RIDGEFIELD — “What’s so beautiful about the building is it’s about 7000 square feet and it feels, and is built, like a modern house and yet it’s a commercial building. It has more of a residential feel than a typical office building,” said Scott Fellows. “When people walk in, especially the way we’ve furnished it and adapted it for our use, it feels like a blurring between a beautiful, small executive office building and a modern house. People say, ‘I want to live here.’”
The Schlumberger Research Center administration building, designed in 1951 and built in 1952, was architect Philip Johnson’s first nonresidential commission. The single-story, steel-glass-and-brick building with nine other buildings on a 47-acre campus was owned by Schlumberger oil company.
“We were kind of obsessed with that building,” said Fellows, 55, of BassamFellows, an architecture, interior design, creative branding, and furniture company that he and his partner, Craig Bassam, 56, started in 2003.
Annette Schlumberger and her husband, Henri Doll, commissioned the structure after touring Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which had been built in 1948-1949 in New Canaan.
By the time the Bassam and Fellows were aware of the building, it had already sat vacant for seven years, water damage had ruined areas of the interior and the building had been cut off from utilities service.
The “PJB” as it was known to locals, connected via an enclosed glass corridor to a kitchen and restroom in a separate building built in 1949.
When Schlumberger left the campus in 2006 and failed to sell the property, the Town of Ridgefield eventually bought it for $7 million in 2012, fearing the property would be purchased by a developer.
The 1949 building was then razed along with six other building on the property, cutting it off from basic utilities and services.
Fellows and Bassam first moved from New York City to New Canaan in 1998 and bought a 1956 mid-century home, which they endeavored to restore. When they were finished, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We were quite proud of that because oftentimes restorations really nullify a building from being listed on the National Register because it’s insensitive or takes away from the historic fabric,” said Fellows.
That first house project set them on a course with preservation as a core component of their business, he said.
“We feel very strongly that houses are not museums and that preservation is to make a house or building livable and relevant for today while at the same time being considerate of the historic nature of the property and to not do anything that would negate those important listings on the national register,” he said. “So after that we kind of fell into a few more projects like that locally, and because we’re sort of modernist architecture experts, if you will, we were in a position to advise clients on what to do with these types of houses.”
The pair took on more preservation projects in the U.S. and Europe that broadened their experience with modernist buildings. Then, they decided to sell their first home in New Canaan and were planning to build a house when they heard of a Philip Johnson house in New Canaan for sale by the heirs of the original owner.
“They were looking for the right preservation-minded buyers,” said Fellows.
In 2006, Bassam and Fellows bought Hodgson House, which is listed on the National Register and located across the street from the Glass House.
“We embarked on a multiple-year restoration and rebuilding of this house because of its historic importance,” said Fellows. “It’s our house and it’s our primary residence and we are custodians of this house. We’re rebuilding the fundamental sort of infrastructure and systems that the house needs for its next 70 years of life.”
The National Trust, based in Washington, is overseeing the house restoration, which is a “whole other level,” Fellows said. “It’s a very sensitive restoration, kind of like restoring a museum.”
A massive undertaking
In the midst of renovating and restoring Hodgson House, Fellows and Bassam began searching for a permanent home for their business.
“Because our business is furniture and design, and that emanates from our lifestyle and architecture and our love of modern houses, we really wanted a building that would reflect all of that ethos of our brand,” Fellows said. “And we really wanted a historically important building, we were looking for a long time for something that would fit into that.”
Unexpectedly, they happened upon the Schlumberger campus and the PJB.
“There was a lot of talk about the future of that building,” said Fellows. “We initially approached Schlumberger about buying just the Philip Johnson building because we had no use for the 45 acres, but Schlumberger was not interested in selling that one lot.”
Schlumberger then suggested demolishing all of the buildings and selling the land to the highest bidder — raising alarm among the townspeople of Ridgefield — which led to a referendum to buy the property in late 2011.
Fellows said they tried to talk with the town about the PJB, but “they put us on the back burner because they were trying to do a bigger deal.” But persistence paid off, he said.
‘The story took nearly seven years from the time we talked with Schlumberger to when we did the deal with the town,” he said. “In the end, reason won out and the town did divide 45 acres into parcels, part of which was developed for residential, but they did keep the Philip Johnson Building. The town gave a lifetime lease to us, and we are responsible for funding the restoration of the building.”
