This New Old House
Putting heart and soul into a renovation
Shortly after getting married in the late 1990s, my husband and I moved to Wilton and bought our first home, a partially updated antique situated on a hill overlooking a pond. While the property—two and a half acres of mature trees, flowering bushes, and a series of stone walls—seduced us, we were equally smitten with the house. It was a small Colonial farmhouse built between 1840 and 1880; its sense of history combined with a relaxed elegance appealed to us. The current owner had enlarged and improved it. They installed exterior French doors throughout the first floor, including a set for the front door, accented by custom shutters, and a multi-tiered deck surrounding the entire back of the house, with a cream-colored ruffled awning for warmer weather. Most of the first floor was an open plan, but the formal living room and bedrooms were separate and cozy. From our bedroom, we looked out on a blossoming weeping cherry and the pond. Despite the charming details, the house also had many outdated features, and the property needed major work. We planned to eventually renovate.
Time passed and our home’s many hidden problems started to surface. We discovered a leaky roof that had been expertly concealed, a dangerous hole in a chimney that was hidden behind wallboard, a cast-iron bathtub precariously supported by plywood—and this was just the beginning. In short, the enchanting antique we’d bought was morphing into Mr. Blandings’ dream house, and a headache to own. We needed a house that made our lives easier, not more difficult. We decided to look for a new one.
Our subsequent real-estate shopping trips were incredibly depressing. We hoped to find an updated antique or a newer home that resembled an antique. Nothing in our price range offered charm and the promise of minimal maintenance. We wondered why developers didn’t build at least a few new homes that closely resemble an antique – the type of structure that New England is known for—yet with updated amenities and layouts? Why did so much of the new construction lack fluid floor plans, proper scale or proportions? And why were so many new homes sitting on property stripped of trees and other greenery; their barren surroundings immediately gave them an overly-sanitized look. I decided to research the answers to these questions, and discovered that the majority of residential builders do not use architects. In fact, architects are only directly involved in about 10 percent of homes built nationwide and an estimated 15 percent in Fairfield County. This trend started sixty years ago with the birth of Nassau County’s Levittown and mass produced housing. Referred to as the originator of modern suburbia, Levittown offered affordable housing, but received criticism for its homogeneity. However, thanks to the popularity and low construction costs of similar projects, most developers today buy standardized house plans, and then make minor alterations.
I knew we were not alone in wanting a new home that looked like a finely crafted antique; we saw some in the higher end of the market. In fact, the newly old house has been a hot trend in the highest end of the residential market since the 1980s when people started adding salvaged materials to “authenticate” new homes. As an interior designer and journalist, I sidelined our plans to move and decided to write an interior-design book about the trend instead. New Spaces, Old World Charm features the work of several designers who pioneered the newly old style, but shows people how to achieve the look within any budget.
With the book published, we moved forward with our plans to enlarge and update our own house. Our architect and contractor thought the structure was sound enough to withstand the weight of a new second floor and other changes we wanted to make, but as our contractor ripped open walls, and deemed them unsalvageable, he demolished them one by one. Two stressful weeks later, all that stood above our home’s foundation was a chimney and a bathroom. Once we recovered from the shock, we focused on the opportunity to build a newly old home that would work for our family.
Architecturally, we wanted our new home to look like an authentic Colonial farmhouse complete with a wraparound porch. On the interior, we went for an updated transitional look, drawing upon several influences: British Colonial’s quiet elegance and dramatic dark and light contrasts, Art Deco’s straight lines and striking mirrored glass and metalwork, English Edwardian’s classic style and modern eclecticism.
To make the structure look like an antique, we chose basic, time-tested materials: an exposed stone foundation, wooden clapboard, paned windows and classic shutters. To add detail, we alternated the clapboard pattern, and used tongue and groove bead board for the porch ceiling. Because the house had been built in stages, with each section set back further from the road, the façade was asymmetrical. We love symmetry, but the setback regulations prevented us from changing the front footprint. To disguise the asymmetry, we painted everything white, including the shutters. I designed a dark, wood-paneled front door with two sidelights, inspired by a salvaged Italian apartment door I’d seen online, and illuminated with custom reproduction antique brass lanterns.
For the interior, we used elements such as custom cabinets, Murano glass light fixtures, reclaimed wood floors, built-in mirrored shelving, marble and granite surfaces, hand-crafted tile and hand-forged hardware, and grasscloth wallpaper to create a relaxed, yet sophisticated look.
Even before we started the renovation, we had embarked on re-landscaping the property. We constructed additional stone walls, using reclaimed rather than new cut stones, and enlarged the gravel driveway, adding a decorative walkway with pavers. We also put in more plantings—evergreens, flowering trees and bushes, and perennials—but to achieve a more natural appearance, we avoid over-landscaping. The entire project took two years of planning and construction, but when we finally moved back in, we knew we had the antique home we’d always wanted, albeit a newly old one, without a leaky roof, crumbling chimney or sagging tub.