Always wanting to live near the water, Susan and Michael Reel scouted homes in Madison for almost 10 years before taking a look at a big, historic home on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound. On the market for some time, the George B. Smith House, built in 1904, charmed the couple from the moment they saw it. With more than 4,000 square feet, the home had good bones and lots of character. However, Susan knew that if they bought it, she would want to redo the kitchen to make it her own.

“I used to look up at the house on the rock and think it was a hotel,” says Susan, who, before buying the coastal home in January 2017, lived in a house in Madison that they bought new in 2002. “Buying an older home, we knew we’d have perpetual projects on our hands, but we kind of fell head over heels with it. We were looking forward to putting our love and our own touches into the house.”

A big deck off the home’s original kitchen offers prime seating for what could be one of the best views of Long Island Sound in Madison, says Susan, who left her role as a critical-care nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital to become a realtor with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, Madison Brokerage team.

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“I really enjoyed learning about real estate from working with the buying and selling agents, both with Sotheby’s,” says Susan, whose husband practices general obstetrics and gynecology. “And I also got into researching the history of the home. It was originally built as a summer house, named The Summerwind. George Smith and his wife, Grace, would come here from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to summer here with their two daughters. He was a businessman who ran a variety of railroad companies and banks.”

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Susan Reel (right), in the living room of her Madison home with family, from left, daughters Jayne and Julia, and husband Michael. 

One of the things the Reels loved about its charm was the original L-shaped front porch that wrapped around the house. While sometime in the early ’70s parts of it were enclosed to create a sunroom and den, ceiling hooks still remain from porch swings that had once hung there.

Also upon seeing the home, Susan thought about how phenomenal the kitchen could be. Passionate about cooking, she was excited about taking part in designing something made specifically for her.

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Right away she consulted Guilford-based Sally Scott Interior Design, which celebrated 30 years in business last year, about the kitchen renovation. To start, Scott asked Susan to answer a questionnaire about what’s important to her and how she works in a kitchen. “Susan knew she wanted white cabinetry, an ocean-like feel and a bigger island,” Scott says. “The kitchen wasn’t that big and needed more workspace and a better flow. Plus, we needed to take advantage of the big window with the view.”

Scott, who tapped Cucina Design in Branford for the kitchen plans and custom cabinetry, knew they needed to move a wall back, eliminating an entry hallway and half-bath, to enlarge the kitchen. This would make room for a larger island central to the big window with the view. The kitchen’s original structure otherwise remained the same. A new half-bath was designed in the existing long, oversize pantry.

“It’s always a collaboration with Sally,” says Cucina Design’s owner, Siobhan Daggett-Terenzi, who has worked with Scott for more than 15 years on numerous projects. “We always work together to create a beautiful space with a functional layout.”

While the white kitchen has an overall modern feel, traditional kitchen cabinets and moldings give a nod to the history of the house. Mullion detailing on the glass cabinets mimics an original window in the half-bath off the kitchen. And new hardwood flooring replaces laminate, blending with the original flooring in the adjoining rooms.

The decorative accent above the range in colors of sea glass brings an ocean-like feel to the space. Subway tile for the backsplash and white rhino marble on the countertop, similar to Carrara marble found in older homes, gives the kitchen a timeless appeal, Scott says. She also points out the white chairs around the dark table, noting that she didn’t want it to look like they went to a store and picked out a matching breakfast set.

Once the kitchen was complete, the Reels moved into the home in July 2017. Then, Susan brought Scott back in 2018 to design the living and dining rooms at the front of the house. Scott chose furniture that reflects a New England-traditional style, yet through unexpected fabric and fun color choices, she modernized the spaces. A hide rug, green sofas and striped chairs keep things light-hearted.

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Built around the turn of the century as a vacation home called “The Summerwind,” the Reels’ Madison house has the feel of a contemporary New England beach home year round.

“Both the grasscloth wall covering and floral Scalamandre fabric on the window treatments are very traditional and would have been used in homes during this time period,” Scott says.

The color palette, which was decided first, was based on two pieces of art in the dining room. Special to the Reels, one was purchased in Quebec and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

Scott then took Susan to New Haven-based Kebabian’s Rugs, the oldest handmade rug importer in the U.S., to get those colors onto a hand-knotted, custom square rug to correspond with the shape of the room.

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The Reels knew when they ordered a custom rug for the dining room (shown above) that it would take time, but nobody expected it would take close to a year. With the Taliban gaining more ground in Afghanistan, it’s getting challenging to produce rugs there, according to John Kebabian, Kebabian’s Rugs’ fourth-generation owner. In addition, climate changes have brought brutal winters, which make it tough to get through the mountain passes from village to village.

Made by a family in northern Afghanistan who are part of the Hazara tribe, the rug took almost a year before it landed in the Reels’ dining room in February 2019. A Serapi design, it’s made from Ghazni wool, which is an excellent canvas for natural vegetable dyes.

“The rug is another piece of art,” Susan says. “It was definitely worth the wait, just like in finding our home.”

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.