At home with a master gardener
Photographs by Phillip Ennis
Overlooking Mianus River Gorge, River Hills is a sprawling 16-acre property, lush with indigenous vegetation, like tupelo trees, bayberry, viburnums, and ferns. The 18th-century homestead, perched alongside an old trade route to Stamford, is enjoying a renaissance thanks to owners Leslie and John Needham.
When they purchased their home in 2001, the Needhams received a DVD on its history as a housewarming gift from a previous owner, Anne French. “The original part of the farmhouse is 230 years old,” explains Leslie, a landscape designer and master gardener, who found herself smitten with the property’s potential. “Anne lived here as a little girl and later as a young bride. Eventually, she became executive director of the Mianus River Gorge Preserve. She knows every inch of this property.”
Armed with French’s DVD, photo albums, and copious notes, the Needhams settled in with their three young daughters and learned as much as they could about River Hills. “You live in it, you see where the light comes in, you’re tempted to make a lot of changes from the gut when you first buy a house,” Leslie says. Eventually, they interviewed six architects, many of whom advised the couple to tear the house down. “We were committed to not taking it down,” she continues. “And then we found Kahlil Hamady, an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, who had done some work on a historic house in Greenwich. He was fantastic because he believed in working with the scale of the original house, integrating the inside and outside, and helped us to articulate—through good architecture—what we wanted in the house.”
Leslie and John agreed that if they were buying an old house, they didn’t want to pump it up on steroids, and they wanted to embrace its quirky charm. Their guiding philosophy was to not only acknowledge what it had been but to also make it work for them in the present.
“There have been five families who have lived here, and we know three of them,” says John. “Each of the five families have put their own imprint on it. But I think we very much feel like we’re taking care of it for a future generation. There’s a sense of stewardship when you live in an old house like this. You want it to be here forever. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t put your own stamp on it.”
Leslie, who earned her design degree at the New York Botanical Gardens and founded Leslie Needham Design LLC in 2005, took a similar approach to designing the landscape. “I changed it dramatically but wanted to make it look like it could have been here a long, long, time.”
After Hurricane Sandy swept through the property, shearing off the tops of nearly 30 hundred-foot-tall hemlocks that screened the property from the road, Leslie researched which plants were native to the adjacent gorge, integrating them into her new design for the entrance to the property. A gravel drive now leads guests to a parking area across from the front door, but friends generally enter through a second door that leads directly into the light-filled kitchen.
One of the many important things that Kahlil Hamady helped the Needhams do was open the vintage home to its spectacular views. “I knew what the house needed,” Leslie recalls. “We had this wonderful outdoors, and yet, the layout of the house kept us from accessing it. So, Kahlil came to stay with us for a week and would get up in the morning, look at the light, and walk the property. He opened it up with windows and doors.”
The kitchen is now nestled in the southern section of the original Dutch Colonial farmhouse with the dining room, library, John’s office, and a staircase to the upstairs situated on the north side. Hamady redesigned a 1970s-addition living room, reducing its size, dropping its cathedral ceiling, and converting one third of its space to a charming covered porch.
A few steps down from the kitchen is the cozy family room, constructed from an old New England barn that was cobbled onto the main house in the 1930s. The timber-frame ceiling and stone fireplace create a completely different vibe that draws the family to gather here in winter. A passageway leads to an old wagon shed that has been reborn as Leslie’s studio. From this space, she meets with clients and drafts plans, often with the doors flung wide-open for inspiration and to capture the scent of honeysuckle that clings to the trellis overhead.
“Since the renovation, there’s a much better flow to the outside,” Leslie observes. “And, I think the landscaping really works to support that.” From the massive boulder that stands sentinel beside the back porch to the miles of stonewalls that meander the property, stone is an important part of the River Hills landscape. “The design principles I’ve adhered to over time have remained steadfast: the stone and the view.” Have we mentioned the view?
“I don’t like to give it all away at once—the views are revealed bit by bit,” Leslie says as she leads a tour past the hedge-enclosed swimming pool and outdoor fireplace, to the terraced gardens bursting with ribbons of irises in full bloom. Down a few stone steps, through the greens garden, past the primrose path, she pauses in the orchard, home to 18 fruit trees. Making note of plants and trees that are flourishing as well as those that may need attention, Leslie knows each rock and tree as well as Anne French did before her. As the sun begins its descent over the far side of River Hills, she heads back to the covered porch that Hamady strategically designed to frame the verdant views. Settling in beside her in the family’s favorite outdoor room, John hands her a glass of wine and notes, “we’ve been complete partners in renovating this house, and this is something we’ve had a lot of fun working on together because it’s both creative and practical.”
“And, then there’s also passion,” adds Leslie “All of a sudden we’ll have a great idea, and then we get all excited again.” John concurs, “It never ends, but that’s the fun of it, actually.”