The PJB was in a sorry state from water damage when Bassam and Fellows took possession, and a bigger problem was the lack of utilities in the building. A kitchen, an ADA-compliant bathroom and HVAC would have to be added.
The interior brickwork was intact, but extremely dirty, needing to be triply acid-washed and repointed. The oak woodwork, including the window frames, was badly stained by water damage and the shellac had cracked and yellowed.
“We hand sanded all wood in the building and then we couldn’t get all water damage off, so we had to bleach all of the wood, which made wood a little bit lighter, and then finished with a natural oil based product that keeps the wood in its natural state. That was a huge job that took weeks and weeks and weeks to do,” he said.
The floor was the third major problem. Johnson had used a pale gray vinyl tile that had been carpeted over. The carpet was destroyed in the flooding and underneath the vinyl tile was wrecked. Bassam and Fellows sourced a French quarry tile company that they had used for tile in their Philip Johnson house and were able to match the original pale gray color.
The PJB has become the company headquarters for BassamFellows as well as its design studio and showroom.
The building is organized around a central core that includes an open-air courtyard. Offices line the perimeter of the building and a wide corridor with nearly 80 skylights surrounds the core and provides a bright, naturally-lit space.
“Every place that you are in the building, you have that direct connection to nature,” Fellows said.
On either end of the core space, there are two large, open areas that were once used as secretarial pools, which were converted into “hospitality spaces,” adaptable to today’s working style.
“In one of those areas, we have it set up like a very large living room, with an ell-shaped sofa and a dining table, and on the other side we did a big table open collaborative space when we have meetings with a large tv screen for presentations,” he said.
The company has won awards locally and internationally.
“We won another award a year ago from Docomomo, an international organization dedicated to preservation of modern architecture around the world and last month we received the Connect Preservation award,” Fellows said. “We were also featured in the Italian magazine, Interni, in June 2020.”
The connection between Hodgson House and PJB is powerful, Fellows said.
“What’s truly unique is our house is the Philip Johnson Hodsgon house in New Canaan– and was designed in 1950-1951 and the Schlumberger was designed in 1951-1952 so the two buildings are like companions to each other,” he said. “A lot of the materiality is the same, a lot of the construction details are the same. The Schlumberger is a larger, commercial version of what is effectively the house. It’s funny that our full life from home to office is wrapped up in this very particular period of PhIlip Johnson, which we absolutely love and it’s like a dream come true.”
Modeling the future
Fellows and Bassam both spent a great deal of time working in Europe before settling in the United States. Fellows, who has an MBA from Harvard, worked in the luxury goods industry, rebranding product lines including Bally, Ferragamo and Herman Miller.
“I loved the idea of beautiful products that were beautifully crafted and made to last. Luxury goods were made from absolutely the best materials using the absolutely best craftsman, and the reason for that way was they were supposed to be forever,” he said.
BassamFellows brought together Bassam’s architecture background with Fellows’ background in luxury goods into what they describe as “Craftsman Modern.”
“It’s really the merging of our two backgrounds,” Fellows said of the firm’s philosophy and branding. “A lot of people associate modernism with being cold or sterile or somehow not friendly and we think that modernism can be warm, it can be tactile, it can be beautifully crafted and that really comes from this other sensibility that we both have that materiality and craft really matter.”
The firm’s brand has three pillars — architecture and interior design, creative direction and brand strategy, and furniture.
“We’ve grown every year and I think with the furniture business in particular we have a lot of experience doing residential and hospitality projects all around the world. We see that we have a great potential to grow even bigger. We see ourselves doing more in the contract market, which means more hotels, hospitality, more restaurants, and more commercial applications like offices, like our own Philip Johnson building, in addition to continuing our residential work,” Fellows said.
He and Bassam will continue to look for projects like the Philip Johnson building that need to be preserved.
“We’re putting up our own money to save them, to restore them and make them more relevant,” he said. “And then we either keep them or rent them or find a way to give them their next life. We’d like to do even more of that.”
Looking forward, Fellows sees major shifts happening in corporations and cities after the pandemic that will result in changes in architectural design.
“We’re starting to see the big box, if you will, is being broken down, and I don’t think any of us are going back to always working from a big corporate building in a city,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to design spaces that are this kind of blur between work and home, sort of something in between. I think that’s what the Philip Johnson building really is for us. It really gives an indication of the model of more and more of the future.”