Distinctive Dorset home renovated and rehabbed

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EAST DORSET — An idiosyncratic, mid-century home designed by an Indian immigrant who went on to partner with a major figure in modernist architecture has been renovated and restored.

Family members of the building's original architect, Ashok Bhavnani, perhaps best known for designing the Brutalist structure that houses Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan, and members of the Peyton family, who commissioned and first occupied the East Dorset residence, convened at the site — located off of Morse Hill Road — over the weekend to celebrate the preservation of the distinctive home, which continues to sport a wooden, bow tie-like facade on two sides.

The families were joined by the property's current owner, Courtia Worth, and members of the team she engaged for the overhaul: Christopher Campbell, an architect based in Portland, Maine; Greg Boshart, owner of Maple Valley Design Build, a Manchester Center-based firm that served as the project's contractor and on-site architect; and Xavier Maignan, of Santa Barbara, California, a friend of Worth who helped to procure era-appropriate furniture, including chairs by Finnish designer Eero Aarni, and a limited edition Ellsworth Kelly print and other artwork.

When Worth — a former art dealer in New York and tennis pro at the Hartford Golf Club in West Hartford, Connecticut, now retired — inherited the property several years ago, it had long been unoccupied, and was beset by deferred maintenance and some unfortunate alterations.

Contractors and realtors suggested she tear the steel-framed building down, an idea she resisted even before learning its origin story.

'Warped surface'

As Worth later discovered, Bhavnani built the home for the family of Malcolm Peyton, a composer he came to know when the two were students at Princeton University in the 1950s.

The house, completed in 1958, was built by contractor John Moore, of Arlington, according to a front-page article — headlined "New Dorset House Sure To Be Seen" — that appeared the following year in the Bennington Evening Banner.

Bhavnani saw the building's roof as its key, distinguishing feature,  according to the story.

"It is really a warped surface that is designed to form a spout for melting snow to run off," he said.

Accordingly, the house's ceiling comprises an almost dizzying mix of slopes. The project team preserved this geometry, though it elected to paint the ceiling white, rather than its original red. The walls, originally yellow and blue, now also are white, but newly created pocket doors pay homage to the earlier color scheme.

Among other changes: An attached carport has become an indoor mudroom and kitchen, which was relocated; a new, metal fireplace designed by Campbell, the lead architect, mimics the ceiling's angularity; and a new, outdoor deck with an embedded fire pit will serve as a kind of seasonal extension of the dining room.

Bhavnani "would've been so, so happy" with the renovation, said his widow, Marjorie "Mitzi" Bhavnani, who attended the weekend gathering with the couple's son, Raoul, and his family.

Raoul, a communications advisor who lives in New York, concurred with his mother's assessment, citing how Worth's team had retained the structure's critical elements while refashioning the interior space "for use today."

The architect first brought his future wife to see the house in 1961, when Mitzi was an undergraduate at Bennington College and the two "were courting, as I guess they say," she said. Bhavnani had come to the college to drop off plans for a house he was building for the parents of a friend of hers.

"I was very impressed," she said, recalling the visit to East Dorset. "That was helpful in cementing the relationship."

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Later in his career, in the '70s and '80s, Bhavnani partnered with John Johansen — one of the Harvard Five, a famous group of modernist architects — and designed housing developments on Roosevelt Island, according to Johansen's obituary in The New York Times.

Malcolm Peyton and two of his children, who also attended the weekend gathering, likewise approved of the renovation.

Worth "and her architectural team have taken the core seed and expanded it another generation in such a profoundly excellent way," said Emily Peyton, who now lives in Putney and has mounted several campaigns for Governor of Vermont.

Peyton recalled playing in a three-story treehouse on the property as a child. "All of our free time was here," she said.

Malcolm Peyton's first wife sold the property, he said, after the two divorced in the 1970s.

An 'elegant' collaboration

Worth praised Campbell and Boshart for their "elegant cooperation" throughout the project. The architects, in turn, described the assignment as uncommon and intriguing.

Boshart contrasted a common, if understandable, client attitude — "Just give me a normal thing at the best possible price and we'll be happy," as he put it — with Worth's, which he described as "How can we make it right?"

It "feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. Boshart's firm started construction at the site in January 2017 and completed its work in October 2018.

"I'm really proud of this place now," said Worth, who also owns a home in New York's Hudson Valley. In addition to living part-time at the Bhavnani house, she hopes to make it available for charitable events.

The weekend reunion served, at least in part, as a way to "reinforce that I made the right decision by not tearing [the house] down," Worth said.

The renovation entailed comprehensive upgrades of the home's mechanical systems and the pouring of a new, terrazzo floor to replace an old one that had been cracked and broken by "some sort of frost heave," according to Campbell.

That the decades-old building is now equipped to last for many more Vermont winters seems to align with a philosophy once limned by the man who conceived it.

A house, Bhavnani told the Banner in 1959, "is a challenge to nature."

"Gravity, winds, snow, rain, frost, heat and cold are all against you," he continued. "An architect's first job is to get a house up that won't leak."

Contact Luke Nathan at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.

(Clarification: This piece originally referred to the Ellsworth Kelly art as a painting when it is actually a print.)


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