By Regina Sinsky | Photos by John Warner
Growing up in a 1950s ranch house in Milwaukee—shared with his parents, seven brothers, and a sister—Mark Sinsky was aware of the flaws in a typical 20th-century ranch. “I was raised in a highly functional home, but in a dysfunctional house,” he says. “I can remember being in our living room, by far the largest and nicest room, only two or three times during my childhood. Instead, we would all cram into the ‘den’ in front of the TV, a room that also served as the entry and a storage room for boots and coats.”
Later, studying architecture at the University of Notre Dame, Mark heard the Mies van der Rohe mantra Less Is More. “I disagreed; I believed then that less is really less.” Mark began a practice in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, becoming an ex pert in designing custom homes to take full advantage of the mountain properties. Most clients ascribed to More Is Better. In 1986, Sinsky moved his family to Asheville, North Carolina. For his family, he designed a 3,000-square-foot modern, cottage-style house in a great neighborhood close to downtown, with mountain views that included the celebrated Grove Park Inn.
Ten years later, his family had gotten bigger, and he had the opportunity to design a larger home on a pristine, six-acre horse farm nearby. “It wasn’t just a great place to raise a family, I thought, but also a portfolio piece for prospective clients,” Sinsky says. In fact, “It was so nice that eight years later, a client decided he wanted it. We had to be out in two months.”
It was a pivotal moment for the family. “We all agreed to simplify and downsize: no more country-club membership, no more huge real-estate tax and utility bills, and no more work on the ‘gentleman’s farm’,” Sinsky recalls. “We got off the hamster wheel.” Besides, they’d missed their closer-to-downtown neighborhood.
They had a standing offer from an older neighbor to buy her 1950 ranch house two doors down from their previous Asheville house. Mark’s wife, Elizabeth Arrington, was doubtful: “It was dark, with a living room that was never used, and four bedrooms down the hall. The kitchen was totally cut off from the rest of the house. Once I asked the owner where she sat outdoors, and she said, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ It was the opposite of the way Mark and I like to live.”
Still, Elizabeth had faith in Mark’s design skills, and agreed that they should buy and renovate the house. A rustic-style bungalow-ranch, it had been designed by the prestigious Asheville firm Six Associates for Demaree Bess, a renowned journalist who’d lived in Russia as the chief Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and who was later associate editor of the Saturday Evening Post. The ranch had “great bones,” steel beams, 9′ ceilings—and the promise of a stunning view. At the time, more than 60 mature, unreliable white pines covered the property; few people even knew the house was there.
It took two months to close the deal, redesign the house, and hire builder Steve Zarnowski, who said the job would need six months. Only two of their four children were still at home. Temporarily without a place to live, Mark and Elizabeth decided to home-school the kids as they traveled through Western Europe for the half-year. “We sold and donated about 75 percent of what we owned—or what owned us,” says Mark. The ranch would be roughly a third the size of their previous home.
Without all the “stuff,” the family’s big adventure cost no more than their previous lifestyle had. In Europe, they lived in apartments, each for a week or a month. “They were small but always wonderful: two weeks in the Marais and two weeks in St. Germain [in Paris], a month in Barcelona, a month in southern France, a month in northern Italy. Then a month in Rome.”
Elizabeth “shopped” the places they stayed, trying things out at the apartments, noting features of a restaurant in Barcelona. At a mid-century modern exhibit in Milan, they picked out the arching lamp for the lounge; it is by the designer Achille Castiglioni. Elizabeth bought things online while they were still abroad. The family returned home in time to pick paint colors and landscape features. A theme emerged as they made decisions: What would be the simplest?
“I learned that less is indeed more,” says Mark, “and that you can come home again, transformed.”