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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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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