A Decade-Long Dream Come True: Tour This Luxurious Treehouse in Lewes
Homeowners Clifford Diver and Kathryn Byrne say their painstakingly designed retreat was well worth the wait.
Three stories of wood, concrete, stone, steel and glass give this Lewes home a postmodernist feel.//©Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography
Clifford “Cliff” Diver and his wife, Kathryn Byrne, love contemporary art. They have more than 400 works in their collection. Their greatest piece, though, might very well be their home.
Their 5,000-square-foot postmodernist home in Lewes is three stories of wood, concrete, stone, steel and glass divided into three distinct areas by large windows that provide views throughout the house. While it is definitely designed to make a statement, it somehow manages to blend inconspicuously into the 8 acres of wood and meadow Diver and Byrne have developed around it.
It is a study in positive and negative space, says Diver, who founded and ran the Farpath Foundation that funded up-and-coming artists to work in France at his Provence home.
“There’s light coming from everywhere,” says Diver.
The design for the Diver/Byrne home came from “thoughtful manipulation of light, color, texture, form and geometry,” says Washington, D.C., architect, Robert M. Gurney, who designed the house. It’s a formula he uses for all his designs. Getting it exactly right, though, took time and four different proposals.
Patience in planning
“I started dreaming about this in 1997,” says Diver. He and Byrne decided to get rid of their homes in New York and France and consolidate everything in Lewes. “This was downsizing,” he says as he and Byrne laugh in their second-floor kitchen.
In planning their new home, they knew they wanted a gallery space for their art. They also knew they wanted Gurney to design it. The first plan was to build two separate buildings—one for the art, one for Diver and Byrne. But then, they feared, they’d never see the art. “I had this art collection and I really wanted to live with it.”
The second design was for a huge one-story building, but that required removing most of the large old trees on their property. They didn’t want that either.
So Gurney came up with the idea to make a treehouse type of design, with a turret and glass hallways. It was too expensive and just not practical for their lifestyle, Diver says. They gave up and figured the house just wasn’t meant to be.
Eight months later, Gurney showed up with a model house he’d designed. “I didn’t even know he was still working on the project,” says Diver. It was exactly what they were looking for.
“We were trying to build a house that, even though it’s big, gives off a feel that you’re just sitting in the trees,” says Diver, pointing out a baby squirrel scampering through the top of a tree—eye level to the window he was standing next to. “It gives off a pretty wonderful vibe.”
The windows, along with 4,000 square feet of decks and porches, blur the lines of where inside ends and outside begins.
The outside is as much a part of the overall effect as the inside. Landscape architect Richard Lyon of Wallace Landscape Associates designed trails through the woods around the house and planted a meadow farther out. The idea was to create an outdoor space that looked natural, but maybe a little better than nature.
“It’s maybe a perfect vision of nature where everything flows together,” says Lyon. It is all designed to enhance the house.
The first floor is an art gallery where the homeowners often hold viewing parties.//©Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography
Clean and precise design
On its own, the interior of the house could come off as sterile. There are no moldings, no finish work. The floors are all natural light wood or gray concrete. The walls, all painted white, do not come all the way to the floor to give the illusion they are floating. But then there’s the art. Splashes and swirls of color dot the walls, hang from the ceilings and fill corners on the floors.
The first floor of the house was not designed to be a living space, but an art gallery. The couple often invite people in for viewing parties, like the tour they recently hosted for neighborhood children. There is a small kitchen prep area for parties and Diver’s office/music room, but otherwise, it could be the interior of the Whitney or MOMA.
“His design work is so clean, so precise,” says Diver of Gurney’s work.
The master bedroom windows are aligned to allow Diver and Byrne to watch the moon rise at night and sun come up each morning. Every floor and practically every room in the house has a pair of binoculars waiting to be used.
“Waking up here is pretty wonderful,” says Diver.
The windows, along with 4,000 square feet of decks and porches, blur the lines of indoors and outdoors.//©Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography
Of course, waking up there should be pretty wonderful. It took 3 1/2 years to plan and another 3 1/2 to build it.
Gurney had definite design elements that were not to waver, says Diver. For example, Gurney chose the tile for the bathrooms and designed around their size. No pieces were cut and cabinets were built to align with grout lines. Building a house for a family like Diver/Byrne does require touches that most architects probably wouldn’t consider.
The first-floor bathroom was built with an exterior door so their dog, Simon, a yellow Lab, can come into it after running in mud from the marsh and take a shower before being allowed into the main house through another door. The steps to the basement are longer and higher than normal basement steps to accommodate the entry of 10-foot pieces of art. Every wall in the house has half-inch plywood behind the drywall to be able to hold changing art hangings. The exhibit is generally changed each quarter.
Even with the precision of Gurney, though, Diver got in a few changes. The windows lining the second-story back wall were supposed to be large solid sheets of glass, until Diver pointed out he lived in a hurricane zone surrounded by large trees. The windows were cut in half to make them stronger. In another example, Diver had the hearth of the giant fireplace raised so he could sit on it next to the fire and talk to guests.
The 50-foot Pennsylvania bluestone chimney is the focal point of the second floor.//©Anice Hoachlander/Hoachlander Davis Photography
The 50-foot Pennsylvania bluestone chimney is a focal point of the second floor, the main living space of the home. It alone took three tries and more than four months to build. One man put every rock in place to make sure the pattern, spaces and designs were consistent throughout the entire structure.
The third floor has guest rooms and a seating area that has become a playroom for grandchildren.
Each floor has either open decks or screened-in porches. The second-story porch is where Byrne likes to read in the morning while drinking her coffee.
On the roof is more deck space where they sometimes sleep in the summer. It’s so high there aren’t any bugs, says Diver.
The family moved into the home in January 2017, while finishing touches were still being added. Byrne says she was tired of waiting. But they think it was worth the wait.
“Probably a hundred times a day, the house gives me a new blast of information, a new blast of joy,” says Diver.
GET THE LOOK
Design with your lifestyle in mind. The first floor bathroom was built with an exterior door so their dog, Simon, can come into it after running in mud from the marsh and take a shower before being allowed into the main house through another door. The steps to the basement are longer and higher than normal basement steps to accommodate the entry of 10-foot pieces of art. Bring the outside in. Each floor has either open decks or screened in porches. On the roof is more deck space where the homeowners sometimes sleep in the summer. Go natural. The floors are all natural light wood or gray concrete. The walls, all painted white, do not come all the way to the floor to give the illusion they are floating.