Pieces of History
A collection of family dwellings in California's wine country gives timeworn materials new life and creates an oasis for modern-day living
James Ray Spahn
Architect Ira Martin has an eye for materials. Not the latest, sleekest fabrications, but old reclaimed materials that are full of history and character.
Martin and his team at the Texas-based design-build firm Tony Martin Inc.—started by Ira’s father, Tony—comb the country in search of those perfectly imperfect buildings that have been worn, grayed and weathered over time. Then they carefully dismantle the old and reincarnate the bones into something beautiful and new.
One of these transformations took place in the hills near St. Helena, California, where Martin recently created an array of dwellings. Comprised of a 2,000-square-foot main house, a detached study and three 1,100-square-foot guesthouses, the family compound was pieced together using reclaimed materials sourced from all over the country. The flooring was found in a 1950s sewing factory. The hand-hewn beams come from the Ohio River Valley and date back to the mid-1800s. And the stone Martin discovered in an old Pony Express outpost in Indian Gap, Texas—a place so small, it’s really nothing more than a few buildings. “It’s just a sign, not even a town,” Martin says.
As Martin passed through the town one day, a simple structure caught his eye. Its hand-sawn stone exterior fit together so well that it appeared to be one smooth surface. “It had developed what I call a French palette—that bluish, gray-green patina,” he says. “You know, you can’t buy that.”
That striking stone, which now covers the main house’s façade, would provide the inspiration for the dwelling’s entire materials palette—the grayish floors left unsanded, the off-white plaster walls. To create an interior scheme that would complement these architectural materials, Martin teamed up with homeowner Shay Kos, who had a clear vision for the space.
Kos hoped to achieve a sophisticated industrial look; a blend of delicate lines and rugged materials. The industrial component is evident in the rustic unfinished stone and beams on display in the main residence’s great room, and in the exposed concrete walls in the master suites’ spa-like bathrooms. You can see it in the warehouse-style shelving in the great room—oversized to match the materials’ scale—and in the entry’s steel-clad fireplace.
A collection of furnishings, amassed by Kos over the course of several years—and several trips to Europe—mix with some surprisingly delicate touches to add an air of sophistication to the otherwise rugged, masculine space. Thinly framed steel windows and doors add elegance, and exposed plumbing in the bathrooms balances the concrete walls. In the great room, a custom light fixture and dramatic vent hood, both designed by Martin, complete the space.
Martin’s approach to reclaiming the past may not be the fastest, most efficient method. In fact, the team only works on two or three projects at a time. But it’s all by design. They understand that there’s a beautiful balance and proportion to be found in history—and that achieving it often requires a look back before moving forward.
“Old buildings are really proportionate,” explains Martin. “They have that old farmhouse look because they were simple to build.” And because construction was so straightforward, he says, “you could focus on the materials.”
Martin and his team aim to work with homeowners who are as passionate about the process as they are, and who they hope will keep the structures in the family for posterity’s sake. “We create these legacy estates for people so they can enjoy them with their families,” he says, “then hand them down like a piece of furniture or an antique.”
ARCHITECTURE Tony Martin Inc., tonymartininc.com INTERIOR DESIGN Shay Kos, 415-828-7429 GENERAL CONTRACTOR Cello & Maudru Construction, cello-maudru.com