The first thing you see when you enter Frank and Karen Gentile’s home is the shimmering water of Geneva Lake. “There’s a 10-foot drop from the front door to the back exterior, so there are three stories of glass on the lake side,” says architect Michael J. Abraham, who placed the house in perfect position to capture watery vistas from every possible vantage point.
But although the views dictated the siting, the homeowner set the tone for the overall style the architect dubbed farmhouse modern. “As a girl I figure skated in Europe and my father was determined to visually awaken my senses to everything, including architecture,” says Karen, who fell in love with the area’s old-world farmhouses and thought the concept was a good fit for Wisconsin’s agricultural surroundings. “But considering the large size of the house and our request for lots of glass, I knew the plan needed to have some current elements as well.”
With that concept in mind, Abraham, along with his partner, Michael M. Culligan, crafted a design that references the local vernacular with classic gables and stained cedar wood siding on the outside and exposed timbers and hand-hewn beams inside. A series of stone walls, a unifying element and another farmhouse nod, flows from the garden to the entry, through the living and dining rooms and out to the exterior staircase. To get the color mix on the latter just right, Abraham collaborated with project manager Thomas J. Cowan. “There were several palettes of the indigenous rock delivered to the site, and we put up at least four 6-by-6-foot sample walls playing with different stone blends and mortar colors until everyone was satisfied,” says Cowan.
Neatly trimmed boxwood hedges soften the walls that signal the path to the front door and are part of an intentionally simple landscape plan implemented by landscape architect Don Sheldon. “There were lots of mature trees on the property, and the owners wanted to keep things minimalist, so we just added two large honey locusts, half a dozen autumn blaze maples, ground covers and some perennials,” he says.
Thanks to Abraham’s idea for a solarium entry, when you walk through the front door, the landscape follows you inside. “You basically walk into a glass box before proceeding to the living and dining rooms, where the large windows and doors provide a modern overlay and the wood-paneled wall is laid up horizontally for a more contemporary look,” he says. Cowan, a fine-finish carpenter, selected the white oak for the panels and handpicked the timber stock for all the millwork. “It is attention to things like the intricate edge details and special little cuts on the ends of the Douglas fir timbers on the second-story bridge that make the end result so spectacular,” he says.
The muted driftwood hue of the living room’s stained oak wall, along with the gray-green in the stonework, drove the interior palette, and according to the homeowner, who was responsible for the interiors along with her sister, former designer Nannette Farina, selected neutrals because you never tire of them. “I also wanted low-maintenance materials so that my daughters could visit with their dogs and I wouldn’t have to worry,” says Karen, who opted for easy-to clean Lucite chairs in the informal dining area, stone floors for the kitchen and dyed acrylic fabrics for the family room seating. “When we entertain it’s just family and friends, and we prefer to eat in the kitchen and informal dining area. I put benches in the formal dining room because I use that table primarily to lay out hors d’oeuvres.”
In the master suite, everything from the cobblestone gray of the upholstered linen headboard in the bedroom to the marble-topped white laminate cabinets in the master bath was selected to take a backseat to the great outdoors. “There is one strong oil painting to anchor the space, but other than that it’s mostly windows,” says Karen. “When we’re lying in bed, the only thing we want to look at is the lake.”