Connecticut Home & Garden: An Essex Couple Design their Dream Home
Caryn B. Davis
This is a story about a couple of empty nesters, no strangers to building houses from scratch, who six years ago found themselves in an enviable position. They had the perfect lot in the perfect town—and the means to design the perfect house.
Needless to say, this brave and creative couple went all in.
The wife (who asked for privacy, so we’ll call her “the homeowner”) took the reins on this project, having assumed the role of general contractor in the construction of the couple’s previous residence, a family-friendly home in Avon.
They’d met a simpatico architect, Jack Kemper (of Kemper Associates Architects in Farmington), at a dinner party, and, says the homeowner: “There was simply too much synergy not to progress . . . so that is where the initial collaboration began.”
The two worked very closely, with Kemper and architect Peter Clarke drawing up the plans—and the homeowner doing everything else. “I had complete control of the project, including design, putting everything out to bid, oversight, ordering materials, resourcing lighting, plumbing, cabinets, flooring, etc.,” the homeowner says. “It would be impossible to undertake this type of project if you didn’t really love every aspect of the journey. It is an all-consuming job.”
Listening attentively to how the couple wanted to live in their home now that their children were away at college, Kemper says the creative process went something like this: “We’d sit down and she’d talk about what needs to happen. I’d sketch at the same time. We had very interactive meetings and we reached conclusions right away, like ‘this is good, bad, this is the direction we should go in.’”
The homeowner offers a more lyrical description: “I provide Jack with the ‘notes’ and he writes the ‘song’,” she says. Her list of essential “notes” was long; among the requirements: an exciting entry, as “this is the first glimpse of the heart of the house,” a great integrated open floor plan for public spaces; and a “glass-walled dining room that has the feel of a conservatory.”
Location absolutely informed the home’s design.
“We have the privilege of living in the historic river town of Essex, and there are many beautiful and well-preserved antique homes here,” says the homeowner. “We wanted to be certain the structure respected its surroundings and had a sense of place. It is indeed in the vernacular of the historic homes of the lower Connecticut River. In fact, I have been asked on numerous occasions if this house was a renovation.”
Inspired by several architectural styles (Federal, Shingle, Greek Revival), Kemper says the house feels at home in Essex. “It’s basically a Traditional, but we played with the proportions,” he says. “We exaggerated the front two-story section and made the porch a little longer.”
Details were of the utmost importance, inside and out.
The façade is framed by 18-inch corner columns and the fenestration was deliberate: Six-paned clerestory windows graduate to six-over-six second-story windows, and then to six-over-six-over-six main-floor windows. The front porch is punctuated by Ionic columns; three sets of 8-foot French doors are topped with custom transoms. The dining room is designed to appear like a vintage porch or sunroom.
“The house has a beautiful visual presence,” says the homeowner, the perfect melding of “functionality and livability.”
At 3,650 square feet, the house is a “nice size,” says Kemper. It’s very intentional in that every space is there by design, and every room is used.”
“This house really is all about form following function . . . it was not about a builder’s spec house to be inhabited by some theoretical hybrid of a family. It wasn’t about a realtor’s resale dream. It was really about having the luxury, at a certain stage in life, to design a house around exactly how we enjoyed living,” says the homeowner.
The public spaces—kitchen, living room and dining room—are laid out open-plan style. There’s also a first-floor master bedroom, sitting room and laundry. And on the second floor, there are two very separate en-suite bedrooms, in addition to a large office and multimedia room over the garage.
Adhering to the concept that “all entertaining take place in the kitchen,” the couple decided early on to “combine kitchen and living area into one large space separated by two large center islands,” says the homeowner. Because the kitchen had to serve as a multipurpose space, they elected to integrate appliances with the exception of the range.
The cabinetry is striking; it makes a statement, with oversize base moldings and over-scale cove molding, and is also accented by 10-foot coffered ceilings in the living room. The same goes for the kitchen and living room—there are no visual breaks to interrupt the flow, so “the rooms communicate in perfect harmony,” says the homeowner.
Because she meticulously chose her subcontractors, the homeowner says construction went smoothly. She credits master framer Charlie Melanson of Mell Construction Co. in Simsbury as “the cornerstone to the success of the project.” It was a bit of a family affair. “Charlie framed the house, installed windows and exterior doors. One of his brothers installed the clapboard siding and roofing. Another brother was responsible for the cedar-shake shingles on the garage,” she says. Dave Benson, formerly of Avon, who is sadly no longer in business, completed all of the detailed cabinetry and interior trim work.
The house was quite simple to furnish and decorate, says the homeowner, “primarily because each room had an intended purpose. There are no awkward spaces in this house that need to be visually filled. There are no superfluous rooms. I think that is part of the beauty; everything was designed with intention.”
Most of the furnishings are family heirlooms, or have been collected over the last 40 years. An 1840 English dresser dominates one of the kitchen walls—again, by design. Because everything is vintage and “lovingly collected or handed down over the years,” it went together without trying.
The homeowner chose a neutral palette of creamy white and soft gray that allowed her treasures to be showcased and architectural details to shine.
What was the single most important (aka nonnegotiable) component of the design? The house had to be “a space where the spirit can soar and the soul can hide,” says the homeowner, who points out that the entrance hall is the main axis, with rooms running off it. “With a nod to Palladio,” she says, “there is a sense of always ‘walking toward the light.’”
• Architect Kemper Associates Architects, Farmington, 860/409-7155.
• Framing, siding, roofing, installation of windows and doors Mell Construction Co., Simsbury, 860/658-7313.
• Doors and windows Custom, by Marvin, through Miner’s Lumber, Collinsville, 860/693-1111.
• French range By Lacanche through Art Culinaire, Woodinville, WA, 425/481-7500.
• Dining room chandelier Niermann Weeks, through Susan Gregory Interiors, Essex, 860/767-1245.
• Faucets By Kohler, through Cunningham Plumbing Supply, Old Saybrook, 860/339-0170.
• Landscape design, stone walls and walkways Artistic Outdoors, West Hartford, 860/233-7044.
• Paintings Bill Thomson, Ann Grimm.
Connecticut Home & Garden: An Essex Couple Design their Dream Home