Living in History
A very old house with a very new spirit
By Tim Lee
Owning the oldest house in Litchfield is both a privilege and a major commitment. Bruce Schnitzer and Alexandra Champalimaud live in the house built by Oliver Wolcott in 1754. Wolcott was one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, the first governor of Connecticut, and yes, one evening in 1781, George Washington was his houseguest.
Schnitzer, a Texan by birth, and his first wife discovered Litchfield 32 years ago. “The agent who showed us the house said that we were the first people to get past the kitchen—that’s how much work needed to be done,” says Schnitzer. “We were interested in history and historic houses and weren’t daunted by the restoration effort. But I can tell you it was more of a challenge than we bargained for.”
By the time Champalimaud came on the scene eight years later, Schnitzer was a single parent with two small children, and the living-room décor consisted of an oriental carpet and a pup tent. Champalimaud is an internationally celebrated interior designer, specializing in commercial spaces. For her, the challenge was to update and make the house livable for all concerned. “With a house like this, heritage is more important than decoration. This was not a place on which to put a big ego stamp. It’s not about ripping everything out; it’s about quietly fitting new pieces in,” Champalimaud says.
The rooms speak for themselves. The paints used have been mixed according to the original formulas. Period pieces share space with comfortable upholstered chairs that evoke the warmth and coziness of the original rooms. Oliver Wolcott was well traveled and the house reflects the European tastes he developed. The 1754 Colonial was upgraded to Federal style, but by the 1790s the house had been “tarted” up a bit.
One disadvantage to having a house on the main thoroughfare is that it is close to the road and invites passersby to stop and stare. “I have a particular aversion to a real hedge. It just seems unfriendly and not in keeping with the history of the house. So, over time, we moved mature shrubs from the back to the front. The desired result is to still allow views of the house from the sidewalk, while providing a reasonable degree of privacy,” Schnitzer explains. Now, clusters of greenery or blossoms, depending on the season, escort visitors along the path leading to the red front door. Many of the original 15-acre plots along North and South Streets have been broken up, but Champalimaud and Schnitzer still maintain their house’s original acreage. It stretches out the back and includes a serene pool area, various walking paths and plantings, and a vegetable garden—all within walking distance of the village green.
Schnitzer and Champalimaud are actively involved in local conservation and preservation. As one of the founding members of the Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust, Schnitzer was instrumental in preserving the post-office building, as well as the agricultural building on the green that now houses Talbots. Champalimaud and Schnitzer have also purchased and restored the West Street Yard, a series of commercial buildings on Route 202. One building houses Charym, a wellness-and-spa–integrated health center that Champalimaud created and about which she is passionate. “Charym means beauty in Bhutanese,” she explains. “As I was spending more time in Litchfield, I envisioned a place that could offer an entire lifestyle regimen. We offer yoga and Pilates classes, fitness, body work, and skin care. It’s all about beauty based on a more holistic philosophy. We want to add nutrition, special cooking classes, a detox program—and to respond to the community’s needs.”
Since they love to entertain, the South Street house is invariably filled with family and friends whenever Schnitzer and Champalimaud are in residence. “Bruce’s daughters grew up in this house and, of course, it is very special to them. His daughter Annabel recently had her wedding reception on the property. My sons were young teenagers when they came here and have now made it part of their lives as well. All the children have come to love this house for its history, and respect Litchfield and they are here to stay,” Champalimaud says. The couple appreciates the quiet and solitude to be found in Litchfield. “I love walking over mountains and valleys with my dogs, while Bruce tends to end up in the garden.”
Schnitzer feels they have been blessed with this piece of history and he and Champalimaud hope it will always be preserved as such. “At the moment, the children want to carry on the tradition and maintain what we have put together,” he says. “It’s important that these significant Litchfield houses are kept in good hands