The renaissance of Keeler Hill Farm
What would you do if you owned an empty building with 22,000 square feet on two floors and wanted to turn it into a livable family home? Well, chop it in half. That is more or less what Lois and Ken Lippmann did after they acquired the cow barn of the former Keeler dairy farm in North Salem. A giant industrial saw severed the front of the T-shaped structure and enough of the two extremities to leave a manageable 12,000 feet of space.
The Lippmanns had already owned two houses here. When the barn and its appendages (including silos and manure piles!) with 15 acres of land came on the market, they decided to move once more. “We had begun riding, and naively imagined that keeping our horses at home instead of boarding them would save us money,” says Lois. The views and privacy of the location were also a plus.
At first they were going to tear down the barn and move an old home from upstate New York to the site “for a center-hall colonial on top of the hill.” Instead, their architect, David Coffin of Ridgefield, convinced them that converting the existing structure would provide more living space for less money. Another deciding factor: locals viewed the farm building as a landmark, not a tear-down, and there was grumbling in town. Always community-minded, the Lippmanns paid heed. Ken, owner of a construction supply business, posed only one condition: “I wanted the end product to feel like a real house inside, not like a converted barn.”
It took a year of planning, a year of construction, and years of subsequent improvements to achieve just that. Today, where the barn’s T-front had been, visitors ascend a set of steps to the colonnaded entrance on the ground floor that had once housed 68 cows and now includes Ken’s private “man cave” with his collection of first editions, a wine cellar, storage rooms, and a garden room. From the front hall, a graceful staircase leads to the spacious second-floor landing with its two-story window flooding the inside with light. Where 200 tons of feed had once been kept are today’s large living room, dining room, library, and the kitchen that extends to a sitting area. On almost every corner of the building is a porch, a balcony, an inviting place to sit and take in the panorama of the surrounding hay fields. On the third level, an addition made possible because of the feed loft’s original high ceiling, are the roomy master bedroom, the Lippmann’s two grown sons’ former rooms, a guest room and three baths.
The furnishings enhance the “real house” feeling. “Most everything you see here is early Saint James auction,” says Lois with a smile, referring to the local church’s annual event. Over the years she has furnished the house, using items she found at the auctions, house sales, neighboring consignment shops, on travels, and from friends and family. “Almost every stick of furniture Ken and I own,” says Lois, “has a story or memory attached to it. A bed bought at a house auction in South Dakota in 1965 when we had just graduated from college, my mother’s kneehole desk, Ken’s mother’s small chair, a trunk which once belonged to Natalie Hammond of local museum fame.” The effect is of a handsomely appointed, warm and welcoming home, filled with personal references.
Over the years, many of the major enhancements—the swimming pool, the hand-painted wallpaper in the dining room depicting North Salem scenes, recent remodeling of the kitchen, a rabbit sculpture in the garden—were Christmas presents from Ken to Lois. The flower borders surrounding the pool are called “the friendship garden,” all plants that friends had given Lois when she began gardening here. Another patch is “Page’s garden,” created with the help of neighbor and friend Page Dickey. The sycamores, oaks, maples, and crabapples planted in the beginning when the house looked like a beached QE2 in the middle of rubble call to mind neighbor Peter Kamenstein, who personally picked out and placed the trees. Then there is the throwback to Lois’s native South Dakota, a lilac walk behind the house where she has planted dozens of different syringa cultivars. “In the Plain states, lilacs are pretty much the only shrubs that grow,” she says. “I love them.”
Lois grew up on a farm, her grandfather’s original homestead, and when she and Ken bought Keeler Hill, “I had to have a farm.” An orchard yields apples, pears, peaches, apricots, quinces, and plums, and a large vegetable garden gives everything from asparagus to gooseberries. From the beginning, horses—their own and boarders—have occupied one of the buildings. Chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea hens cackle, quack, honk, and screech in the hen house. A neighbor had left them a black-and-white cow named, aptly enough, Oreo, a fixture in their pasture until it died. Then four-year-old grandson Strummer Lippmann told Lois: “Lolo, you can’t have a real farm without cows.” The obliging grandparents bought three Polled Hereford steers that now round out the menagerie.
Ken enjoys pruning the fruit trees and “picking and taking a basket of apples to the office.” “I also like parties, and our house, with all the space, is a great party house,” he adds on a joyous note. Lois says: “In the beginning it took some time to adapt to such a big house, to manage so much space. But over the years I have come to appreciate all that I am able to do in it, and with it. And what I truly love about this house is that we—Ken and I—made it. It’s our house.”