Modernist Architect Frank Dushin: A Tour of His Putnam County Houses

Although he never achieved the fame of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Hudson Valley’s own modernist architect, Frank Dushin, designed houses that rival those of his famous counterpart



A few months after Sue Downes moved into her modernist home in Garrison, in 1996, she threw a birthday party for her daughter, and rented a pony to give rides. “The guy who brought the pony said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a Dushin house — my father was the architect,’ ” recalls Downes. She’d never heard of Frank Dushin, but was excited to hear reminiscences from his son Karl about the house she’d fallen in love with. Later, on a tour of mid-century modern houses around Garrison, Downes ran across other people who owned Dushin homes. “Everyone who had one felt very connected to him,” she recalls. “We all said we should find a way to get him recognition, but nothing much came of it.”

Over the past half century, Dushin — who died five years ago at the age of 80 — designed around 45 of the most distinctive mid-century modern homes in the Hudson Valley, as well as a few institutional buildings, churches and schools. His work is often compared with that of Frank Lloyd Wright, his senior by some 60 years, although according to his family, Dushin would not have appreciated the compliment.

Frank Edward Dushin was born in the Bronx on July 23, 1926. His father, a plumber, moved the family to Pleasantville when Frank was a toddler, and there he grew up. He studied art and architecture at the University of Illinois, and after graduating, worked as a draftsman for the modernist architect Edward Durell Stone in New York. In 1953, Dushin received a Fulbright scholarship to teach modern American architecture at Durham University in Newcastle, England. By then, the well-dressed, slight young man with a taste for the finer things in life had met the pretty, pixieish Leona Hauff. “He said, do you wanna come with me?” recalls Leona. “I said, yeah. He said, you have to marry me.” Leona declined. “But after he left, it struck me: Am I stupid not to go to Europe? So I joined him, and married him in Newcastle.”

When Dushin and his bride came home to the U.S., he began working with another modernist architect, J. Edward Luders, who had a practice in Irvington. Not long after, in a twist of fate, Leona met Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter Nora Caroe, who introduced her to a woman who was selling land in Garrison, but only to those involved in the arts. The couple bought a few acres, and Dushin designed his first dwelling to sit on the property. He and Leona, both still in their 20s and on a tight budget, did a lot of the finish work themselves.

clifton house dining roomThe Clifton’s dining room shows Dushin’s talent for connecting a house to the landscape. At right: Sue Downes (left) and Michelle Clifton launched the Frank Dushin Society on Facebook so owners of the architect’s homes can share information about maintaining and restoring them

Photographs by Ken Gabrielsen

sue downes and michelle clifton

Having land allowed Leona to indulge in her passion for horses, and she began teaching horsemanship. These days, the remarkably spry 86-year-old still keeps horses and lives in the house, as does her son Karl. She calls the place “a monument of simplicity and design, where common sense and art are melded.”

Leona insists that her husband didn’t like Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. “But he had an outstanding ability to look at a site and place a house without disturbing it — that’s one thing he garnered from Wright,” she allows. The Dushin family home is a single-story structure that sits so snugly on the property you can hardly see it from the road. Dushin’s designs became more complex as he grew more accomplished, but this modest house bears the hallmarks of what was to come. And — whether Dushin liked him or not — it reflects Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian ideal”: an affordable house for a middle-class family, with small bedrooms and bathrooms, a small kitchen, and open communal spaces. Built-in furnishings; large expanses of glass that make the rooms feel much bigger; an overhanging roof; and rough-cut, vertical board-and-batten siding both inside and out, are other Dushin signatures.

“I realized at a young age that I wasn’t living in a conventional house,” says Dushin’s son Russell, who calls himself the “dreaded middle child.” His father — who “figured he was having three kids and that was it,” Russell says — designed only three eight-foot square bedrooms for his children, so when the fourth and fifth came along, it was a squeeze. “We had very little space to hide away in an open plan like that,” Russell says. “If you needed privacy, you went outside.”

In the master suite (“cum-tack room,” notes Leona of the horse paraphernalia hanging everywhere), there’s an example of Dushin’s ingenious built-ins: the bed slides into a deep shelf where the headboard would be, so that it need take up only the space of a sofa during the day. “It was thrilling to have the house,” Leona remembers. “We were very happy then. People thought we were the ideal couple.” Dushin opened an office in Peekskill, and used his home as a showcase for potential clients. They all “wanted a replica,” Leona says. “Although of course he built to suit the client and the site and the budget.”

