Standing defiantly at the very edge of a rock peninsula on Long Island Sound is a New England shingle-style house that is steeped in history and beloved by the family who has charted its course for five decades and through two major renovations. “We’re only the second family to own it,” says the husband, who has spent numerous summers and holidays there since he was a child. “ It’s surrounded on three sides by water, and you can’t see any other houses; it’s sort of like we’re on our own out here.”
Looking out the bay window from the living room on the second floor, the house indeed feels almost like a yacht, with the rolling waves lapping against the seawall, just feet from the back entrance, as they would the hull of a grand vessel. “When you walk up the stairs and look through the living room to the water, it grabs you every time,” says the wife and mother of four. “ But when we were lying in bed, we could literally feel the house sway when the wind was bad. It was in serious need of repair.”
Built in 1890 as a carriage house for a neighboring property, the structure was converted into a residence around the turn of the century. After purchasing it from his father in the early 1990s, the owner turned to architect Cormac Byrne and builder Walter Lorenz to shore it up. Using the original gambrel roofline as a teeing-off point, Byrne essentially rebuilt the entire house, taking careful consideration to ensure that the new structure did not feel at odds with the home’s origins. To blend the new porte cochere on the front of the house with the original structure, for example, Byrne sourced locally mined Byram stone that matched the existing foundation; its copper covering provides a pleasing juxtaposition for the home’s slate roof, which includes salvaged original tiles intermingled with new ones. “We tried to make it look like it’s been there for a long time,” Byrne explains.
Despite the addition of steel tie-downs, hurricaneproof windows and other features designed to secure it against the elements, the grand home proved no match for Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the first two floors less than a decade after the first renovation. “The waves came pounding in and basically destroyed one whole end of the house,” the husband says. At the recommendation of their longtime interior designer, Maureen Footer, the owners commissioned architect Anthony Minichetti to address the damage. Minichetti, along with general contractor Gerry Holbrook, created a new home that would be more resilient against future storms. “We replaced the water-facing windows with out-swing windows,” says Holbrook. “The original ones, though stormproof, were in-swing, which made it easier for Sandy to open them up.”
The team also reconfigured several areas to better meet the needs of the family. On the lower level, in place of a large foyer hall, Minichetti created a private caretakers apartment, an exercise room and a cabana bathroom that leads out to the swimming pool. “As the family grew into the home, they realized that they needed an entirely different floor plan for the lower level,” says Minichetti. “So we reorganized it for them.” The newly configured space also includes storage pantries and coat closets concealed behind wood paneling. “All of the utilitarian spaces support the grandeur of the upper level,” he explains.
In place of the wood flooring on the lower level, Minichetti laid cream-and-brown limestone—a material more resistant to water—in a lattice pattern, an idea inspired by the wife. “We tried to install a little hurricaneproofing so that down the road we wouldn’t have to tear out the entire floor if it flooded again,” she explains.
By working closely with Footer from the beginning, Minichetti was able to incorporate features and materials that were specifically designed to showcase the furnishings. In the foyer, for example, the architect created a wall niche that houses an antique oak chest of drawers and an English gilt gesso mirror in the manner of William Kent. “I am interested in design history, so I love things that have references to other eras,” Footer says. “I thought it would be appropriate for a multigenerational house where things would conceivably have been layered over the generations.”
On the second floor, the combined kitchen and family room were reconfigured to include a media area. French doors allow the informal living and dining areas to be joined with a garden room that Footer furnished with a pair of comfortable chairs and a small dining table where the owners enjoy hosting friends for intimate candlelit dinners. “We told Maureen that we wanted a sophisticated Bahamas look, and she came up with some really great ideas,” the wife says.
For Footer, this project represents a triumph of renewal over destruction. “It was so overwhelming to walk into that house right after the storm,” the designer says. “The challenge was to keep the faith and retain a vision that ultimately this project was going to be a great opportunity for this phoenix to rise from the ashes.”
Styling by Stacy Kunstel