Hospitality is a way of life for this restaurateur and his family
By Wendy Carlson
Photographs by Robert Bensen and Wendy Carlson
IT’S Saturday afternoon at Danny and Audrey Meyer’s weekend home in Litchfield County, and the place is a flurry of activity. Twelve-year-old Peyton swings open the front door and out bound the two family dogs—Louie, an oversized, cream-colored Labradoodle mix, and Wally, a smaller, brown, curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian truffle-hunting dog. Inside, the kitchen is Grand Central. Audrey is pulling together flower arrangements; Danny is playing a game of Scrabble on his iPad. “I can’t help myself,” he apologizes, before shutting it off to chauffeur 14-year-old son Christopher to visit a friend. A crew of volunteers is marching through, setting up for a benefit this evening. Audrey’s brother, David Heffernan, is late finishing a primitive New England mural he’s painting, having been distracted when his dog attacked one of the Meyers’ chickens. So much for a quiet weekend.
The family’s circa 1800 farmhouse, set on 100 bucolic acres, is meant to be a peaceful retreat from Manhattan—where Danny Meyer owns, at last count, 13 restaurants, including Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and The Modern. Instead, the Meyers are preparing for what they do so well—entertaining. “We come up here for rest and relaxation but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” concedes Audrey.
This evening they are expecting 150 guests. As a board member of the Steep Rock Association, Audrey Heffernan Meyer, who has her own busy career as a singer and performer, has offered her home for the occasion. Homegrown vegetables from their garden are the crudites, served with smoked salmon, potato parsnip pancakes, and goat cheese. Apples in a bushel basket are the parting gifts.The land trust, which holds more than 4,700 acres in conservation and easements in the towns of Washington and Roxbury, is particularly sacrosanct to the Meyers.
More than a dozen years ago, while antiquing in Litchfield County, the couple became enamored with the woodsy, rolling landscape of northwest Connecticut and its vintage colonials, stonewalled fields, and large tracts of protected land. Audrey grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and has fond childhood memories of driving around the countryside with her parents and brother looking at beautiful, old homes. “It was like the family hobby and it made such an impression on me. I dreamed someday of living in a big, old colonial like this house in just this kind of setting.”
Danny grew up in St. Louis and his sensibilities lean more toward modern design. But when the couple decided to get a second home in Connecticut, they agreed on this vintage farmhouse, which had been moved from its original location near the road and set farther back on the property. Ultimately, it was the setting—the long, curving driveway; a rolling landscape with a large private lake; mature-growth woods; fruit trees; antique sheds; and open, southwesterly views—that captivated them.
The house itself was less mesmerizing. It had been added onto during the 1930s, losing much of its dignity in the process. Audrey was searching for an architect who could preserve the original house and design additions that would be seamless, as if they had always been there. While flipping through Architectural Digest, she saw an article about an historic house renovated by the owners, architects Charles Haver and Stewart Skolnick of Roxbury. “They had done exactly what I wanted to do with our house. It was really organic the way I found them,” says Audrey.
Haver & Skolnick Architects designed the restoration and expansion of the house and executed the landscape and interior design, incorporating antiques from the Meyers’ own collection and from Haver’s shop, Charles Haver Antiques in Roxbury. One of the main challenges was to remove the two circa-1930 wings and replace them with additions that would make it appear as if the original farmhouse—a circa 1800 center-chimney colonial—had been added onto over a number of years, according to Haver.
To achieve that, the architects lowered the roof lines of the new wings. creating the appearance of a series of rambling additions, which also made the spacious 8,000-square-foot house seem less imposing. The main house also underwent a major restoration. Previously, there were three existing staircases, none of which connected with the other sections of the house. A central staircase was installed that connected all four levels, creating a flow among the restored rooms, including a tavern room, a music room, and a study on the lower level; and a children’s loft and attic above. A new family room with beamed ceiling and paneled fireplace was also added and, over that, a new master suite. Antique flooring, hand-hewn beams, reproduction windows and glass, hand-planed paneling and doors, plus other architectural details from the original house were carried throughout the new.
The most important consideration was the kitchen, often the gathering spot where friends and family partake in both cooking and dining. “We explored designing within the confines of the original kitchen,” explains Haver. “In the end, we all agreed it was best to start fresh, which allowed us to follow the Meyers’ vision for an expansive kitchen with multiple cooking areas and easy access to other dining spaces, including an extensive outdoor porch and terrace. We also created a cozy, fireside inglenook and increased the height of the ceilings, which feature antique beams.”
The Meyers have four children—Peyton, 12; twins, Christopher and Gretchen, 15; and Hallie, 18—and when they bring home friends for the weekend, it’s a full house. To accommodate guests, the architects designed a mudroom near the kitchen with two guest suites above.
Yet, despite the wonderful interiors, one of the the couple’s favorite places to retreat is outside in their expansive vegetable garden. “It is meditative. Once you’ve started picking, it’s hard to stop,” says Danny. Throughout the summer, and even into November, the garden is bountiful with heirloom vegetables, herbs, and greens. Nearby fruit trees bear peaches, plums, pears, and apples. “We have so many apples, we take them back to the city for one of my restaurants, Maialino, and they use them to make apple pancakes and all sorts of desserts.”
It seems, in fact, that nearly anything can be farmed here except for truffles. The gourmet fungi aren’t found in Connecticut, which is too bad for truffle-hunting Wally. “He’s got a really good nose,” says Danny.