Easy to Love
Cole Porter’s former estate is composed of many parts
In Cole Porter’s song “Wunderbar,” featured in the musical Kiss Me, Kate, the legendary composer envisioned events unfolding “from our secret chalet for two.” Standing on the composer’s former Williamstown property, it isn’t hard to imagine he was looking out his window when he wrote those words.
The structural history of Porter’s former Williamstown estate is as winding as the aspects that remain part of it. Each property owner made their mark, with Porter himself standing out in that regard.
“It’s like separate little cottage buildings that have been put together and then changed and then put together and changed over a period of years,” says Williamstown landscape architect Elizabeth Bartels.
That’s the challenge Thomas and Elizabeth Bartels faced when their firm Bartels / Architecture + Landscape Design was hired in 2015 by the house’s current owners—to take a property with an unusual, piecemeal aesthetic and fashion a consistency for it, while honoring the quirkiness that defines its history and appeal.
Local historian Dustin Griffin has made the property one of the focal points of his research. A farm prior to 1892, a bankruptcy led to the sale of it to a Wall Street banker. “He bought the property at a time when Williamstown was at its height as a summer colony, and large houses were being built around town,” says Griffin. “It was going to be the next Lenox.”
That never happened and the banker never built that house, but a wealthy woman named Helen Jean Aitkin bought the property in 1913, and a few years later built a large stone summer house and named it Buxton Hill. Its 350 acres were laid out in meticulous, grand gardens. After Aitkin married Episcopal bishop Robert Louis Paddock, the property became the site of many Williamstown social gatherings.
It was in 1940 after the couple had died that Cole Porter’s wife, Linda, bought the property—a country house that could lure her husband away from New York City for some respite. Linda oversaw a massive overhaul of the property, notably converting a barn into a six-car garage with a three-bedroom apartment upstairs, which Cole Porter called his “cottage.”
“That’s where Porter liked to spend his time,” Griffin says. “He did a fair amount of work at the cottage. She liked the big stone house. She liked to entertain a lot. He always thought of it as her house and much preferred his little place.”
Porter and his wife had a devoted marriage, but often led separate lives with an understanding between them—Porter was gay. Linda died in 1954, and Porter, either out of an emotional desire not to face his wife’s house or his distaste for it, had the main house torn down and his cottage moved into its place. He had a bedroom wing added on the west side and retained the services of legendary designer Billy Baldwin for the interior.
In 1958, his right leg was removed from complications following an earlier accident, causing immobility and isolation. He had small gatherings in his Williamstown house but was no longer the gracious host he’d once been.
When he died in 1964, he left the property to Williams College, which sold it to the Hunter family, who expanded it significantly beyond its cottage status. Several other owners through the decades made various alterations to the property.
One of the Bartels’s primary missions in 2015 was to add a country kitchen by combining the existing galley kitchen with the formal dining area. Another was to open up the outside views in order to create continuity from inside the house to out on the grounds. This meant expanding the living room to the south—the living room is actually Porter’s original cottage—and installing huge sliding doors that open onto a terrace.
“You really see that space because you’re looking out from the newly added wall of the living room to the garden,” says Thomas Bartels. “You have a lighting scheme that illuminates the hedges.”
The terrace leads to what is called the “Green Room,” a sizable courtyard with a fountain that is bordered by walls dating back to the original stone house. This courtyard is surrounded by gardens and tall hedges, which create corridors to the larger property and trails to different points beyond the surrounding meadows. Part of the landscaping work involved defining the meadow and dealing with invasive species.
“When we came on the property, there were really no gardens per se,” Elizabeth Bartels says. “They had disappeared completely or were just overgrown. There were three specific areas approximate to the house, so the decision was made to attend to those first because you’re looking at them and walking through them every day.”
The living room flows with the rest of the house, offering easy access to the kitchen and a nearly 90-foot-long hallway on the house’s north side that connects all the points of access in the house, including the front door. The Bartels added Brazilian-slate planks flooring as a unifying element in the hall and other areas of the house.
At the west end of the hall is Porter’s old bedroom and sitting room, the addition Porter made in the 1950s. The Bartels sought to capture its original flavor, restructuring the adjoining bathroom so that ample bookshelves could be added and the room could function as a library, as it did in Porter’s day. Porter’s original fireplace and small window above it remain in place.
The house retains many such quirks. For instance, it has three different upstairs quarters accessible through three different staircases because none of the upstairs areas are connected to each other. In the sprawling basement, the remnants of the original house can be found in one section, including old, truncated cement walls that support nothing.
“It has the feeling of an ensemble that has grown over time,” says Thomas Bartels. “We saw the opportunity to create one design element for the various houses.”