The entrance to this Ridgefield property was moved to a side road so the driveway could meander past stately trees and outbuildings. (Bryan Haeffele photos)

There is a park bench on a crest along a driveway of an expansive property in Ridgefield, contiguous to open space, that serves as a reminder of the homeowners’ humble beginnings, a treasured gift from wife to husband on their 10th anniversary. It has moved with them through three homes. “We call this our ‘Where Dreams Are Made’ bench,” the husband explained.

The couple met in Manhattan when she was 16 and he was 18; her family lived on the fourth floor of a walk-up and he shared a bedroom with “my brother, my sister and occasionally my grandmother.” They courted walking through the Cloisters and sitting on a park bench — after purchasing a beer for him and a Yoo-hoo for her at a nearby deli — and talking about their dreams for the future. Their ultimate goal was to “own a little place in the country, maybe Connecticut.”

They married 44 years ago and he started a business with his skills, drive and a small personal investment. Their planning and efforts paid off; they bought their first home in Connecticut in 1973 and acquired their present home more than 25 years ago. At the time, they lived in a “magazine-ready” home on a two-acre lot not too far away and had no thoughts of moving.

But like many in the area, they were aware of the distinguished property.

The couple said that the property had such an alluring aura about it and that is was very relaxing with outstanding trees — trees of rare size and majesty. When they heard that the estate was making the property available, they decided to take a closer look. The overgrown, then-empty property was being sold as-is. They were one of three interested parties who were told to make an offer.

“You don’t buy a place like this unless you fall in love with it,” the husband said. “And it’s not just the land — you’re buying the sky, too.” He described the pleasure of watching the sun set over the distant hills and studying the night skies without any lights nearby. “There’s a lot of passion in a place like this,” he said. The structures were secondary.

The main house, about 3,500 square feet, is believed to be circa 1820. There is a guest house about 25 yards away. Originally a working farm (the previous owners kept horses, cows and chickens; they call it a horseless horse farm), the property also featured a horse barn, hay barn and chicken coop. It also had a tennis court, an appealing amenity to the couple.

Although the main house boasted knotty pine floors, plaster walls and hand-done plaster crown molding, in 1984 it was “in total disarray. There was only one light in the kitchen — and that was on a pull-chain.” In addition to being very out of date in terms of mechanical systems and layout, most of the walls were covered with vintage wallpaper that could not be removed without severely damaging them, and numerous layers of black lacquer paint covered the floors — except under the living room rug. “Apparently, whenever they put a new coat of paint down, they just painted around the rug,” the husband laughed.

Looking at everything that needed to be done, he was not averse to knocking down the house, which is fairly close to the road anyway, and building a new one deeper into the property. Interested in history and genealogy, she felt the house should be restored and updated. They looked into having it moved farther away from the road. “The cost wasn’t unreasonable, but to do it, a number of trees would have had to been taken down,” he said. So they decided to renovate the house and relocate the driveway.

 

They closed in the fall and lived for six months in the two-story, two-bedroom guesthouse, which features a large main floor room with hand-hewn split beams on the walls and a Rumford fireplace “that kept us warm when a winter storm knocked out the power for a couple of days.” The mechanical systems in the guesthouse were also subsequently updated, but much of the original rustic look has been retained, including a large screened-in porch overlooking the property.

While the footprint of the main house was not altered, the interior was and the stacked screened-in porches were incorporated into the new layout. The upstairs was virtually gutted. What was five bedrooms, two of them small rooms for household help, were transformed into three suites with full bathrooms and sitting areas. The master bedroom features the punch-out that was the porch with rows of windows looking in three directions.

The park bench — where the dreams began.

What is now a modern, open, well-lit kitchen formerly comprised four rooms: the original kitchen, a butler’s pantry, a side porch and a garbage porch. The wall closing off the back stairway used by the live-in help was taken down, further opening up the kitchen, which has terracotta floor tiles and granite counters. The demolition also exposed the back of the brick chimney in the dining room, which had been concealed by a false wall.

While the mechanical systems — heating and air conditioning, electrical and plumbing — were all modernized, the couple has retained vestiges of the home’s past, including original hardware and low doorknobs, a couple of sconces and some old windows “with ropes and weights.” The French doors that formerly separated the living room from the screened-in porch were moved upstairs to the master bedroom suite, and what was a potting room between the porch and the living room is now a wet bar.

The cozy library, with long windows on two walls, a built-in bookcase and entry door on the third and a fireplace and closet with lock on the fourth, is the one room retained pretty much as it was when the couple bought the place. The living room also retains its plaster walls.

“We love this room and sit in it often,” the husband said, as he explained the closet. “This is where the previous owner locked up his liquor; when he entertained and wanted his guests to leave, he would close and lock the door and the party would be over.”

There is a stone-walled garden near the house “that must be 80 years old” and was overgrown when the couple moved in. When they learned that the son of the woman who designed it had continued his mother’s business, he was hired to restore it.

The closeness of the house to the street and its circular driveway was the one thing the owners did not like about the property. Since it is on a corner, the solution was to close off the driveway with a gated fence, plant dozens of hemlocks along the inside of the fence and create a long, winding driveway off the side road. In addition to creating greater privacy, “we get to enjoy the property every time we come home.” The driveway is designed so the house is glimpsed as a vehicle pulls in, but then disappears behind a hill as the property view opens up and is exposed again when a curve is rounded. A circular Belgian block parking area with a tree and plantings in the center is between the house and the guesthouse; the driveway itself is gravel.

The rectangular, spring-fed pond near the hay barn had been totally obscured by a fence that was overgrown with thistle bushes — to keep the cows out — and the tennis court was enclosed by fencing with a door. The owners thought it was red clay, but after closing discovered it was blacktop with sprinkled clay on it. Resurfaced with a finish that constantly had to be repaired, that court was eventually torn it out and a Har-Tru court, which “moves with the earth,” was installed.

When the husband started clearing the overgrowth, “I wore out a tractor pulling out bushes.”

The hay barn has been converted into an entertainment center that provides a full kitchen and party room downstairs, while the upstairs features an entertainment area and exercise equipment.

A bocce court has been installed parallel to the hay barn, and the couple hosts an annual intergenerational family and friends tournament attended by about 100 people. “We tent the area and hold it rain or shine; it’s an all-day event and everyone has a great time,” she said, noting, “Last year a 16-year-old won; the year before it was an 88-year-old. It’s a great party place; we’ve had weddings, anniversary parties, other types of events here.”

The couple describes living on the property as peaceful — “crickets are as noisy as it gets” —almost like a sanctuary. And they still enjoy sitting on their park bench, now marveling at how those long-ago dreams came true.