Why This New Documentary Is Must-See TV for Country House Romantics

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True, dyed-in-the-wool design romantics have something to tuck into this winter (with eggnog, hot toddy, your pick), and it lands December 1 with a grounding perspective on what makes a great house. When we gape at the way a stone Palladian-style residence settles deep into a rolling hillside, marvel at a white clapboard house rising from a stand of trees, or a vaulted agrarian outbuilding rises subtly behind a shoreline, we are witnessing the land as a mighty protagonist in a story of a house that’s always been there. Or simply looks as if it has, contends Gil Schafer in his brand new documentary Unlocking the Mysteries of Place with Gil Schafer, airing on PBS-affiliated stations next month.

gil schafer documentary

Courtesy of ICAA

Architect Gil Schafer filming the documentary to air on PBS

It’s the fourth installment in the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s (ICAA’s) Design in Mind series, following the exceptional Bunny Williams – Not a House but a Home (2021). It’s binge-worthy TV for design fanatics, and it’s about time. (Going all in on The Gilded Age is fine for Victorian rubbernecking, but a fangirl needs her fix of light, bright American classicism, no?)

Enter the ICAA’s films on contemporary luminaries like the New York-based Schafer, founding partner of Schafer Buccellato Architects and one of the nation’s leading practitioners of contemporary classical architecture; projects from coastal Maine to southern Georgia have appeared in VERANDA, including a rustic lakeside beauty featured in the documentary.

gil shafer architect

Courtesy of ICAA

Architect Gil Schafer of Schafer Buccellato Architects

What is so compelling about this latest film from the ICAA, besides the return of incredible film quality and the rare opportunity to walk alongside these visionaries, is the quiet sense of adventure that Schafer brings to architecture. He resists novelty in his residences, favoring symmetry and vernacular materials, perhaps because he sees so much originality in the land they rest on—which seems to be exactly the point of the film.

Walking the grounds of a house in the Hudson Valley, Schafer speaks of finding a sense of mystery and adventure in outbuildings and garden walls—in a traditional English ha-ha, a stone wall often built into hills to keep sheep or cattle from coming up to the house.

gil schafer country house

Courtesy of ICAA

A Hudson Valley Palladian-style home

He uses it on the New York property to temper the slope and provide a gentle order to the sprawling land. On why he wanted to highlight the tight connection between land and design, he told me, “Understanding the essence of a place as you start to design is so important, so essential, for helping what you build there to anchor itself into that site—and into the lives of those you for whom you are designing.”

vermont party barn by gil schafer

Courtesy of ICAA

Schafer’s Lake Champlain party barn

Schafer also walks viewers through a Vermont party barn (originally featured in VERANDA) with stonework inspired by a building at the nearby Shelburne Museum. The owner had a deep connection to the area, which is the other critical piece for Schafer: “Sometimes that understanding of the land comes from the memories and experiences your clients have had in that place, or places like it. The key is observing and listening.”

Here, a sneak peek at the film:

preview for Unlocking the Mysteries of Place with Gil Schafer

Unlocking the Mysteries of Place with Gil Schafer will air on PBS-affiliated stations on December 1. For more information on the ICAA or their Design in Mind series, visit classicist.org. Gil Schafer is the author of three design books, including the forthcoming Home At Last: Enduring Design for the New American House (Rizzoli), releasing in February 2024.

Lettermark

Ellen McGauley is the executive editor of VERANDA, where she develops and writes about design, decorative arts, travel, and the garden—anything that shines a light on the soul of a home. Follow her on Instagram at @ellenmcgauley. 

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