Rock of Ages
Louise van Tartwijk is a hopeless romantic. “There’s a bit of Jay Gatsby in me,” she concedes, explaining her devotion to her home Rock Gate, a 19th-century Rossiter-designed house near the Washington Green. But, like Gatsby, her ceaseless quest for the past sometimes hits a roadblock. When the family drives past an antiques store, her four daughters beg their dad to drive faster. “Once they notice the glint in my eye, they start shouting: ‘Don’t stop whatever you do,’” says van Tartwijk.
She takes it in stride. “When they grow up and have a home of their own, they all swear it will be modern with all glass walls, white furniture—with absolutely no Persian rugs.” For now, the van Tartwijks compromise, balancing their lives between the Gilded Age and the 21st century. Rock Gate is the oldest of 15 surviving houses that Ehrick K. Rossiter designed as summer cottages for wealthy New Yorkers during the end of the Gilded Age. “It’s magnificent, one of Rossiter’s finest Queen Anne Revival shingle-style country homes,” says Ann Smith, a Roxbury resident and an art historian and former curator at Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum. Her book, Ehrick K. Rossiter: Designs for Modern Living, released last spring, is one of two coffee-table books published in recent years on the architect whose aesthetics have come to define what many think of as Washington. But what impresses Smith most is the care the van Tartwijks took in renovating the more than 9,000-square-foot historic house, which earned them an award last year from the Connecticut Trust for Preservation. “Usually people take an old house and make it modern, but the Van Tartwijks went about renovating it very respectfully.”
Walking into some areas of the house is like stepping back into the 19th century. The doorbell is the same as the one at Highclere Castle, the Victorian manor where Downton Abbey is filmed. In a museum-like parlor, a pair of opera gloves and glasses rest on top of a 19th-century ladies writing desk, the walls are covered with William Morris replica paper, and dimly-lit globe lamps exude a sepia glow. And—of course—there is no shortage of Persian rugs accenting the Arts and Crafts–designed wood flooring. In their pursuit of authenticity, the van Tartwijks even repaired the antique windows and re-installed the original glass panes. So winter is spent the old-fashioned way, with plenty of comforters and a blazing fire in the hearth. “We also have a great heating system so really it’s never cold,“ chirps Louise, who fondly refers to Rock Gate as “she.”
It’s easy to understand why she considers Rock Gate her fifth daughter. “Historic homes like Rock Gate have a special presence you just don’t find in other houses,” she explains. “They have personality, character, and authenticity.” Much of that is due to Rossiter’s precise attention to detail, most evident in the central living areas of the Rock House where recessed chestnut paneled ceilings, carved woodwork, parquet floors, and a massive, spindle balustrade staircase dominate the space.
Rossiter built Rock Gate in 1885 during a resurgence of handcrafted medieval architecture. Set back between two massive rock outcroppings, the house, with its harmonious profusion of patterns and shapes, including a whimsical turret, jutting balconies, wrap-around porch, and windows in various shapes and configuration, seems right out of a storybook. And like every good story, the tale of how this Dutch family found themselves in Washington begins serendipitously. “We took a wrong turn down the wrong road,” recalls Hans van Tartwijk of the afternoon they were visiting friends in Washington in 2007. “Then we saw it, and it was just love at first sight.” Hans, who is Dutch and works for an international real-estate firm, and Louise, who is American, first became familiar with Rossiter’s architecture through their friends Eugene and Barbara Kohn, who own a Rossiter house off the Washington Green.
But even before they saw Rock Gate, they planned to move to Washington so their daughters, Ginelle, 19; Laura, 16; Grace, 14; and Louise, 12, could experience a New England prep-school education. Ginelle, who graduated from Westover in 2012, attends University College Roosevelt in Middelburg, The Netherlands; while Laura and Grace walk across the street to The Gunnery, and Louise attends nearby Rumsey Hall. Louise, who was born in Stratford and can trace her lineage back to early Connecticut families, including P.T. Barnum, also wanted the children to learn about her heritage.
And, they also wanted a house near the Washington Green close to the library and schools because they were used to an environment where bicycles were the main mode of transportation. So when Rock Gate went on the market in 2008, the van Tartwijks quickly bought it for $1.8 million, and a spent another $1.5 million in a painstaking renovation that took a year and a half to complete. Using Rossiter’s original plans as a guide, rotting stucco siding that had been installed during the turn of the century was replaced with cedar shingles, a shingle roof, and copper gutters were installed, a decorative panel was restored, and the house was painted according to Rossiter’s color scheme.
Rock Gate was the summer home for Lucious A. Barbour, the owner of the Willimantic Linen Company and a Freemason. So the house abounds in Masonic symbols. The numbers 3, 5, and 7 are repeated in Rock Gate’s windows, arches, and interior decorations. The symbol of the sun repeats throughout the woodwork, ceilings, doors, and fireplaces. The All Seeing Eye, a human eye within a triangle, is a subtle but repeated part of the exterior decoration. The gentleman’s study features a remarkable checkerboard wall and ceiling, yet another Masonic motif. In keeping with that theme, the van Tartwijks redesigned the front entrance to honor the symbolism of the Masonic arch.
Having moved from a 19th-century Dutch farmhouse, which they also renovated, they also added splashes of their Dutch heritage by renovating new baths with white beadboard paneling accented with a bright modern interpretation of antique Delftware tiles. Von Gogh prints decorate the walls. In the kitchen, album cover photos of U2, their favorite band, are perched besides vintage bottles on a shelf over Dutch-style tiled oven stove backsplash and cupboard. Throughout the house, several oil portraits of their children by Russian artist Andrei Zadorine seem influenced by the Dutch masters. More recently, they installed a temperature-controlled, in-ground pool and erected a barn-style garage. But the house, in many ways, remains exactly as Rossiter intended.
Once you own a historic home, you become a steward of it. “That includes accepting the responsibilities of a significant and irreplaceable physical structure that is a direct link to the past,” says van Tartwijk. “Hans is always saying, ‘It’s too dark in here,’” she says of the music room, one of her favorite spaces. “But I just tell him that’s how it is suppose to be. When you live in a house like this you have to learn to adapt.”