Every homeowner has a fantasy. For interior designer Bryan Graybill and his husband, Daniel Dokos, an attorney, that fantasy was a 19th-century warehouse that had been transformed into a domestic retreat. But no such structure existed on the waterfront property they purchased in Sag Harbor, New York. There stood only a 1950s house with seven-foot-high ceilings, uncomfortably low windows, and a number of awkward additions. “We thought we could just modify it,” recalls Graybill. Instead—or rather, of course—those straightforward ambitions evolved into a holistic yet backward-glancing reimagining of the home on its cinder-block foundations.
As the couple discovered, a warehouse had in fact once occupied the property, which was traversed by an elevated railroad from the 1880s to the 1950s. Photographs of the demolished edifice were unearthed in a local museum, guiding Graybill, who collaborated on the renovation with the Atlanta-based architecture firm Historical Concepts. Their reinterpretation would be an exercise in fictional adaptive reuse. “It’s different from anything we’ve ever done,” says Andrew Cogar of Historical Concepts, adding that “we re-created a warehouse first, and then evolved it into a house.” Graybill continues, “We took parts of history that were true but twisted them to be more fun and adventurous than the original narrative.”
That meant layering details that would tell a tall tale, but a convincing one, at the home they’ve dubbed Claxton House. (The name references a British naval officer who came to Sag Harbor during the War of 1812 and the imaginary descendants who might have purchased the building.) Those choices include paneling that could have been added at a later date, maybe in the 1940s; a lack of crown molding in some rooms, suggesting gentlemanly dreams but budget restrictions; and wooden wainscot that might have been installed as a cost-efficient upgrade. The living room’s brand-new chimneypiece looks as if it was built a century ago, and the boot room’s interior wall is the same material as the exterior siding, as if the space had simply been clipped onto the renovated warehouse out of expedience. As for the house’s large first-floor windows, they were inspired by carriage-house doors. Some interior fillips—geometric tiles, applied details—reference the Vienna Secession movement of the early 1900s.
“It’s very much a stage set,” says Graybill, who knows about conjuring up seductive atmospheres, thanks to his experience designing bars and restaurants under the late hospitality maestro David Collins. “He thought about things that were theatrical but also useful, not just a backdrop.” Elements, that is, such as the glazed interior walls that allow sunshine to penetrate more deeply into the house. Those are Graybill’s adaptations of a kitchen feature that he had seen in Merchant Ivory films and the show Upstairs Downstairs. Says the designer, “We wanted the house to feel earnest but not stoic, like a series of workrooms with shared light.”
Graybill’s decor is perfectly attuned to his engaging storytelling: art that speaks of the past, ceiling fixtures and miniskirt curtains that recall Eastern European cafés, flashes of florals, and delicious colors, from fondant-pale to mossy tones. Yet Claxton House doesn’t feel so much respectful as it does refreshing—earnest in concept, yet anything but stoic. “It was a passion project, and I was nervous and scared how it would turn out,” Graybill explains, adding that trusted craftspeople and artisans made the process much easier. “But I’m super-duper happy.”
This story appears in AD’s July /August 2023 issue. To see this Sag Harbor home in print, subscribe to AD.