With its rolling fields and wooded hills, Litchfield County has long been an attractive lure for New Yorkers. Just a little more than a 2-hour drive, it offers a country respite for city dwellers looking for a quiet escape and second place to call home. But residents of Washington, D.C., like Denise and John Buchanan, who buy a second home here are a rare breed.
Having grown up in Norfolk and Cornwall, Denise has always called Litchfield County home. She lived mostly in Boston after college, where she met John when he was in law school in Cambridge. The two began dating after spending a Fourth of July weekend in Norfolk and married two years later, also in Norfolk.
“He was working for a D.C. law firm, Covington & Burling, so I moved to join him in Washington,” Denise says. “We always looked forward to a summer vacation in Norfolk, where we would stay at my parents’ home there. However, when we doubled our boy population with the twins and arrived at my mother’s house, our welcome ran out!” After a few days, her mother told her she needed to get her own house.
Following her mother’s advice, the couple bought a small home of their own in Norfolk, traveling back and forth from D.C. with their family for about three years until their current house, which they’d always admired, was put on the market. They jumped to buy it, although they didn’t really have to, according to Denise, because despite lots of looks, other prospective buyers didn’t have the appetite to do what the circa-1845 home needed.
“It was in pretty rough shape,” remembers John, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh. “But we forged ahead with buying it because we could see the inherent charm. We’re used to buying old houses that need work and like having the flexibility to fix them up to our liking.”
“We’re suckers for architectural detail, great mouldings and decorative fireplaces,” adds Denise, who notes that their primary residence in Cleveland Park, a residential area in northwest Washington, D.C., is also an older, historic home. “We like the quirks you find in old houses, such as a floor with some slope to it. Of course, some people would see that as a deficiency.”
After purchasing the roughly 3,000-square-foot house with three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms, as well as a carriage house with two bedrooms and one bathroom on 7½ acres in 2004, the Buchanans knew it was going to take a lot of money and time to do everything that they wanted to do. With both of them working full time — Denise (now retired) was an English teacher for 20 years at the National Cathedral School, a private school for girls, and the school’s director of admissions for five years; and John, still a lawyer at Covington & Burling — a renovation was a lot to take on.
So, they did some cosmetic improvements, painting the entire interior, redoing the master bathroom, and adding some new light fixtures; and made a few essential replacements like a new refrigerator and washing machine, to make the house livable. They also did some structural work, replacing the roof and porch deck.
About 10 years later, the Buchanans were ready for the next stage. After attending Jimmy Crisp Architects’ annual Fine Home Source Show in Millbrook, New York, Denise went home to study the company’s website. Loving many of the projects, the couple immediately got the sense that Crisp appreciated old houses and would design an addition that would complement the original lines of the house.
Renovating the original 1959 kitchen, which was small and charming, but barely functional, was a priority. The stove was a GE electric from the 1950s with four burners that could only turn from “off” to “high.” Denise also remembers that the kitchen faucet felt like it would come off in her hand every time she turned it on. Plus, the lighting was terrible. But because it was not a full-time house, they lived with it.
An addition to the first floor allowed Crisp to open up the kitchen, enlarge the pantry and add a new mudroom, laundry room and a new powder room. There’s now more light, views to the gardens and landscape, and room for an eat-in kitchen. “We installed a beam in place of the original back wall and were able to raise the kitchen/dining area ceiling height by approximately 6 inches,” Crisp says.
Upstairs, the addition paved the way for a large master suite with a bedroom, bathroom and closet. The old master bedroom was reconfigured to be a new guest room with a new bathroom. One of the couple’s favorite features in the master suite is the spectacular cathedral ceiling, which Denise says is something they never would have thought to include had they not tapped an architect.
Downstairs, Crisp added porches and created better access to the existing ones, enhancing the indoor-outdoor connection. A screened porch at the rear of the home behind the kitchen was added and the side porch extended. In the dining room, a second French door was installed (and the other replaced) for symmetry and to create better flow to the extended side porch.
Another focus was outside. Crisp Architects called in Judy Murphy, a landscape architect based in Lakeville, for significant landscaping to the east of the house. Prior to the renovation, it had been completely hidden behind a thicket of overgrown weeds and shrubbery. Now, there’s a serene upper lawn with curved beds of hydrangea and Russian sage that front towering evergreen trees.
For phase two of the landscaping, Denise called a friend, Renée Byers Landscape Architect (Greenwich and Bronxville, New York) to add a walled stone terrace, featuring a custom stone firepit as well as perennial beds and trees to the spacious east lawn, which was used by previous owners as a regulation croquet lawn.
The design phase took about two years because they would focus on the design somewhat in “fits and starts,” Denise says. After they chose a local contractor, Norfolk-based D Scott Reeve Construction, the excavation-through-construction phase took about another year and a half.
“It’s a home I could easily move into,” says Crisp, adding that the original basement, which was entirely unfinished, is now home to a fitness/TV room and generous mechanical room. “It’s a comfortable home that really blends the old and new.”
Throughout the process, the Buchanans would come back and stay in the apartment over the garage to see progress, continuing to enjoy all that they love to do in the region: cross country skiing, hiking, tennis, biking and heading to the Berkshires for a couple of hours of downhill skiing. “It was definitely worth the wait,” John says. “We love living in this house.”