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Hilltop Haven

Endless skies, lush gardens, and a sparkling pool



Friends gather under the pergola that sits poolside for al-fresco dining.

Photographs by Hulya Kolabas

The long and winding drive of Janet Olshansky and Jeff Morris’s home, with its various twists and turns, could in many ways serve as a metaphor for their life. As one ascends the hill and looks to the left, a view that expands well over 30 miles on a clear day radiates in the distance. To the right lies a gentle green sloping hill that comes to touch the glistening grey gravel and is often filled with wild flowers.

The life and home of Janet and Jeff could also be deemed as one of accidental encounters. In 1985, she, with a degree in Medieval and Renaissance English, and Jeff, with a degree in engineering, were introduced at a friend’s home in the city for dinner. “Only after the guy I really wanted to meet was unavailable,” explains Janet. The absent date worked for a cool consulting company and had a cooler loft but couldn’t make it, so her friends invited Jeff (a former college roommate), who was working for an educational media business and living in New Jersey. “Can you imagine that—someone wanting to live in New Jersey by choice!” exclaims Janet, who was born and raised in the Garden State. 

The first date didn’t go so well. They had an argument over the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Janet thought Jeff a pompous ass when he declared her college major a “total waste of time.” So concluded the evening. Not much was thought of it until Jeff called again three weeks later. “We went to a hip restaurant where we ate, drank, danced, and by the end of the evening I was smitten,” Janet says. Two months later they were traveling the countryside of England and spending romantic evenings in local bed and breakfasts. 

Fast forward to 1989 and Janet and Jeff are married and living in Manhattan. They have started their own educational media company, and Janet would finally feel vindicated—her college degree proving quite useful, while Jeff with his engineering degree (“who couldn’t fix a thing”) would take over the content aspect of the company.

By spring of 1995, after the birth of their daughter Maddy and their son Ian, they realized that maneuvering two children around the city was too challenging. They started looking for a weekend “safety valve.” So every Friday they loaded the car with toddlers and cats and headed up Route 684 where they would have a late dinner and “discover nature,” as Janet recalls with sarcastic humor. 

Over the years, North Salem would become their retreat. “It was so much nicer to roll out of bed and go up to Purdy’s Field instead of trying to find some green space in the city,” says Janet. They rented for a while and after flirting with the idea of buying property and building, came upon a quirky house.

As a friend described it, “Monticello meets Nantucket in Tuscany.” People who first saw the house always ask, “What was this before?” But it had beautiful property and breathtaking views. “You can always change a house, but you can never change a view like this one,” Janet said many times. They were sold.

Today the original shingle-style home with its center rotunda still serves as the site for many dinner parties when the season or weather prohibits outdoor entertaining. Now there is a great-room kitchen that they love, as well as a master suite so that they no longer “live in their bathroom,” as five year-old daughter Maddy had said.

Janet notes that it took just the right architect to understand and appreciate the integrity of the house. “Everyone we interviewed wanted to make it larger. We didn’t want bigger. We just wanted something that suited our needs better.”

In fact, the very first thing they did was put in a pool for the children. “Ian loved the house and all of the ongoing construction. He grew up thinking that every home came with a backhoe and tractor that kids got to sit in and play on.” 

As the house evolved with its various nooks, crannies, hidden gardens, and rooftop balconies so did the family’s interests. 

The children played a variety of sports. Janet became an avid walker and tennis player while Jeff took up golf. But one of the most popular pastimes was spent welcoming friends and family.

The two love to entertain and do the majority of it during the warmer months when people can be outdoors and enjoy the expansive views and stunning sunsets. When the sky turns a pale shade of purple and pink, guests work their way to the upper garden, pool, and pergola and dine by candlelight, continually admiring the landscape and horizon to the west.

One could look at the Olshansky and Morris home as an intricate canvas of their life. There was never anything predictable or ordinary about where Janet and Jeff would end up. In March, Jeff suffered a significant physical setback and is working hard to regain his mobility. Janet says that never has it been more important to spend time in a place where the view of life from the inside looking out, gives them both so much hope for the future.

 

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