All Decked Out

It’s more than an outdoor room, it’s an outdoor apartment.

Eighteen years ago, after living for ten years each in an 18th Street studio and a Mercer Street one-bedroom loft, I found myself dreaming almost every night about houses and gardens. My husband Julius and I needed a house and a backyard and a school for Alex, then ten years old. After visiting friends in the area, we zeroed in on the “Rivertowns” communities of Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, and Irvington, New York, 38 minutes north of Grand Central Terminal.

We drove up almost every weekend and looked at real estate. Amazingly, there were a number of authentic Midcentury Modern houses built from 1957-60 in the style of Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood and R.M. Schindler. Every few weeks a new one came on the market, reasonably priced. They offered the right kind of style to a California-born, UCLA-educated designer like me – open floor plans, walls of glass, beamed ceilings – but few of the amenities most buyers were looking for. No master suite with luxurious bath, no walk-in closets, no garage. But they were just right for our little family.

One Sunday we saw “the one.” It was kind of a wreck, dark and gloomy, but one of twelve houses around a two-acre pond, with a 900-square-foot deck. I could fix the dark and gloomy part, and the setting could never be matched. Alex would live on a cul-de-sac perfect for bike-riding and have a pond with a rowboat and frogs. Little-boy heaven. It was (re)designer heaven for me. The house needed everything from light fixtures to tiles. The deck would have to wait — it was just fine with the picnic tables and rickety chaise lounges left by the previous owners.

Left, a snapshot of the deck on the day we first saw the house in 1992. Right, a picture I snapped today.

Two years ago, inspired by various articles in Garden Design magazine and a picture of the Jack Shapiro (no relation) house in the book Private Landscapes, Modernist Gardens in Southern California by Pamela Burton and Marie Botnick, we embarked on a deck redesign project. The deck had already been turned into an outdoor room of sorts. But it was too hot out there to eat lunch in summer and too dark by nightfall to have dinner and relax. With the addition of electricity and a canopied pergola, there would be shade and light, two essential elements of making it a truly useful living space.

2008: The cracked decking is replaced with new pressure-treated lumber. Construction begins on the new pergola, made of wonderfully fragrant cedar posts.

The 900-square-foot deck is cantilevered above the back yard, supported by steel beams.

A local contractor and I designed the pergola so that the beams were extensions of the interior beams of the house. We worked closely with a representative of Shade Tree Canopies, which I had discovered in an ad in Garden Design, so that tracks could be installed to fit three retractable fabric canopies. Fifties-style hanging globe lights were installed as well as perimeter lighting.

The pergola is completed and stained to match the house, light fixtures installed.

I try out our new Shade Tree Canopy. The three sections can be locked into fully extended positions or adjusted to billow at different lengths. The decking was stained semi-transparent gray.

The deck now feels like an outdoor apartment; it’s bigger than my whole 18th Street studio, with spaces for barbecuing, eating, sunning, sitting around, plant-growing, having lots of people over for parties. Freshly squeezed lemonade, anyone?

2011: Out with the logs, in with the modern. I designed two tables that were built by C&F Steel Corp., Elmsford, NY, fitted with 3/4″ frosted acrylic tops made by Acrilex in NJ. “Supernatural” stacking chairs are by Moroso

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint,, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
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7 Responses to All Decked Out

  1. Nice! I’m curious how this had held up—-is the canopy mechanism still working well, etc.? Am considering similar for my patio but we get very strong afternoon winds everyday. Thanks!

  2. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for asking. Yes, the canopy has held up really well. We take down the fabric panels for the winter. The mechanism works fine. When there’s a strong wind, you can squeeze the panels together against the house. White was a special order. If you look at the Shade Tree site / catalog, you see mostly stripes and dark colors — won’t show the dirt as much.

  3. Jim says:

    My wife and I love your Pergola/Canopy design! I’m curious about the wood structure….
    The posts appear to be 6×6, but I can’t tell what size the beams and cross members are. I’d like to replicate your design, so if you don’t mind sharing these sizes with me, it would really help.

    Thanks much,


  4. Jim says:

    Hi Ellen,
    We are designing a pergola for our backyard, inspired by yours, including the canopy. I’m very curious about the pergola itself. It would be very helpful if you could share info about the sizes of the lumber that was used. Specifically, are those 2×10 rafters holding up the canopy? Are the posts 6×6? It’s hard to tell from the photo.

    Thank you,


  5. Ann Wyse says:

    Hi Ellen,

    Beautiful deck and pergola space! I came across it while researching Shade Tree Canopies. Could you tell me how the canopies are holding up four years later? I’m especially interested in whether or not you’ve noticed any color change in the white (is it white mesh?)….

    Many Thanks!

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