Homebuyers fall into three general categories; those who buy new construction, those for whom neighborhood or commuting distance are primary and age and style secondary, and those who are drawn to vintage homes for their architectural charm and intriguing histories. New Canaan resident Rachel Walsh is in that last category.
In January 1997, Rachel, her husband, Peter, and their three now adult children moved into a home with carriage house built in 1890 that “wasn’t in the greatest shape from a then-current or renovated standard, but held great appeal to me; the bones were incredibly good and the first morning I woke up in the house, I felt like I had lived there for years. I knew where everything was; I feel the house chose us to be its keepers,” Rachel recounts.
The house may be one-of-a-kind, sited on a slight rise of a property originally more than 16 acres, now on 1.33 fully usable acres. Visitors coming up the driveway are immediately captivated by the broad, elevated and open front porch with a choice of three matching doors (leading into the kitchen, dining room and hallway) with eyebrow arches above them, as well as a gracious and huge copper beech tree that is estimated to be about 200 years old.
The landscape is further enhanced by stone walls lining and within the property, a level soccer-sized grass area in the parklike backyard, a working greenhouse, and an in-ground pool surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.
“What we know about the origins of the house is that two sisters went to the south of France in the 1880s, and came upon a house they loved; they found an architect to draw the house and then came back to New Canaan and had it built,” said Rachel.
The 10-room house has symmetry from every angle, with repeating triple arched doors and windows throughout, and while porches have been enclosed over the years, the footprint has not changed. It has a tiered look that some have described as “a wedding cake.”
Since taking occupancy, says Rachel, “there isn’t an inch of the house or the carriage house that we haven’t touched, beginning with a new roof and gutters, as the roof leaked within a week of moving in.” “Renovations have been sporadic and ongoing — sometimes as needed, like the roof, a new well, new boiler, new kitchen and baths, adding central air conditioning, new windows, painting inside and out — and sometimes as desired, primarily decorating and redecorating.” Reclaimed flooring was installed to match the antique heart pine floors where needed.
While the exterior walls have not been changed, a number of the interior walls have. “Like a lot of old houses, the rooms were small and each had a couple of doorways, allowing movement between rooms. We took down some walls and closed off others,” Rachel explains. She loves the openness of the west-facing living room, which is sun-filled all afternoon. The entire home has a light and airy feel, provided by 100-plus windows. Two of the family room walls have large sliding doors, and both rooms have fireplaces.
When the sleeping porch off the master bedroom was enclosed and converted into a sitting room and Rachel’s office, using casement windows to match the house but retaining the antique half-moon arched windows at either end, the entrance to it from a second bedroom was closed. So were one entrance of the two-entry bathroom and the closets between the secondary bedrooms. There are three bedrooms on the second floor and two more on the third floor.
The kitchen remodel was the biggest challenge, as it involved moving the stairway leading to the basement and combining four small rooms, including a powder room that had been created under the main staircase, and Rachel wanted to keep the large brick kitchen fireplace and the antique casement windows in the original breakfast room.
The first four kitchen designers consulted said the fireplace had to go; the one who said, “Of course it can stay” got the job. A second sink and larger windows were also added, giving the cozy kitchen an open floor plan angled to the eating area.
In the process of combining the rooms, a pair of 19th-Century women’s prairie shoes was discovered concealed behind a wall. Initially, Rachel called museums and historical societies seeking to donate the shoes, but while doing so learned of the practice of leaving what are known as spirit shoes, which were believed to protect against evil influences. Interestingly, during the time the shoes were out of the wall, the Walshes stock holdings took a serious tumble, so it was decided to return the shoes behind the wall, even though it meant taking out the new wall. The stocks recovered …
It was also during the six-month kitchen renovation that the family fully appreciated having a functioning kitchen in the carriage house apartment used by guests; the structure also has a two-car garage, a secondary family room and another smaller room.
While elegant throughout, the house has two quirks that add a sense of fun: the understairs powder room painted an eye-popping coral and decorated with touches of whimsy, and the pub room tucked between the living and dining rooms. It has thick paneled wood walls and a wraparound full bar with sink and wine refrigerator and showcases the owners’ sports memorabilia.
Embossed paper embellishes the ceiling, which has been enhanced with red paint and gold leafing and accented with old gas-fueled brass ceiling lanterns converted to electric fixtures with vintage red glass shades. “When there’s a party, people end up in this room,” Rachel notes.
When it came to decorating, she says, “I found that my decorating style changed as we lived in the house, definitely influenced by some beautiful homes I see as a Realtor [in the New Canaan office of William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty]. I then combined my tastes for antique and modern because I felt that this house could handle an eclectic style.”
As the new year begins, Rachel is planning a few decorating changes, but primarily to simply enjoy living in her comfortable surroundings.