Excerpted from our Society of Fellows e-Newsletter, April 2016
By his own admission, Gil Schafer is not exactly a gardener. “I am,” he says, “an architect who loves the landscape.”
As both the grandson and great-great-grandson of architects, and having lived in various regions of the country during his childhood, Schafer acquired a strong sense of how one’s surroundings create a unique sense of place. At a very early age, the notion that a well-built and designed home can significantly influence daily life was instilled in him.
Following undergraduate studies at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, Schafer graduated from the Yale School of Architecture. After working in several traditional residential practices, he founded G.P. Schafer Architect PLLC in 2002, based in New York City.
Gil’s practice has focused on residential projects ranging in scale from 1,000 to 40,000 square feet, in all regions of the country. Perhaps his most ambitious project to date began in the mid-1990s, when he started to pursue his longtime dream of finding and renovating a nineteenth-century Greek Revival house in the Hudson Valley.
With fond memories of his boarding school days, Gil focused his search in rural Millbrook, located in Dutchess County, New York. Instead of renovating, Schafer ended up building a new, 3,000 square foot house, modeled after others in the region that had been constructed in the 1840s. This, he says, marked his real introduction to gardening and landscape design.
“I wanted the house to feel settled in,” Gil adds, “so the landscape had to really support the idea that the house had been there for a long time.” To achieve this, he collaborated with long-time friend Deborah Nevins, a garden designer with whom he had already worked on several projects.
Gil's "Garden at Middlefield" (the name refers to the six acres of “inner core” or landscaped part of his 45-acre property) contains what he calls a limited palette and is a combination of traditional and contemporary design. Stone walls and hedges were used to achieve the “definition of territory” and series of outdoor rooms that Schafer and Nevins felt would best connect the house with the grounds.
And, of course, there are lots of trees. “I used the largest trees that I could possibly and practically get in there,” he says. Color, in large part, is achieved with potted plants – mostly hydrangeas and petunias – and splashes of alliums, peonies, lilacs, and clematis.
Gil credits Edwin Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyl, Jacques Wirtz, Dan Kiley, and Russell Page, among others, as significant influences on his landscape design ideas. Their seminal work combined architectural structure with naturalism – sometimes classic, sometimes modern. “They attempted to blur the distinction between landscape and architecture,” he explains.
Today, Gil Schafer is recognized as one of the world’s experts on contemporary classical architecture. His firm’s work has received many awards and has been widely published in the U.S. and abroad. He is a former chair of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and serves on the boards of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the Millbrook School, as well as on Yale School of Architecture’s Dean’s Council and the Dutchess Land Conservancy's Advisory Council.
Gil became a Garden Conservancy member in 2003 and joined our Society of Fellows in 2007. He learned of our Open Days program from his longtime friend Bunny Williams, whose Connecticut garden has been a long-time participant in the program. Bunny contributed the foreword to Gil's best-selling book, The Great American House, published by Rizzoli in 2012. Those who enjoyed Gil's first book can look forward to his next, which is due out in the fall of 2017.
Read other recent profiles of members of our Society of Fellows.