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
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Sue 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
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.”
Dushin, 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
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.