 

downes houseSue Downes’ house was Dushin’s first commission. The front and rear walls each have a midsection of angled windows, and the 33-foot chimney (right) emphasizes the dramatic space. Unlike most architects, Dushin also designed the interiors of his homes, down to the last detail

Photograph by Jan Thacher

downes house chimney

Sue Downes’ house, a few miles away, is believed to be Dushin’s first commission. She owns the meticulously detailed plans, including an early version from 1960 that shows the high-peaked bank of windows in the rear wall, but an almost Colonial-style facade. Evidently, Dushin persuaded his clients to repeat the expanse of glass in the front. The bedrooms and baths are built around the perimeter of the second floor, leaving the central, sun-drenched main living space with a cathedral ceiling that peaks at 33 feet, and a brick chimney piece soaring through the space. It’s truly dramatic, although, as Downes points out, “it’s also a spider’s delight; you need an extension ladder to remove a cobweb or change a light bulb.” Downes’ house, atypically, has a cellar and a steeply pitched roof, but there are enough Dushin hallmarks to make it recognizable.

Over the following decade, Dushin designed several houses that were built on the same back road as his own. One of those now belongs to his son Russell and another, a particularly striking one, to documentary filmmakers Michelle and Chuck Clifton. The Clifton’s house was constructed in 1971 for a couple named Frank and Martha West. As Michelle Clifton tells it: “Frank West just told Dushin, I want a house with a tower — that was his only direction.” Dushin designed him a house with a tower, but more distinctively, created a dwelling made up of triangles that get successively smaller on each of the three floors. Although it’s only 1800 square feet, the house’s unusual layout — and angled rooms with striking glass corners that allow for uninterrupted views — make it feel far larger, as does the fact that most rooms let onto a deck or balcony.

The Wests lived in the house for 15 years before putting it up for sale. By then, the Cliftons had met Frank Dushin socially, and were considering having him design a home for them. “But he was very obstreperous, and we’d get into these knock-down, drag-out fights — he’d scream and yell,” Michelle says, laughing at the memory. “He loved to get into arguments.”

“He was very picky about his clients,” Russell admits. “He’d try to find out if what they wanted meshed with what he was willing to provide. And he was not shy about turning people away. I’m not sure how tactfully he dealt with it. Michelle Clifton has probably mentioned that.”

sirusa houseDushin, a personally fastidious man with refined tastes, “was very modest” about his work, says Virginia Sirusas, a longtime client for whom the architect designed the spacious home. The curved “greenhouse” at left is part of the kitchen

Photograph by Jan Thacher

frank dushin

The Cliftons circumvented the issue. “When [the West’s house] came on the market, we thought we can have the best of both worlds — we can have a Frank Dushin house and we don’t have to deal with Frank Dushin,” Michelle remembers. Despite the heated exchanges, the Cliftons remained friendly with Dushin for 30 years. “I was very fond of him,” Michelle says. “He was a fiery, lively guy — very much a character.”

Dushin mirrored the tempestuous Wright’s colorful personal life, too: in the early ’70s, he left his family. “We had a very nice marriage, and a lot of fun, until he met his girlfriend,” says Leona, who wryly refers to her former husband as “the ex-Mr. Dushin,” but still speaks highly of his talents. Dushin remained on good terms with his children. Ironically, he was not to live in one of his own designs again until the late 1990s, when he bought back the triangular, glass-walled house he was commissioned to build in Cornwall decades earlier.

Virginia and Peter Sirusas were clients who became lifelong friends. “He was a happy, good-natured, cheerful guy, with five wonderful kids,” Virginia recollects. The couple, now retired, discovered Dushin soon after they bought land in Garrison in 1970, a town they chose because it was “a lovely place to live,” says Virginia, as well as a convenient midpoint between Peter’s job in Poughkeepsie and hers in the city. While they were looking for an architect, they saw what locals call the Briggi house. Built in 1969, it’s a striking dwelling that mixes Japanese and American modernist lines. “We saw the Briggi house and that was it — love at first sight. We said, ‘Who’s the architect?’ ” Virginia recalls.

