When a Manhattan couple purchased a pair of adjoining properties in Sag Harbor, they were faced with an intriguing quandary: how to reconfigure two historic homes to handle the demands of modern life and create a cohesive, welcoming family compound.
The couple—she is the producing director at an off-Broadway theater; he is a venture capitalist in the aerospace industry—had been visiting Sag Harbor for more than 30 years when they decided to purchase two available neighboring homes occupying nearly 2 acres. “We must have rented more than 20 houses through the years,” the wife says. “We have four children, and as they grew up our needs changed.” For their current lifestyle, the couple knew a renovation to their new vacation homes was in order, a nearly four-year project they were more than happy to take on. “I like to buy houses that have great bones and need a lot of work,” the wife says. “It gives us parameters but also the freedom to make them suit our needs.”
This time, the owners were dealing with two landmark homes, the Rysam House (circa 1790) and the adjacent Federal-style Sleight House (built in 1820), both of which had suffered from “benign neglect,” as the wife describes it. The original owner of Rysam House was Captain William J. Rysam, who worked in Sag Harbor’s then-booming whaling industry; his son-in-law, Cornelius Sleight, owned the smaller structure next door. “The challenge was returning the house to its original roots and staying true to the spirit of a sea captain’s home,” the wife says. As such, the couple knew assembling an outstanding design team was necessary.
Enlisted for the project was local architect Kathrine “Kitty” McCoy, a native East Ender who founded her firm in 1991. The couple found McCoy through their real estate agent, who had become a close friend over the years. “We looked at a new home Kitty designed and wondered if she was interested in renovation,” the wife recalls. “We met and immediately hit it off. It helped that she and I attended the same college. We hired her soon after meeting her.”
Next, the couple brought on designer Darlene Fridstein, a close friend the wife had met in London in the 1990s, and renowned Hamptons landscape designer Charlie Marder. Together, the trio combined their expertise to create a plan for a welcoming modern property that still honored its past. “The vision was to create a compound for multiple generations of both family and friends that respected the historic structures yet fashion living spaces for a 21st-century lifestyle,” McCoy says.
The main house was transformed into an elegant residence stretching more than 8,000 square feet over two-and-a-half stories, with an attic and a full basement. Portions of the structure were gutted and reconfigured, and an addition included a large eat-in kitchen and a side entrance. A driveway bisecting the property was removed, and a new terrace, a swimming pool and a combination pool house and garage was installed.
As construction progressed, surprises were uncovered. “When working with an old structure, the moment of truth is when the framing is exposed,” McCoy says. “Prior to that, you really don’t know what you’re dealing with and hope for the best. Here, much of the existing framing of both houses was deteriorated, and many of the wall studs still had bark from the trees they were cut from.” Builder David DiSunno recalls other challenges: “Much of the existing framing in both the houses had been compromised by way of water, fire and insect damage or through many renovations through the years.” In fact, a new foundation had to be built for the Sleight House, which was gutted to the studs, given new wiring and plumbing and turned into a 3,800-square-foot guesthouse.
On the ample lot, Marder says he aimed to provide “privacy from within while respecting views from the community” and to create “a variety of focused vistas and points of views that create intimacy and expansiveness simultaneously.” He accomplished this by designing the grounds to be reminiscent of a French garden. “Charlie has given us an allée and lavender,” the wife says. “We’ve got a beautiful lawn and a rope swing in the front yard. And the pool fence is our vineyard—we have a row of grapes we’ve harvested and hope to have wine next year.”
Inside, Fridstein collaborated with the wife to bring to life the client’s eclectic, dramatic and whimsical aesthetic through her preferences for pattern-on-pattern style, Parisian antiques and family heirlooms. “She has great taste,” the designer says. “She knows what she likes, and she has a very good sense of how she wants her home to feel.” This meant playing up a palette of warm tones of gray, white and yellow for the main house and Dutch blue, white and red in the guesthouse, particularly through wallpapers. “They provide immediate intimacy in a room and can put you in the mood to eat, sleep, read or write,” the wife says. “It’s very warm and vibrant.”
Inside and outside, the property respects its history while also reflecting the owners’ style. “I ficnd contentment in every part of the house,” the wife says. “I’m just as happy coming downstairs to the kitchen in the morning as I am going upstairs to my bedroom at night.”