Laying Down Roots
A house and garden evolve over time
Photographs by Jane Beiles
"Mummy, when can we go to a bar?” asked Melinda Wolcott’s then-11-year-old daughter Andrea while they were shopping at a local Wilton paint store many years ago. At the time, Wolcott’s face—understandably—turned a deep shade of crimson when she saw the shocked expressions on the faces of the other customers. Wolcott hastily explained to onlookers that her young daughter was referring to an espresso bar, the kind she grew accustomed to going to with her parents during the family’s time living in Rome.
Chris Wolcott’s job as a chemical engineer with a multinational oil company took the family to Rome, Singapore, London, and Washington, DC. In 1981 the Wolcotts were looking to lay down roots and chose Wilton. Most people relocating from across the pond would buy a turnkey home, but the Wolcotts are not most people.
The couple fell in love with a parcel of land on Cannon Road that had originally been part of a 100-acre farm, which got subdivided into multiple lots. The clear, unwooded property appealed to them, and Melinda was smitten with the “magnificent old stone walls” that dotted the landscape. She envisioned creating gracious English-style gardens chockablock with flowers.
Chris, who has an eye for scale and proportion, took on the challenge of designing the family house with architectural designer Jack Grasso of Ridgefield (now deceased), and together they created a functional, light-filled family home. Initial construction was completed by Gregory Daignault & Sons Design Builders, who continued to collaborate with the Wolcotts on various additions over two decades. “Every Daignault son has built a different part of this house,” says Chris with a smile.
The home’s simple, clean design provides the perfect backdrop for the couple’s furniture and art, which reflect their extensive travels and eclectic tastes. Notable objets trouvés include a papier-mâché Buddha head from Singapore, carved temple lions from a what-not shop in Pulau, an antique grandfather clock from London, a Chinese chicken coop repurposed as a media cabinet, and a vibrantly colored Japanese obi sash mounted on the living room wall.
“Most people can’t decide if it’s an old house that’s been modernized, or a new house that’s been made to look old,” says Melinda with obvious satisfaction. “No one comes to our home and says, ‘Who’s your decorator?’ Our house says, ‘This is who we are, this is where we’ve been, and this is what we’ve enjoyed.’ We blend things.”
The original three-bedroom structure, built in 1982, was expanded in 1987 when a library with 15-foot ceilings, walls of windows, and access to the slate patio was added. “It’s my favorite room,” says Melinda, “I’ve spent many hours sitting here hooking rugs by myself or with a group of friends.” She pauses. “But I also love the dining room! We bought a French farmhouse table in London so we never have to worry about coasters.”
The handsome table is paired with reproduction American Windsor chairs with an antique pie-safe serving as a sideboard.
A classic, red New England-style barn was added in 1999 to store Melinda’s burgeoning collection of gardening implements and paraphernalia, and to provide proximity to a raised bed vegetable and flower-cutting garden. “We carved the vegetable garden out of a field of tall weeds and opted for raised beds because there were so many rocks.” It turned out to be both a practical and visually pleasing decision.
Melinda picked up the vintage barn doors at the conclusion of Minks to Sinks. “No one wanted them, so I loaded them on to my truck and brought them home.” The doors add authenticity, making the barn appear as if it’s been situated there for at least a century.
In 2000 a spacious main-level master suite was added, with a greenhouse below. Wainscoting on the ceiling combined with neutral earth tones and windows low enough to enjoy a view of the garden give the bedroom an inviting, cottage-y feel.
The final house addition came as a surprise to Melinda. “One day in 2006, Chris turned to the Daignaults and announced, ‘We’ve got one more project.’ And that’s how I learned we were getting a great room.”
Eighteenth-century chestnut beams sourced from a Virginia barn give this last addition both gravitas and warmth. The antique mantelpiece was discovered at a Wilton tag sale, and an eye-catching oval coffee table is actually a Chinese bathtub topped with glass. The room is furnished with custom wicker furniture from Singapore that once graced the couple’s outdoor patio. “It was so comfortable that we moved it indoors,” says Melinda.
The great room adjoins a butler’s pantry and an updated farmhouse kitchen that features pine cabinetry painted with a gray wash and black, honed granite countertops.
While there is a lot to look at inside the Wolcott’s home, the real show is going on outside in the multiple gardens that surround the house.
There are no curtains on any of the windows (the guestroom being the sole exception) and every room is oriented toward the constantly changing outdoor spaces that have evolved under Melinda’s watchful eye and dedicated care over a 35-year period.
It’s a spectacular four-season parade of flora and fauna. There are rustic feeders and strategically placed plants designed to attract butterflies, bumblebees, and birds. “We’ve had hummingbirds, cardinals, goldfinches, four different types of woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, Baltimore orioles, and three pairs of bluebirds,” says Melinda.
A stone Buddha head here, a weathered teak bench there, an unexpected water feature graced with a frog sculpture. And everywhere—gorgeous plants, flowers, shrubs, and ornamental trees.
What now appears so natural and effortless actually took years of careful planning and hard work. To augment the thin subsoil, the Wolcotts brought in three large dump trucks overflowing with nutrient-dense topsoil. “We had to create drainage for the grounds because water had collected and created a small pond in which ducks were paddling!” recounts Melinda. “We had to correct that. I carved out the gardens bit by bit.
“It’s less formal, a more relaxed garden,” she continues. “I learned from English wonder gardener, Rosemary Verey. She interplanted shrubs, perennials, and annuals, and the effect was stunning.
This was a much better solution for a Connecticut garden than the standard issue herbaceous border that comes into bloom all at one time and leaves you with no visual interest for the rest of the seasons.”
For over three decades, Melinda honed her gardening skills and shared her knowledge and expertise with members of the Wilton Garden Club. “In the club I found people who shared the same interests, who I could learn from, who were more than willing to share their knowledge—and their plants.”
The Garden Club was equally happy to have Melinda in its ranks. So much so that an annual award has now been established and named in her honor: “The Melinda Wolcott Award for long-standing service and dedication to the club.”
The first-ever award was presented to Melinda at the club’s awards luncheon last June.
Ultimately, the Wolcotts’ house and gardens have benefited from the time, patience, and creative vision of their owners, proving the adage: Good things come to those who wait.