Shaping The Landscape
In the past ten years, the work of architect Mark Finlay has had a major impact on the evolving look of our towns.
Mark Finlay grew up drawing houses and constructing small buildings in the backyard. “As a boy, I had forts and huts and tree houses,” he says. “When I played with my little soldiers, it would be in these elaborate villages, sort of like little communities.” Even then he knew. One of six children, Finlay moved to Connecticut from Chicago with his family in 1967 after his father, an executive at Georgia-Pacific Paper, was transferred to the company’s Stamford headquarters. The senior Finlay had already scouted New Canaan and found a piece of land on Ash Tree Lane. With the family temporarily settled nearby, he and his middle son began drawing up plans for a six-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot Colonial.
Finlay was about to enter the ninth grade at New Canaan High School. No one—in his family, at least—thought it odd that a fourteen-year-old had been given charge of designing their new home. “It was more like, ‘Doesn’t everyone let their son do this?’” he says. That first “commission” proved educational, opening his eyes to the town’s architectural character and to the opportunities inherent in design challenges. “It was a sloping site and it had some issues,” Finlay notes of the Ash Tree property, “but that’s where I learned that topography allows you to create really interesting outdoor spaces and to design something that isn’t just run-of-the-mill.” In the early 1970s, while still in high school, he really began learning the business by working in the late afternoons for members of New Canaan’s fabled architectural community, which included Ray Kelly, Dave Coffin and the late Gary Lindstrom. Back then, that community was centered on Forrest Street, where the group ate and held forth at the same greasy spoon restaurant. “They were all great architects,” says Finlay. “They were competitive with one another but also friendly. The lesson from those guys was always to have commercial and residential projects going. I learned early on that when the economy takes a dip, work stops.”
After graduating from New Canaan High School, Finlay received a degree in architectural engineering from Wentworth Institute and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Kentucky. He spent a few years working for Eero Saarinen’s firm in New Haven, and did a brief stint at Landworks in Fairfield before going out on his own in 1984 as Mark P. Finlay Architects AIA. Through a family connection, he rented a small office over a pet shop in downtown Fairfield. But before long, he scored his first real commission designing a house for a vice president at Xerox. That led to more work, both residential renovations and commercial projects, which enabled Finlay to hire some young architects.
The firm’s breakthrough moment came in 1994 when it was commissioned to design a 10,000-square-foot residence on North Wilton Road in New Canaan. It was the first big, new home Finlay designed, and one of the first of many houses built for the firm by Hobbs Incorporated of New Canaan. It was also Finlay’s first Shingle-Style structure, and it served to widen his firm’s range as well as the New Canaan landscape. Up until then, the town’s architectural character had been largely Colonial. To this Finlay added more Shingle-Style houses, as well as Georgian and Federal Georgian, all rich in period detail. “Most firms have distinct fingerprints, but not us,” says Finlay. “I don’t like it if you can tell I designed it. The only things consistent in all of our buildings are comfort, interior proportions and a classic quality. And that’s very purposeful. We do our best to make a building seem as if it’s solid and has been there forever.”
Today, the budding architect who designed his first building in New Canaan as a teen is an important influence on the town’s architectural character. Rather than monster mansions in a mutation of styles, Finlay houses tend to ramble unobtrusively in harmony, rather than competition, with their sites. On West Road, a reproduction antique house was razed in order to build a stone-faced mansion that is a classic example of magisterial Georgian style. Although 10,000 square feet, “it was designed to nestle into the landscape but not be imposing from the road,” Finlay says. “It has a presence, but not an overpowering one.” Another important Finlay structure sits on Canoe Hill Road. When Finlay was in high school, the 1900 Gambrel Colonial was known as the Lee house (Jonathan Lee was a local developer). Finlay knew Lee’s son and daughter and went to parties there. “This has always been a classic, iconic New Canaan house to me,” he says. “When the current owners hired us to add space, we did so very carefully so that the house didn’t lose its timeless image in town.”
Finlay currently runs a 25-person shop in an award-winning building he designed next to the train tracks in Southport. Many of his clients are CEOs, entertainers, Wall Streeters and entrepreneurs. These clients have served the firm well in tumultuous economies. Finlay is busy with commercial clients, too. He’s known as one of the top country club-house architects in the country: He renovated part of the New Canaan Country Club and designed a new pool complex. He was also hired as the architect of the 27,600-square-foot Ten Twenty Post Road in Darien, one of the first mixed-use commercial buildings in town. In the summer of 2009, Finlay’s firm opened an interior design department that creates everything from furniture, color schemes, draperies and rugs to light fixtures, silverware and table linens.
“Our clients came to us and said, ‘Can’t you just do everything?’ There’s a natural continuity between the architecture and the interior decorating,” says Finlay. “And the decorating has helped us out in the past two years in this economy.” Finlay’s success has given him a say in the evolving face of our towns. “In the previous ten years, spec builders came in and put up big houses on residual pieces of property, and that’s been really detrimental to the architectural character and scale of New Canaan and all these towns,” Finlay says. “I thought these houses were so inappropriate to their context.” A part of Finlay’s mission is to rectify that. “The buildings we do fit into the context and the vernacular of the towns,” he says. “In the years to come, there’ll be more examples of what these towns should have: classical, contextual architecture of varying styles.”