NY Times "A Foundation in the Classics"



A Foundation in the Classics

Richard Sammons, a Manhattan architect, values his Morgan Plus 8 for its authenticity.

By Richard S. Chang Feb. 3, 2008
Photo: Mark Rabiner for The New York Times

IN the contemporary landscape of architecture, someone like Richard Sammons doesn’t get lionized by the fledgling and impressionable (and constantly blogging) designerati. That might be because his firm, Fairfax & Sammons, which he owns with his wife, Anne Fairfax, specializes in traditional architecture.

Their projects, which include new homes and redesigns for actors like Liv Tyler and Sarah Jessica Parker and for the playwright John Guare (as well as for the just plain wealthy), are classical beauties featuring meticulous craftsmanship and personalized details. There are no towering crystal pyramids on Mr. Sammons’s résumé. His houses, alas, look like houses.

So it doesn’t require a giant leap of the imagination to see how Mr. Sammons could be taken by the classic allure of a Morgan Plus 8.
Although he bought his car new in 2003, the elegant little roadster looks like something one would have found bumbling across the British lowlands 60 years ago, perhaps with a picnic basket in the trunk.

Founded in 1909 by H. F. S. Morgan, the company is that doubly rare enterprise a British car manufacturer that’s still owned and operated by the British. In fact, the company has never left the Morgan family’s hands.

More rare still is the company’s aversion to change. Current models look only slightly different from those built in the 1940s. They are still defined by large, swooping fenders; a flat, narrow windshield; bullet headlamps; and a leather belt that wraps around the long hood, which opens on both sides like a gull spreading its wings.

For Mr. Sammons, the appeal lies deeper than the car’s traditional style. “You can call up the company and talk to the person working on the windshield,” he said. “You can talk to the owner of the company.”

You can do more than that. You can go to the factory in Malvern Link, England, and watch your car being made, which is what Mr. Sammons did. “This is how cars are built without stamping machines,” he said.

Nearly every part on every Morgan is handcrafted and bespoke traits that apply as well to Fairfax & Sammons, which relies on local craftspeople and specialist suppliers.

“Just because you’re using computers to design a house doesn’t mean it has to look like one,” he said.

Coincidentally, Fairfax & Sammons opened in 1992, the same year that Ms. Fairfax and Mr. Sammons married. Now in their 40s, the couple met on their first day at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, which Mr. Sammons chose particularly because the university was designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Mr. Sammons’s ambition has always been in the classical style, and he is unforgiving when talking about modern architecture, which he feels is perverse for the sake of perversity. “We are still affected by the pull of gravity and rain,” he said. “The inputs haven’t changed.”

The same goes for automobile design. He says he thinks the Italians got it right with the 1924 Bugatti Type 35. Lightness, the proper wheelbase and a low center of gravity were the keys to a perfect sports car. The British came along and built on the tradition with their compact roadsters. “I tend toward prewar simplicity,” he said.

Mr. Sammons had owned a used Morgan 4+4 for a time. Before that, he had a Mazda Miata, old Britain seen through the robotic lens of the Japanese. The 4+4, essentially a Plus 8 with a smaller engine, satisfied him for a time. But then he heard that Morgan was ending production of the Plus 8 in 2004.

First built in 1968, the Plus 8 had changed little. In the model’s final years, Morgan was selling about 50 a year in the United States at prices from $65,000 to $75,000. With a 200-horsepower Rover V-8 inside the 1,800-pound frame, the roadster is fast, and seemingly faster because it is so low to the ground. Vrooming down the West Side Highway on a winter morning, Mr. Sammons looked like a man who was enjoying his car.
He keeps it parked in a small garage a few blocks from his office in the meatpacking district, where the wobbly cobblestone streets are only marginally worse than the pothole-riddled roads nearby. During the drive, he tried to keep the Morgan on smooth road, but didn’t go too far out of his way to appease the car, which has seen worse. “This is my only car,” he said, wedging sentences between shifts through the gears. “I take it to construction sites. You know what it’s like there. Dirt roads.” At a red light, a meek brume of steam huffed out from the end of the hood. “It’s not overheating,” he said, interrupting the concern that was just starting to form in his passenger’s mind. He pointed to the temperature gauge to prove his point, explaining that the steam came from antifreeze that had leaked onto the engine. The light turned green; he took off. “In a city where it’s so difficult to have a car, having a boring car is really stupid,” he said.

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