Good Life Revealed
Linda Allard has created a Veneatian sanctuary high atop Washington, with some fabulous gardens
When Linda Allard set out to build a house on a sweeping hilltop in Washington, an Italian villa was not what she envisioned. Something stately, ivy-covered, and straight out of the Cotswolds would have easily suited the 70-acre expanse with its romantic vista of rolling hills, meadows, and woodland. “I really had in mind an English country house,” says Allard, who retired in 2003 as the director of design at Ellen Tracy, the women’s clothing house that she propelled into an international success.
Then, by chance, she picked up a book on country villas designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, and she was intrigued by the beauty of their simplicity and lack of ornate detail and molding. “They seemed contemporary, yet classic at the same time,” says Allard, who had lived in a Ridgefield contemporary before purchasing the Washington property in 1988. “I loved the light and the high ceilings, and the villas seem to have a lot of those same qualities.”
So she and her brother David Preston Allard, a principal in Allard Ward Architects in Nashville whom she hired, toured the villas of the Veneto. Inspired by the architecture, they revised the house plans into a modern interpretation of a Palladian villa. “I certainly wouldn’t have built the same type of house if it was on the Green,” says Allard, referring to the enclave of vintage, white clapboard houses. Set in a grassy field, Highmeadows, as it’s called, is a world unto itself—an Italian outpost in a quintessential New England town, with unparalleled northerly views. The house overlooks the great lawn, an apple orchard, an exquisite walled garden, and a stunning vista of rolling hills with nary a house in sight. A “ha-ha” wall, or drop-ditch wall, a feature that keeps deer at bay yet gives the illusion that the great lawn and landscape are seamless, further enhances the panorama. “I bought the property for the view, and we situated the house, which is long and narrow, to take in those northern views,” she says.
Inside, true to a Palladian style, the open floor plan is dominated by a large central building with symmetrical wings. Arched entranceways make the high-ceilinged rooms feel connected, and more intimate as does the adjoining smaller library and dining rooms. Matching circular staircases flank the center structure, which incorporates a spacious foyer and a living area featuring double-storied, arched windows. “What I love about the house is the way the light moves through it,” she says. “It’s a very long house, but most of the windows are on the south and north side, so there is light all the time. It follows you through the course of the day.”
For Allard, a home in the country was more than just a beautiful place to live. It gave her a chance to blend her well-honed design skills with her passion for gardening. The conservatory—a salubrious, sun-filled room off the kitchen wing—is garden central. “It’s a year-round obsession,” says Allard. She credits her green thumb to growing up on her uncle’s farm in Doylestown, Ohio. By the time she was ten, she was driving the hay tractor, working the farm’s vegetable garden, and learning to cook.
All of those experiences culminated in Absolutely Delicious: A Collection of My Favorite Recipes, a cookbook that Allard wrote and illustrated in 1994. Entertaining, too, is tied to the land. During later spring and summer months, dining is al fresco. Large family gatherings and intimate dinner parties are often held outdoors, and always incorporate ingredients from Allard’s prodigious potager garden. “If I’m not planting something, I’m planning something for the garden,” she says. Which is how she spends her winter, when she prefers to curl up on the sofa in the conservatory reading books on roses, her favorite blooms. “The conservatory is really a multi-functioning room. In summer, these amazing doors slide open, and I have this wonderful screened-in porch. And, in winter, it’s so joyous to walk in this room; it’s like being in the middle of a garden.”
Come May, the conservatory is a sea of green, filled with everything from heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants to onions, chives, and garlic. “I just love to test varieties,” says Allard, who, in past years, has planted more than 90 types of tomatoes. Both edible and blooms grow side-by-side in a charming Old World-style walled garden. A living tapestry of color, shapes, texture, and scale, it was inspired by a combination of several European formal gardens. She contrasts flowers and fruit trees against herbs and vegetables, and arranges them in a very organized pattern. Boxwood hedges, allées, a white-rose arbor, geometric beds, and stone walls covered with espaliered fruit trees provide structure to this profusion.
A set of massive wood doors at one end of the garden opens to a view of an apple orchard, also inspired by Veneto trip. She considered planting a vineyard initially, but an image of the apple blossoms on an orchard hillside
near La Rotonda, convinced her otherwise.
Her extensive gardens, which can been seen during The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tour June 22, are constantly evolving and expanding. Recently, she installed a sustainable forest garden. The narrow woodland path that winds through trees and ground cover vibrant in shades green has become her respite. “One of the reasons I love gardening is because it connects you with nature, “ says Allard, who serves on three local land trust boards: Steep Rock Association, Housatonic Valley Association, and the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust.
While not exercising her green thumb here, Allard is often in New York where she serves on Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit aimed at reclaiming neglected green spaces. “Sometimes it’s just too much,” concedes Allard, who also serves on the boards of the American Ballet Theatre and The Shakespeare Society. But environment, art, and education are her passions, and at Highmeadows, she has managed to interweave all three, creating her own dolce vita in the Litchfield Hills.