They thought the remodeling could wait. Then a tree fell on the house.

When Dana and Jay Vasser bought a mid-century modern home in Pelham Manor, NY, in Westchester County, they figured they could renovate it—eventually.

Then the majestic pine tree that towers over the house fell on it during a storm in spring 2018, and the Vassers were forced to embark on a building project they hadn’t planned.

“There was a pine tree about 100 feet tall in our front yard and the trunk just snapped about 15 feet up and fell right over the house,” said Mr Vasser, 40, who works in finance.

“That was the catalyst that made us act faster than we might have wanted,” said Ms Vasser, 41, who works in human resources at a financial firm. “But in the end it worked out perfectly.”

The tree didn’t destroy the house, but it did put a hole in the roof that let water in when it rained and damaged a conservatory so badly it had to be boarded up.

When the Vassers bought the home in 2013 for $920,000, they gave the old kitchen a simple update with white cabinets and white marble counters, but left almost everything else the way it was. “It was a very quick and painless brightening up of the kitchen because we both knew we were going to do a major renovation at some point,” said Ms. Vasser.

When the tree fell, they had two children – Sophie, now 8, and Drew, 5 – and with the prospect of major construction going on, they decided there was no better time to build the family home they wanted.

Designed in 1961 by Harold and Judith Edelman, a couple who founded an architectural firm now known as ESKW/Architects, the low rectangular box of a house had many elements the Vassers liked, including lots of natural light, a spacious living room and wooden ceilings that were decorated by be supported by strong wooden beams. When the couple began consulting architects for the renovation, they were surprised to find many wanted to erase those original details.

“A lot of these architects came in wanting to blow up the walls, tear down the nice redwood beam ceilings and things like that,” Ms. Vasser said. “But we said, ‘No, that’s the beauty of it.’ Houses aren’t built like that anymore.”

So they were relieved when they began speaking to Scott Specht, Founding Director of Specht Architects, who understood the merits of the home and suggested a more differentiated approach.

“It was an interesting proposition, that house,” Mr. Specht said, noting that it had already been uncomfortably modified and beautified over the years. “It had some great qualities and features, but there were also elements that had deteriorated beyond repair.”

And there were other experimental features, he said, “like the use of louvered windows” — made of glass louvers — “which are great for warm climates, but not so good in the Northeast.”

With the aim of preserving the original spirit of the house and at the same time making it more energetic and contemporary, Mr. Specht set to work. In consultation with the Vassers, he decided to keep the original footprint but add more space, previously including an outdoor patio below the back deck to expand the basement and increase the size of the home to about 3,850 square feet. The previously unfinished basement now contains a guest suite, study, gym and a den with a golf simulator for Mr. Vasser, an avid golfer.

Mr. Specht has redesigned the floor plan above. “One of our tasks was to create a real sense of procession into the house,” he said.

The original front door led directly into the living room, and there was no awning outside to protect against the weather, so Mr. Specht relocated the opening, tucking it deeper under the roof to create a recessed entrance, and rearranged the rooms inwards create a real foyer.

At the Vassers’ request, he moved, expanded and opened up the kitchen, which was previously in a separate room. Now it accommodates a large center island and flows into the living and dining room. He also replaced the old, damaged conservatory with a home office.

In addition to new windows and doors, Mr. Specht added insulation in the walls and above the ceiling (where there was none before) to improve energy efficiency. He also re-clad the entire house with a mixture of stucco and ipe siding.

For the new facade, he built a slightly higher and longer wall than the rest of the house. It works “like a proscenium,” he said, obscuring the vents and pipes on the flat roof and making the house appear longer from the street.

Almost exactly a year after construction began in November 2018, the Vassers moved back into their renovated modernist home while the finishing touches were still being made. The project was eventually completed in January 2020 at a cost of approximately $300 per square foot.

When the pandemic hit a few months later and the family had to work and study remotely in their new home, “we felt very fortunate to have this,” Mr Vasser said. “It was like, ‘What a great place to spend all our time.'”

Born out of a setback, the project has rewarded the family with a home they love.

“The common areas in this house are just so inviting now,” said Ms. Vasser. “We always want to hang out here.”

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