Pretty in Pink
A fairytale Southport house & garden enchants all ages
Photos by Rana Faure
I f you were to stroll the sidewalks of Southport, you would pass numerous architectural gems —from 18th-century clapboard houses to Victorians to neo-Gothic churches. Just a stone’s throw from architect Robert Robertson’s masterpiece—Pequot Library—you might walk by what looks like a cottage out of the French countryside or the English Cotswolds. You might even remark, “That looks like one of Southport’s oldest homes!”
As charming as it is, Marlene and Dennis Sheehan’s storybook cottage, surrounded by a lush garden and a forest of bamboo, isn’t quite historic, but it does have an interesting pedigree.
Designed in 1953 by the prominent Southport architect Roswell Barrett, or “Uncle Ros” as the neighbors knew him, it was indeed created to resemble a European cottage. In the ’50s, this Pequot Avenue home’s first owners bought the old Southport jail, circa 1850, and had it moved to the back where it still stands today as an out building.
An old newspaper article from 1951 mentions that the jail once held a “man who let his cow pasture on the village green.” Even though it was built 100 years prior, it blends seamlessly into the property, connecting with the main house and helping to create an overall fairytale feel to the place. As one of the neighbors’ children guilelessly told her mother: “If Snow White had a home in Connecticut, this is where she would live.”
To fully grasp the sweetness of the Sheehan property, you must be taken on a tour by the inimitable Marlene Sheehan, a New York Times contributing writer an
d retired middle-school teacher who you know was worshipped by many a 12-year-old. She is warm, funny, and engaging—and no matter your age—she makes you feel like everything you say is important. Her grandchildren know this better than anyone. They love to stop by their grandma’s house for a game of make-believe in the magical backyard, or have some homemade cake and peach pie on the slate stone patio.
Surrounding every inch of the home are beautiful plantings and flowers—a garden that means the world to the couple—and one that Sheehan herself has been working on since the day they moved to Southport. “I just love gardening—from learning about what might work in that spot, to sharing cuttings with friends and family, to pruning, deadheading, and keeping it looking good in every season,” says Sheehan.
Over the years Sheehan has done most of it on her own—Dennis, while he enjoys the garden, “doesn’t know a petunia from a redwood,” jokes Sheehan. As she has gotten older, she has enlisted the help of a local gardener named Angelo Ciambriello. “We make a good team,” says Sheehan. “If you want a great garden you need a lot of money or a good back,” she adds with a chuckle.
Sheehan’s spring garden is a talking point for people passing by. Most people notice her roses first. “The roses are pink and red Knockout roses because they are so hardy,” explains the master gardener. “I have a lot of Siberian and Japanese irises in the back and front. But my first love though is the majestic bearded irises and especially the re-blooming ones in front called Immortality, which surprisingly bloom again in the fall.”
Since Sheehan can usually be found outside tending her garden, passersby often ask her about it. “Walkers always want to know what my Immortality irises are because they are not expecting to see them in September.”
While a lot of her plantings are ten years old and beyond, she loves to add annuals every season. “I like to always have something in bloom. There is always color here while my perennial babies go back to sleep until the next year.” One of her tips is to have colorful borders. “Cleomes are a must for the back and the low purple ageratums are also an ideal colorful border plant.
White begonias highlight the pinks, blues, and purples of the summer perennials that come in later,” says Sheehan. Another favorite sturdy annual of Sheehan’s is vinca minor, in white or purple—not the ground cover of the same name, she cautions. For the shade she says nothing beats the purple-pink or white New Guinea impatiens. The hedge along her sidewalk is a long line of indestructible pink shrub roses.
“I always shop locally for my plants, but try to get things on sale,” says Sheehan. “I like bargains and I can make those plants flourish just as well as more expensive ones!”
When it comes to the interior of the home, the couple are do-it-yourselfers and proud of it. “Why pay someone to do what we can do?” asks Sheehan. The handsome painted gray and white checkerboard floor in the foyer greets you as you enter. It’s elaborate—and perfectly done—the handiwork of team Sheehan. “This was harder than it looks,” says Sheehan.
The four-bedroom home features a carefully curated collection of vintage furniture and decorative items, pieces that Sheehan has been discovering for years. “I’m a flea market fanatic,” explains Sheehan, “I love yard sales, all of our local consignment shops, the Brimfield Antique Show—anything where you might find a treasure.” Sheehan points out her traditional floral upholstered chairs and says —“Albert Hadley told me he paid $100 a yard for the same fabric to decorate Brooke Astor’s home. I found it for five dollars a yard right in town!”
Sheehan can turn simple floral engravings into something special by adding antique gold leaf frames, or create an arrangement of tulips and boxwood that looks like it came from a pricey Manhattan florist. “You have to have a good eye,” says Sheehan. “And people say I have a good one!”