The Making of a Modern Day Great Estate

Before the designer labels, luxury cars, and hedge fund offices, the posh suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut had a noticeably different character.

For its first two centuries, Greenwich was a primarily agrarian community composed of a network of modest New England farms and maritime ports interspersed with small village centers, vestiges of which remain today. After the Civil War, resort hotels and mansions slowly began to fill in along the coastline as the town developed a reputation as a rural retreat for wealthy New Yorkers. However, in the late 19th century, the arrival of regular commuter rail service to New York City guaranteed Greenwich’s shift from retreat destination to modish suburb. Simultaneously, changes in technology and economy were causing small family farms throughout New England to cease operation in droves. This perfect storm spelled an end to Greenwich’s agricultural economy and the dawn of the back-country estates, horse farms, and country clubs for which Greenwich and has become known.

Lake Avenue is a historic North-South artery in Greenwich that has embraced the development trend. Yet one growing estate abutting the popular thoroughfare serves as a reminder of Greenwich’s simpler past.

The owner, a self-made businessman, sold his company at an early age to pursue his passions: gardening, cooking, travel, and the fine arts. Many of these he shares with his wife, a professional chef who trained at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Envisioning a small working farm with a focus on organic produce, farm-to-table foods, and ample space for guests, the couple acquired a multi-acre property abutting their 1940s Georgian estate when it hit the market.

Having previously worked with the award-winning team of Charles Hilton Architects, interior designer Isabelle Vanneck, landscape architect Charles J. Stick and master builder Bob Levine decided to engage the firms once again in the development of the new property. The project includes a few small, early 20th century structures left in poor repair after years of neglect.

Frustrated with the “tear-down” culture in Greenwich, the owners chose to save and remodel two of the existing structures, relying upon the expertise of the team to salvage and significantly enhance their character. This includes a one-room studio and small service cottage that sat close to the street. The back wall of the cottage integrated with the stone wall that runs along the road. Both structures suffered from rot and insect damage. The cottage was carved into a warren of small, loosely organized rooms, and the mechanical systems were antiquated. Yet, despite all this, the charming structures’ French country forms and accents would inspire not only their renovation but the further development of the site.

Research of the French farmhouse esthetic led Hilton to examples of both classical and rural-styled French country homes. Though visually different, the two were often united by a shared palette of locally sourced, durable masonry materials and regional construction techniques that most commonly including stone, brick, and stucco. A trip to Versailles lent inspiration. Tucked in a far corner of the famous estate is “le Hameau de la Reine” (The Queen’s Hamlet), a small village and farm constructed for Marie Antoinette. Built as a fanciful interpretation of the vernacular Norman style, the hamlet’s working farm buildings provided a perfect study in the same French country architecture referenced in the old buildings on Lake Avenue in Greenwich. It was clear: to work within the Norman vernacular, the new garden property would require a natural palette of stone and brick.

The transformation of the new property into a working farm began by renovating the 80-year-old cottage and studio. The cottage’s convoluted plan was transformed for agricultural use and its French country aesthetic was enhanced. On the ground floor new stone walls were added, carefully matched to the existing wall segments by mason Mauro Fidaleo. Rather than use French limestone, a variety of native Connecticut granite was selected to provide extra durability and to more closely match the existing walls. Atop the stone walls, the upper story was finished with hand-applied stucco and half-timbering, capped by a Vermont slate roof. A new greenhouse addition, imported from Europe, separates the formal vegetable garden from the adjacent cobblestone courtyard and allows for nearly year-round cultivation.

The interior renovations followed the same continental aesthetic, with rough-textured French plaster walls, antiqued-oak board, and beam ceiling, and New York flagstone -throughout the first floor.

The adjacent studio was repurposed as a site office for the property owner. The new studio’s wood shingle cladding was replaced by a new stone façade to match the adjacent cottage, and new custom French casement windows. A graduated Vermont slate roof were added to further enhance the French aesthetic. Although most interior finishes in the studio were in poor condition and required replacing, the twenty-inch-wide aged wood floors were salvaged, preserved, and reinstalled to bolster the building’s antique feel.

