Building cat furniture might not be the route an architect would expect to take, but it certainly wasn’t unwelcome. That’s what happened with Mario Arbore, though, and he’s never looked back.
“In my practice, I’ve had the pleasure of doing a wide variety of projects, including restaurants, home renovations, offices, furniture showrooms and much more,” says Mario, founder of Square Paws and principal of Arbore Design. After moving his architecture practice from New York to Florida in 2011, Mario experienced a lull in his business in 2014 that lasted a few months. A friend suggested building cat houses.
“I pondered what I could say and do as an architect for my cats and my home,” he says. “It started out with a lighthouse, since cats like to be up high, and I wanted to make something fairly compact in terms of floor space. That idea led me to consider other building types, animals, chairs, etc. It became a creative outlet for me as an architect, an artist and a craftsman.”
Mario’s architectural skills and creativity for cat furniture led to a collaboration with the North Shore Animal League, which wanted to dedicate a room to benefactor Billy Joel. Mario designed furniture and cubbies in the shapes of amplifiers, a piano/cat body and Empire State Building.
Impressed with the Billy Joel room, Susan Whittred, DVM, executive director of the Patricia H. Ladew Foundation, Inc., asked Mario to contribute designs to the sanctuary.
The foundation’s namesake, Pat Ladew, had started rescuing cats in the 1970s when an Oyster Bay resident moved, leaving behind two dozen abandoned cats. Hungry and fending for themselves, the cats began wandering the town in search of food and warmth, which sometimes led to injury when the cats climbed inside car engines. They also began reproducing. Pat heard about what was happening and came to their aid by giving them food, shelter, medical care and homes. When word got out that she rescued cats, people began dumping even more of them off at her doorstep. By 1975, she couldn’t take in any more cats while trying to find them homes, so she purchased a house to serve as a shelter. Cats were treated by voluntary veterinarians, and funds came from donations as well as from Pat (who was an heiress). Learn more about Patricia H. Ladew Foundation at theladewcatsanctuary.org.
At the time, her purchase led to some misconceptions. The first was that she was eccentric, and the second was that she bought a mansion. “In fact,” Mario says. “It was a fairly dilapidated house that went through many upgrades over the years.”
Patricia passed away in 2002, but her shelter continues on. In the latest redesign, Mario honored her vision of a free-roaming sanctuary and also made it feel like the cats “own” the house. “This would play off the ‘eccentric heiress’ misconception but also give us a spring-point for our design,” he says. “The living room would again become a living room, the kitchen a kitchen, etc.”
Mario’s design creates a home-like feel but also incorporates elements cats need.
“Open, cageless concepts are much less stressful on cats,” Dr. Whittred says. “They have areas where they can have alone time and cubbies where they can feel safe but at the same time lots of open areas where they can interact with people visiting in hopes that they may find homes.”
Other considerations were sustainability and that it would be easy to keep clean, Dr. Whittred says.
The foundation’s board members were thrilled with the results. The North Shore Animal League and Patricia H. Ladew Foundation can serve as inspiration to any shelter, Mario says.
“I encourage folks to think ‘outside the box’ themselves and to be creative in whatever way they know how to make their shelter environment as warm and welcoming as possible,” he says. “To be creative in their individual way. And to have fun along the way!”
The décor represents a mid-century modern aesthetic. Sagamore Hill was President Theodore Roosevelt’s “summer White House,” and the town can feel like a living museum. The idea behind the cat sanctuary was to pay tribute to the living museum idea by feeling “frozen in time,” but with a 1960/1970s feel. Unlike a museum, however, the sanctuary is alive with cat “homeowners.”
The indoor catwalk extends 150 feet so cats can explore from above.