Daffodils, Brown Swiss, and stone
Photographs by John Gruen
Set amidst the bucolic farmlands of Litchfield, with their typical colonial homesteads, sits an anomaly—a custom-built contemporary designed by modernist architect Edward Durell Stone. The couple who commissioned the house, Virginia and Remy Morosani, purchased 17 acres of farmland on Wigwam Road in 1941 with the intention of raising Brown Swiss cows, the breed Remy had grown up raising in his native Switzerland. They called their property Laurel Ridge Farm.
During the first few years of working the farm and planning their dream home, Virginia became interested in modern houses, not only for their design but for their practicality. “My mother had seen Edward Durell Stone’s work in various magazines and decided to consult with him,” says John, the youngest of the five Morosani children, who now resides in the Litchfield house with his wife, Joanie. “The initial drawings were started in 1948, but there was much back and forth before they settled on the ideal design.”
At the time, Stone was already a celebrated (and eventually scorned) modernist who had designed the Museum of Modern Art and the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. He would go on to create the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and, perhaps his most controversial building, the Huntington Hartford Museum at Columbus Circle in New York City.
The final plans for the house were completed in 1951. Within a matter of weeks, the North Koreans came across the 38th parallel, and for two years building materials were unavailable. Finally, in March 1953, construction began. “The house was completed in one year,” says John. “My sister got married in the summer of 1954, and the reception took place in this house.”
Although they now had their dream house, the Morosanis believed in exposing their children to other places in the world and traveled as often as they could. In December 1957, they embarked on a two-year-long trip that included living in the Canary Islands for a time. Traveling in a Volkswagen bus, they drove through Europe and wound up in Italy. Back on their home turf, the Morosanis began to buy up the surrounding land. To the original parcel they added three more, for a total of 20 acres. Today the land records show 19 more have been added, totaling some 700 acres.
“The original Laurel Ridge Farm that my parents bought included a number of different farms that eventually became part of ours,” says John. “My father was doing farming similar in scope to what they are now doing at Arethusa Farm. He was trying to propagate Brown Swiss cows, and at a show in 1952 one of his cows was the champion Brown Swiss.”
Virginia had a wide variety of interests, one of which was spirituality.
“My mother packed up the family, and we all went to Arizona so she could meet and work with L. Ron Hubbard,” John explains. “She tried everything. She had a number of different disciplines and eventually became interested in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation. He was doing a series of lectures in New York, and she went down to hear him. She wound up going to India and studying with him.”
After returning, she wanted to continue working with the Maharishi and asked what she could do. He indicated that his group needed a facility where he could form retreats. “John’s parents bought the farm next door,” says Joanie. “By now, there were a number of farmhouses on the property. She converted the barn into a meditation center, and all the cottages became dormitories for visitors. She was quite a maverick and a free thinker.” Several of those original buildings are now rental properties.
After Remy died and Virginia became ill and bedridden, John and Joanie took over the responsibility of the large house, which features five bedrooms, each with its own bath, and five common rooms: a living room, dining room, patio, kitchen, and playroom. There is a rectangular reflecting pool in the living room—a characteristic of Stone houses, inspired by the time he spent in India.
There are also many windows, which create tricks of light with all the different types of glass and grilles. Unlike most modernists who used one or two basic materials, Stone designed structures using a variety of elements that add warmth and texture, like brick and wood from cypress trees. “In the playroom, the cypress creates a fence of warmth,” says Joanie, a fine artist and former designer of fabrics and wallpaper for Schumacher. “Even with all the glass, it feels cozy. There are all sorts of surprises—the light coming from different windows and reflecting onto the brick wall.”
Much of the original furniture is still intact: the semi-circular sofas in the living room and several Scandinavian pieces that Virginia collected in the ’60s. While the theme of modernism echoes through the house, the master bathroom evokes the glamour of old Hollywood. It features shell-patterned walls; marble floors; and a giant, round, sunken tub lined in pink marble with a crystal chandelier hanging above it. “We don’t use that tub very often,” Joanie says. “It takes forever to fill. My mother-in-law had a very luxurious side to her, and she loved glamour.”
While the exterior elements of the house have stood the test of time, much of the internal structure had to be repaired. All the cypress beams, swelled and deteriorated over many years, had to be taken down, replaned, and restored with proper insulation. The Morosanis also renovated the kitchen. “We kept to its original dimensions and retained the original woodwork and cabinetry but updated the appliances and replaced the counters,” says John.
Cows are still the focal point of Laurel Ridge Farm. They are grass-fed on some 200 acres of pasture. John, a former investment banker, and his partner, Jim Abbott, pride themselves on the quality of the beef they produce.
Another legacy left by Virginia and Remy is the Laurel Ridge Foundation, which the couple set up to preserve land for Virginia’s daffodils.
“When they first came here,” John recalls, “my mother wanted a place where she could have a field of daffodils, inspired by the William Wordsworth poem. The strip she chose was too rocky for farming. In the fall of 1941 they planted 10,000 bulbs and put in a man-made pool. Every July, we go and separate them and then plant more in October.” This area is open to the public and is a favorite of tourists, particularly on Mother’s Day, when visitors are allowed to pick the blooms.