Perched on a knoll not far from the vegetable garden stands the second phase of the Lake Avenue property’s development. Its main structure, a new 5,600 square foot French Normandy-inspired residence, is characterized by its half-timbered façades with herringbone patterned, hand-made Roman brick nogging, each of which was drawn by the architect to ensure their exact placement in the field. Although the new home is more vernacular in its massing and fachwerk construction, its entry facade pays homage to French Classicism. The formal entrance is framed by a pedimented Doric, stone door surround supplied by O&G Industries. Carved from a durable granite that resembles limestone, the portal looks authentically French yet can better withstand the harsh Connecticut climate.

Around the corner, the western façade of the home is aligned axially with the formal garden terrace. A tall central bay of windows, inspired by 19th-century architect Edwin Lutyen’s Deanery, overlooks the terrace at the stone reflecting pool and the large reclining Neptune fountain that gazes across it. The two-story bay of windows serves as a strong visual connection between the home’s Great Room and the formal gardens beyond. On the opposite side of the house, a three-and-one-half-story stone tower anchors the corner of the east façade. The tower offers an impressive approach from the short cobblestone drive. Its severity is softened slightly by the addition of French doors, each set with an antique iron and bronze balcony and a cat and mouse weathervane finial at the roof peak.

Inside, the home embraces its agricultural setting, yet remains a comfortable retreat for the owners and their guests. Tiled to resemble walls of solid ashlar stone and paved with a custom cut French Camargue limestone, the rooms and passageways on the ground floor lend a distinctly old-world feel to the new construction. To ensure the exact cuts and finishes of these stones, architect Charles Hilton traveled to France to meet with the masons as each block was being quarried, cut, and dressed. Limestone stairs lead from the ground floor to the basement of the stone tower, where root and wine cellars provide ample, climate-controlled storage space for produce and wine. The limestone paving is continued into the generous timber-framed wine cellar, forming a border infilled with the same thin brick found on the exterior facades. With a capacity of 2,500 bottles, in standard and larger sizes, the cellar also offers a commodious space for a tasting area to one side.

Ascending to the main floor, one enters the two-story Great Room, which stands in stark contrast to the single height vaults of the ground floor.

The expansive double-height space is defined by a reclaimed, hand-hewn heavy timber frame by Southend Reclaimed and a 30-foot wood beam ceiling. A full-sized professional kitchen to one side offers easy access to the Great Room for entertaining and cooking demonstrations. Proportioned to the room, a grand, hand-carved walk-in Camargue limestone fireplace commands the east wall and sits directly opposite the two-story bay with its unobstructed garden views.

Tucked in a corner of the garden beyond, another outbuilding enhances the beauty and functionality. This tripartite, single-story stone structure, whose construction was overseen by JKC Carpentry, hearkens back to another French agricultural type, the Orangerie, or in this case the Italian-inspired limonaia. Used to shelter the farm’s citrus trees during the harsh Connecticut winters, this limonaia serves as both a garden retreat and functional service building. Constructed of rusticated Connecticut granite the small pavilion references both the stone walls of the cottage and farmhouse and the exposed stone ledge nearby. Engaged Doric columns made of Indiana Buff limestone frame the center entry and support decorative lead urns sprouting bronze foliage by Jozef Custom Ironworks.

A working farm building, the limonaia’s interior is finished with durable materials including flagstone floors, timber ceilings, and stucco walls. The main space of the building is delineated by broad stucco arches which rest on carved stone impost blocks. To one side, a potting room serves as a cozy garden workshop tucked toward the back of the property. Its focal point, a hand-carved antique English limestone sink, sits on axis with the long narrow structure.

Large formal vegetable gardens, orchards, beehives, and picturesque pleasure gardens. The site is completed by its scattered French country buildings, which in turn are united by a palette of natural, local materials just like their counterparts in France. Those French country houses stand testament to the fact that buildings made of solid, durable stone will remain for generations, their timeless forms imparting the character of France and the countryside to the buildings they inspire.

Charles Hilton Architects is a Greenwich, CT based design firm specializing in fine quality custom residential architecture, sustainable design and waterfront projects. The firm has been honored with over a dozen design awards for its work at Sleepy Cat Farm including the prestigious 2011 Palladio Restoration and Renovation Award, HOBI – 2013 Project of the Year, American Brick Institute – 2013 Single Family Residential Best in Class, an IDA, and several AIA awards. Charles Hilton is a 2016 inductee to the New England Design Hall of Fame.

Charles Hilton Architects |