Appreciating an older house and property
Photographs by Douglas Foulke
“I love older properties,” says Carolyn Wheeler, surprising, because as co-owner of Country Club Homes, she builds new homes, albeit graciously proportioned ones with the same custom details and character found in older houses. “As much as I appreciate new construction, older properties have established trees and beds. It takes a long time to get the landscaping to look like it has been there forever.”
She and her husband Greg had been living in a cozy 1890s colonial, with unobstructed views of Long Island Sound, in the Silvermine area of Norwalk, when they decided to move to Wilton. “We looked for a long time. We saw so many houses set on heavily wooded lots. Many people want woods, but we prefer open vistas. We saw this house on a beautiful spring day. The property was spectacular and we could even catch a glimpse of the Sound from the patio,” says Carolyn. That view, the expansive yard and the mature landscaping, like the majestic ash towering in the center of the circular driveway, clinched the deal.
The Wheelers’ house sits on seven acres of established trees, bushes, and gardens, with a buffer of woods between their property and their neighbors. “I love gardening; it’s my therapy,” explains Carolyn. “I don’t have formal gardens, and I’ve learned by trial and error. I’ll plant something and if it doesn’t come up the next year, I’ll try something else. There’s no rhyme or reason to my approach, but it works for me, and when my gardens are in full bloom, I think they look beautiful.” While the grounds are indisputably gorgeous, the house itself defies architectural categorization. “It’s a quirky house. It was built in 1938 by a New York City architect as his summer residence,” says Greg. The exterior, with its grand brick façade and elegant second-story porch, evokes residential architecture found in Bermuda, Savannah, Georgia and country estates in Europe.
Inside, the house feels smaller and more intimate than the exterior suggests. The layout does not follow the typical center-hall colonial plan, with the living and dining rooms flanking the entrance. Instead a small foyer opens onto a kitchen on the left, a guest wing on the right, and straight ahead, to a second larger foyer with a double height ceiling, curved walls and a staircase. The formal living room, just beyond this second foyer, has soffited ceilings and oversized windows providing a sweeping view of the property.
When they bought the house in 1997, it needed work. Although Carolyn is in the construction business, she and Greg did the renovation work in stages. Mindful of its 1930s pedigree, they retained many older details, like the original dental moldings in the living room and dining room, and added other details in keeping with their home’s vintage. “The house was more formal than we like, so as we updated rooms, we tried to make it feel cozier,” she explains. In one of the earliest projects, they renovated the long, narrow kitchen, which had been a servants kitchen. They gutted a large butler’s pantry to make space for a kitchen table and chairs, but left the servant’s call box intact. “It still works,” Carolyn marvels.
When selecting kitchen materials and finishes, they opted for the unexpected. “In the business, you tend to see the same materials used over and over again. I wanted to do something more unusual,” explains Carolyn. They chose poured concrete counters in a finish that resembles burnished copper. “They stain a bit, but over time they develop a rich patina. Believe it or not, I clean them with Lemon Pledge,” she says with a laugh. While the trend in kitchen cabinets has been cream or white, they went with a soft gray finish. The professional gas range is a Bertazzoni, not the Wolfe or Viking found in many new kitchens. They installed two white porcelain sinks; Carolyn uses the smaller one for potting plants. Other details include a modified soffited ceiling, which creates an illusion of greater height, and deep crown moldings.
In the guest wing, they converted a non-descript room into an inviting, alder-wood paneled library, lined with bookshelves. “We wanted to make the room feel as if it had been this way for a long time,” Carolyn notes. The guest bathroom had a full-size tub, and 1930s green tiles. Since it needed to serve as a formal powder room as well, they paneled the walls and removed the tub, replacing it with a shower hidden ingeniously in a closet.
In later renovations, the Wheelers converted the garage and adjacent small apartment into a family room, bar and game area, and added a new three-car garage and apartment above it. They replaced the original front door with a half-glass one to allow more natural light into the foyer; its wrought-iron details echo the wrought iron scrollwork on the balcony above. They also added a new master bathroom, because the existing one was cramped. “We combined the old one with an adjacent closet to create a large walk-in closet, and bumped out over the living room for the new one,” Greg explains. With a huge whirlpool tub and two-person walk-in shower, the new master bathroom is almost larger than the bedroom. “The original bathroom was so small, I think we went overboard a bit on the new one,” Carolyn laughs, “but we love this room. In the morning, it’s flooded with sunlight. If you’re not awake when you walk in here, the sunlight will wake you up.” In their most recent project, they updated their daughter’s bedroom with a latticework ceiling and, through a happy accident, chocolate brown grass cloth wallpaper. “The walls were supposed to be done in light orange textured wallpaper, but the installer put up the wrong paper. It was a complete mistake, but we decided we liked it,” Carolyn says.
Outside, they extended the original patio by several feet to accommodate a larger table and a seating area. They also added a built-in grill and stone fire pit, and a free-form pool with its own fire pit. “We’re both casual and social people. We like to stay in touch with friends and family, so we entertain often. This is a great house and yard for that,” Greg says, surveying the stone patio and yard, both accessible from the kitchen, dining and living room. Adds Carolyn, “We’ve been hosting an annual summer party for about a hundred people, for forever. When the kids were little, we played games in the yard. Many guests set up tents in the backyard and camped out. In the morning, we’d make a Dunkin Donuts run. Now that the kids are older, we still have the party, but we don’t camp out anymore.”
Despite its spectacular property and obvious charms, the Wheelers suggest their house may not work for everyone. “Although the rooms are spacious, they don’t flow into each other as much as in newer homes, and the ceilings are just eight feet high. Many people may want a more open floor plan, massive great rooms, and higher ceilings,” Carolyn says. “Our house may look grand from the outside, but inside it feels very warm and inviting.” And that’s exactly the way she and Greg like it.