted a limited color palate and thoughtful storage solutions to reduce clutter. They shared these ideas with Miller Pollin. The result is a stunningly modern home with a surprising warmth. Entering the foyer, there is a disciplined whiteness, with a curving wall opposite the door, stark in its simplicity. A series of five white niches line one of the entry walls displaying Asian vases and a Buddha dramatically lit from above. White paneled doors with no visible handles indicate a coat closet. On the opposite wall, a Shoji-like pocket-door slides open to reveal Tracy’s office/yoga space. The room is empty save for a small built in desk, and white cabinets that conceal home office files. This room sets the tone for the rest of the residence.
Throughout, spaces flow into each other, providing vistas through and across the house. The influence of traditional Japanese architecture is clear as these larger spaces are easily divided by the sliding pocket-doors. These in turn, designed with translucent white Japanese rice paper, can define a space as needed while filtering light. The original windows remain but traditional interior frames were removed. Similarly, there are no baseboards or crown moldings. Instead, intersections of walls, floors, ceilings and windows are pared down for an unadorned simplicity. Such simplicity serves to better dramatize the spare use of smaller scale features such as wall niches. These appear in the foyer and are used to great effect above an L-shaped banquette. Lined with Brazilian Ipe wood, they set off six pieces of antique Czech crystal.
Small lights from above produce lacy patterns on the stark white walls, a delicate decorative touch against the pure modernism of the space. Similarly, inherited antique crystal wall sconces and a breakfast table chandelier create reflections on the white walls and ceiling. Open niches cut through a wall that partitions the breakfast table from the living room spaces. They frame views of the interior and landscape beyond. The public living spaces pivot around a central kitchen. The kitchen has no boundary walls. Two 13-foot islands hold a sink, stove, and cabinets sheathed in maple. A beautifully tiled planter cantilevers out from one island, providing a screen of foliage that shields the kitchen work surfaces.
A staircase to the lower level is tucked beneath the south facing kitchenisland. A cubic volume on the island holds small appliances and separates the stair rail from the cooking space. The stairs are framed in a stainless-steel system of cables and railings which complements the overall openness and the largely orthogonal geometry of the house. Most dramatic of all is a full-height oval form located between the kitchen and living room. On the kitchen side, the elegant ovoid, clad in a dark polished Ipe, camouflages a refrigerator, freezer, pantry and small closet. The form becomes a media center on the living room side. It is a study in uncluttered and streamlined functionality with remarkable sculptural beauty, and provides a fulcrum around which home life flows. In the living room, Miller Pollin stripped away the flat, traditional ceiling of textured plaster. In the manner of Wright at Fallingwater (an inspiration for the owners), she then also created varied ceiling heights. Wooden mullions define translucent panels which provide muted, ambient lighting in the space. At Fallingwater, Wright set a flat ceiling within these horizontal panels. But here a shallow dome is centered above, lifting the ceiling into the roof rafters to create a greater sense of height.
The design of this ceiling yields an ethereal sense of space and height. While this project is a renovation of an existing structure, it still reflects many of Miller Pollin’s architectural concerns. It was the product of a synergy between client and architect who, through the design process, shared a clear vision of modernist purity. Together they created peaceful and elegant spaces that elicit an interior calm.
Once again, Miller Pollin’s knowledge of architectural history informed the design of areas such as the living room, with its reference to Wright. Yet Miller Pollin deftly handled this ceiling space to create a sense of height and mystery. Typical of Miller Pollin’s work is the way in which she weaves past traditions into a new sensibility. In many ways, this is a modernist house, with its white walls and open floor plan, in the tradition of Le Corbusier. However, the ethereal white is grounded by the warm wood of the floors, cabinetry and oval Ipe multi-function form. The result is a home with a disciplined lack of clutter — a beautifully defined framework for home life.