Behind the Gates

With the right architect, a New York couple was able to build a Modern house in an exclusive Savannah development.

“You’ll enjoy…the company of people just like yourself who have searched the world for their home and found it here,” promises the Web site for the Landings, a 4,600-acre gated development on Savannah’s barrier island, Skidaway. Manhattanites Scott and Louise Lauretti were drawn to the natural scenery (their property overlooks a river complete with marsh grasses and Spanish moss). But once they sold their Chelsea loft to build a Modern house there, they discovered that they weren’t just like their neotraditional neighbors after all.

“I was naive,” Scott says. “I didn’t think about architectural review boards. I just called the real estate agent, saw the piece of land, and bought it. It was the usual process: the real estate agent has three buddies—a contractor, a lawyer, and an insurance guy. Now those are your guys. I hadn’t talked to them for more than five minutes when I realized they could only give me the same thing they had already given the 500 guys before me.”

In search of an architect that would build what he wanted—a house that recalled the large open space they’d had in their loft and the expansive glass walls of the Case Study houses—Scott called the Savannah College of Art and Design and Tim Woods happened to pick up.

Woods knew the area well enough to examine the development codes first thing. Though they appeared prohibitive—specifying no flat roofs, cantilevering, or exposed metal surfaces—he saw what seemed like a loophole, a note saying all styles were embraced. He and the Laurettis quickly agreed on a fan-shaped design opening toward the water but shielded from the neighbors. The downstairs would include a loftlike space for the living room and kitchen. Upstairs would be more modest in scale, with eight-foot-tall private rooms (versus the 12-foot space below) that, in the spirit of the Case Study houses, framed views of the marsh.

Getting approval for the design from the review board was a challenging yearlong process. “I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years, so I’m patient enough,” Woods says. “I was educating them about something that they had never done before.” When they insisted that the otherwise hidden garage couldn’t have a flat roof, he used a model to demonstrate that adding “a hat” would actually make it more visible. And when they reminded him that the house had to blend into the neighborhood, Woods pointed out that, unlike the yellow house across the marsh, the Laurettis’ buff-colored house blended with the natural environment. He knew the tides were turning when one board member said of the yellow home, “You know, I never did like that house.” In the end Woods and the Laurettis built a house with cantilevered terraces and sun shades, aluminum window frames, and flat roofs. And once it was completed early last year, two neighboring lots that had sat empty for five years finally sold.

“The approval process was difficult, but I enjoyed it,” Scott says. “There is room for variety behind the gates. We have softened the edges of that process a little bit.”

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