A View With a House

East meets west in a Japanese-style house on the Hudson



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If you visit Kenneth and Barbara Cooke’s Germantown house, the couple will greet you at the door; explain the house rule (no shoes); then lead you into their big, airy living room. It’s a stunning space that seems almost all glass, although you may barely register the glass wall behind you because the one in front — a 48-foot-wide expanse — overlooks a breathtaking view of the Hudson River and the mountains beyond. “We call it a view with a house,” says Ken.

A few years ago, the Cookes, now in their early 60s, were Manhattan loft-dwellers weekending in a onetime water-tank building near Clermont. “It was in the woods, and I started to realize that what I really wanted was a vista,” says Ken. One autumn day in 1997, he was kayaking on the Hudson and noticed a house on a bluff in a particularly lovely spot. As he and Barbara were driving home, they saw a roadside sign offering 23 acres for sale that Ken thought might be near the spot he’d seen from his kayak. It turned out to be so.

barbara and kenneth cookeScene stealing: Barbara and Kenneth Cooke on the deck of their Asian-inspired home

The Cookes were the only bidders on the densely wooded property, two acres of which were on the river. “It was just a chainsaw away from a spectacular view,” says Ken. For five years, they carefully culled trees, cleared scrub, and thought about the house they’d build.

“I always loved modern architecture, but modern houses rust and chip, they don’t get a patina,” says Ken. “We wanted a house that would get character as it aged. And there’s something very comforting about the post-and-beam vocabulary.” A former creative director for a branding company, Ken had worked in Japan for a time (“My job was to go out every night to karaoke bars,” he jokes), and both Cookes have an affinity for things Japanese. They realized that traditional Japanese architecture would combine the clean lines of modernism with materials that age well. “We’re Americans, we’re western, we know that — we didn’t want a theme park,” says Barbara. “But we did want a tone of serenity and calm.”

glass terrace

Open house (counter-clockwise, from left): A dramatic 48-foot expanse of glass overlooking the river and mountains has fixed panels at each end, with 32 feet of specially engineered sliding doors that let onto the full-length deck. At the rear, more custom-made glass doors open onto a pebbled terrace with a twiggy bamboo fence which Ken Cooke made himself. (“We ran out of money,” he says.) Sparse furnishings include black leather seating and Tansu chests

pebble terracetansu chest

“The first architect we hired was more interested in putting his own ideas forward,” says Ken, who admits to knowing “enough about architecture to be dangerous.” Woodstock architect Barry Price was willing to work collaboratively. “We gave Barry a very specific list of what we wanted,” Barbara says. “Ken had a clear vision.”

“Clear to the point that when we got the plans, I wasn’t sure I liked the front elevation,” Ken adds. “So I built a model with foam core to get a 3-D look. I was concerned about volume and shapes. Barry, of course, knew it was okay.”

living roomInside view: Black walnut flooring warms the long, airy living room, while exposed posts and beams add “a soulful look,” Ken Cooke says. The library is just visible at the far end

Following the Cooke’s precise wish list, Price designed a long, low, cedar-and-stucco house with timber framing evocative of Japanese structures (although, at 5,100 square feet, its proportions are decidedly American). Plans included a 1,200-square-foot studio and an entrance courtyard. “The bible for me was a really great book by Norman Carver called Form and Space in Japanese Architecture,” Price remarks.

The couple sold their weekend home to raise what Ken calls “seed money,” and construction began. “I bought a 19-foot Airstream trailer on eBay — a darling thing,” says Barbara. “We lived in it on weekends.” By 2004, the studio was complete. The Cookes were still living in SoHo, where Barbara’s lingerie boutique, Joovay, was located. (It’s now in Rhinebeck.) “SoHo had really changed, and Barbara’s rent was going through the roof. We said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s sell the loft and move up and finish the project,’ ” recalls Ken, who had decided to leave his job. The couple moved into the studio for a year, and Ken dedicated his time to nudging his vision into reality.

shinto belljapanese fireman's axes

Asian accents include a Shinto bell and Japanese firemen’s axes (above)

Ken’s photographs (like the one above the steel hearth, at right) and Japanese textiles supply art

living room

Such an arrangement — architect, construction team, and highly opinionated owner working together — is likely to be tense, but according to the Cookes, all went well. “The architect and construction team really worked together. There was never any finger-pointing; it was always problem solving,” says Barbara.

Barry Price agrees. “Ken knew what he wanted, and we had some intense discussions, but we always found a good solution,” he says. “Were there times when I wanted to kill him? Yes. And I know there were moments when he was tempted to design the house by himself — and he’s probably capable, so I give him credit for how much he let go.”

When Ken didn’t want to let go, he’d look for solutions himself. A case in point was finding the big, sliding-glass doors for the front and rear walls. Price told him aluminum was the only weather-tight option being manufactured in America at the time. Ken wanted wood, hit the Internet, and found Architectural Openings, a Massachusetts company that could make wooden doors with a special drop-slide mechanism engineered in Germany. “They were very expensive,” he says. “When I heard how much it would cost for custom windows for the entire house, I almost had a heart attack. So the windows are Andersen.”

“We put our money where it best served us,” adds Barbara. “We have a combination of expensive things that really had to be done, and very common things — it works beautifully.” One common — although well-disguised — solution is in the kitchen: Standard Brookhaven cabinets have custom-made, black walnut fronts and doors with no knobs or pulls to interrupt the clean lines. “We don’t like hardware,” says Barbara, demonstrating with her foot how she must pull out a bottom drawer so that she can open a top one. “That’s just the way it is,” she announces cheerfully.

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