Preserving a house and open space
When Kim Young and Craig Johnson purchased their house on Nod Hill Road, they didn’t just buy a new home. They became willing caretakers of some of Wilton’s most picturesque open land. Thanks to a conservation easement set up by the previous owners and effective in perpetuity, 22 acres can never be developed. That’s fine with Kim and Craig, who were drawn to the site as much by the rolling meadows, rock walls, orchards, woods, and gardens, as by the F. Nelsen Breed-designed colonial sitting at the top of the hill.
“This property has such a great history,” explains Kim. “Colonel Pope, one of Wilton’s large landowners during the early 1900s, had been ill. To show his gratitude to Dr. Henry Cave, the doctor who restored his health, Pope gave him nine acres.” The Caves, who lived in Manhattan, commissioned Breed, a renowned Connecticut and New York residential architect, to design their house, which they completed in 1941. They originally used the property as their summer residence, but eventually moved there full time.
The Caves sold the house to Charlie and Babbie Agnew in 1958. Over the years, the Agnews bought up adjacent land, eventually increasing their holdings to almost 35 acres. “Babbie Agnew wanted to protect the property from development. When her sons decided to sell, they created the conservation easement to honor her wishes,” Kim explains. “A developer could have built 11 homes here; instead through the easement, the Agnew brothers, the Wilton Land Conservation Trust, and the town preserved one of the prettiest vistas around.”
As the third owners, the Johnsons inherited Breeds’ original architectural blueprints and Friede Stege’s original landscape designs. Kim has also spoken to Dr. Cave’s daughter Nina about the property. “She and her sister grew up here. When the house was built, there were few trees; it was all just open farmland. Nina planted all of the red maples that now line the driveway, and it was her job to water them,” she says.
After 70 years, both the house and the grounds needed extensive work. Kim laughs remembering the day she and Craig did a walk-through with their parents before the closing. “They both asked us, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ The house hadn’t been updated since it was built,” she says. While its bones were solid and the detail work beautiful, it had asbestos, mildew, plumbing issues, and unwanted visitors in the basement.
And that was just the beginning. “The wallpaper was gorgeous, but stained from the passage of time,” Kim recalls. The wall-to-wall carpeting covering many of the floors was worn and mildewed. When they pulled it up, they discovered beautiful wide-plank oak floors underneath, but these had to be refinished. Many of the original windows, including an unusual curved bay window in the dining room, had broken panes and rot. “The kitchen was the original, very small, and almost unusable. Virtually every surface in the house had to be redone. The amount of work required was daunting.”
While they hired an architect and contractor to renovate the kitchen and build a mudroom and garage addition, they did much of the interior work themselves, in phases. “Craig is handy. It’s a good thing because in an older house, there’s always something that needs fixing,” says Kim. No slouch herself with tools, Kim stripped much of the old wallpaper. “In the upstairs hallway, I pulled off huge sheets, but in the foyer it came off in tiny pieces and took forever to remove. Just making the house livable was a full-time project for three years”
Wherever possible, they retained original fixtures and details. In the Flower Room, they pulled up the old floors and linoleum counters, but left the original sink and faucet. Kim scrubbed the faucet with steel wool; it now shines like new. They also kept some of the original fixtures when they updated several bathrooms.
Kim’s brother, Chris Young, owner of Nantucket Housefitters, created their new kitchen. “He designed everything, down to the backsplash. I found a pewter dogwood flower tile I loved, so he created a pattern that incorporated it,” she says. The renovated kitchen uses the same footprint as the old space, but includes a bay window bump out which provides sweeping views of their property. The Agnews had converted the garage, adjacent to the kitchen, into a playroom. The Johnsons renovated it and added two graceful arched entranceways leading into the kitchen.” We have plans for a fireplace and other changes,” Kim adds, “but that’s Phase 14 of the renovations.”
The graciously proportioned rooms include many custom period details, such as intricate carved frieze work on the dining and living-room fireplace mantels, deep moldings, and graceful scroll brackets on the front stairs. In the paneled library, a matching paneled door hides a half-bathroom. Built-in bookcases display the Roseville, Stangl, and Flow Blue artware and pottery Kim collects. Most of the doors came from a local mill and are thicker, wider, and heavier than standard doors.
Many rooms have a servant call button that connects to a panel in the butler’s pantry. “You used to be able to push a button, a buzzer would sound, and a number would flip down to let servants know where to go,” explains Kim. Although the system doesn’t work anymore, the panel makes an interesting conversation piece. The servants’ quarters, located above the kitchen and family room and accessed by a rear staircase, has three small bedrooms and a bathroom.
The sweeping grounds, which include many perennial gardens and a formal boxwood garden, needed even more work than the house. “The gardens were gorgeous, but filled with poison ivy and invasive vines; these had to be cleared out,” says Kim, who will be Wilton Garden Club president in 2012. Many shrubs had substantial ice damage or were overgrown and leggy. “We had to cut many back,” she adds. Craig mows their fields annually with his tractor to keep out invasive plants.
While they did sell two acres, the Johnsons have no plans to part with any more. “We love watching as the seasons transform the land. We started tapping for maple syrup in March. The gardens produce strawberries, asparagus, and raspberries in the early summer, and then the orchards follow with apples, pears and peaches. And we just started bee-keeping.”
As she surveys her property, Kim sighs. “So many trees and shrubs still need attention.” But asked if she or Craig ever feel a bit like Mr. Blandings, she quickly laughs, and shakes her head. “Even though we have more work than we ever realized, neither of us has any regrets.” They have clearly embraced the land and their role as caretakers.