 

briggi houseThe so-called Briggi house, an early commission that’s been much admired, shows the Japanese and Arts and Crafts influences that are Dushin hallmarks. Timothy Rasic, the current owner and an architect himself, admires its careful siting and “refined details,” both inside and out

Photograph by Jan Thacher

Dushin designed a small, single-story house for the Sirusases that shared many of the elements of the Briggi house: overhanging rooflines, Arts and Crafts details, the usual expanses of glass. “Frank did lots of renderings and sketches other than just a blueprint, and they were real works of art. Frank Lloyd Dushin, we called him,” says Virginia, who found him easy to deal with. “He had his opinions; he was a perfectionist,” she allows. “But we had a healthy respect for his style, and his taste and capabilities. You might not like being told take it or leave it, but most of the time he was right.”

Dushin also designed furniture for the couple. “He was big on built-ins,” says Virginia. “His houses are not for someone who wants to fill a place with antiques. For him it was more about the architecture. If you wondered how something would look, he’d grab a pencil and sketch it out. He was so gifted that way, such a talented artist. It was amazing that he did all this before CAD/CAM and computers. We couldn’t wait for the next meeting to see what he was going to show us. He even built 3D models of the house so you could see what it would look like from various perspectives.”

A few years later, when the Sirusases bought land with a river view, they asked Dushin to create another house. “All his designs are site-specific,” notes Virginia, “and this was on a ridge, so he built something quite different — very tall, lots of glass, lots of balconies and decks.” At 3,000 square feet, the house was also larger than many of his other projects. But “with Frank the house is actually smaller than the square footage would indicate because he liked big stairwells and a lot of connecting spaces,” Virginia says. “He liked modest rooms and teeny-tiny bedrooms.” More recently, Dushin designed a wing for Virginia’s late mother that’s essentially a separate house connected to the original by a gallery to house the Sirusases’ art collection. “Her wing is a very lovely space,“ says Virginia. “She and Frank were great friends, too.”

Last September, Timothy Rasic, a partner in a Manhattan architectural firm, bought the Briggi house. Rasic and his wife had looked at the place when it was for sale around 2002, but weren’t ready to leave the city. But, says Rasic, “the house really spoke to me. Dushin was still alive then, so one thing I regret is that I never got the chance to meet him. When it came back on the market, we had to pounce — I’d been thinking about it for nine years... He was so good at siting,” Rasic continues. “This is perched up on a rock outcropping; it’s like living in a tree house. In the cellar, you can see rocks from the outside, so it’s not the easiest place to build a house, but that’s where it made sense. Today people just plop houses down and don’t think about where the sun sets and rises. He seemed very attuned to that.”

briggi house
briggi house

Rasic also points out that Dushin’s highly specific layouts dictate how a home will be used. “He and Frank Lloyd Wright were social engineers in a way. Dushin had a vision for how a family should live. Bedrooms were just for sleeping; he wanted you to take advantage of a home’s public spaces. That appeals to me, too. My father is an architect, and we summered in a house he designed that forced us to live in a certain way, with communal spaces. I didn’t appreciate that at the time, but I want it for my children.”

Rasic’s house is a relatively small 1,900 square feet. “It’s like a ship, everything has its place,” he says. Still, modern life sometimes calls for change. Two eight-by-eight bunk bedrooms and a small playroom have been combined into one master bedroom, and Rasic is considering radiant heat as another update. “Finding a way to take care of these houses and retrofit them for today’s standards rather than dismantling them — that’s what people wrestle with,” he says.

Frank Dushin continued working until he died, relying almost entirely on word of mouth for commissions, says Russell. “I once asked him why he didn’t take out a bigger ad in the yellow pages, and got a lecture about how his work spoke for itself. He wasn’t the kind of guy to go blowing his own horn. He preferred to be under the radar. He liked the idea of being a starving artist, although later in his career, he was hoping he’d be discovered, even if it was after his passing,” says Russell. “His work was really his life.”

“People love his houses,” says Sue Downes. “They have engineering flaws, but there’s a uniqueness. It’s very visceral.” Michelle Clifton agrees. “I feel my house is the most beautiful house,” she says. “We’ve been here 26 years. My dream is to die here.” Timothy Rasic is equally enamored of his. “It makes me feel good,” he says. “And there’s something magical about that.”

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