There are tally marks on the ceiling beams of Old Lyme’s Wade-Tinker House. The faint white lines on hand-hewn beams in the home’s expansive third-floor attic look like they might have been made by a hand grasping a simple stick of school-room chalk. But “if you rub them,” says Marcello Marvelli, who purchased the circa-1755 home with wife Rosemarie Padovano in March 2017, “they don’t come off” — and haven’t in quite some time.
In fact, the lines are said to have been left by Hessian soldiers taken prisoner during the American Revolution. “This was all farmland back then,” Marvelli says, and the Hessians who once marked time in this attic were pressed upon to help work the fields. Look closely, light flooding in through twin multipaned windows fills the room with a warm, natural glow, and you should even be able to make out German lettering scrawled on still more rough timbers. This is a house with stories to tell.
Marvelli and Padovano didn’t always plan to make their home in a centuries-old, center-hall Colonial in what they call “the country.” The cosmopolitan pair, who met when Padovano, who has a master’s degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University, had a piece featured in a show at Marvelli’s Chelsea gallery, were in fact quite happy in their lofty mid-century designer digs in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Marvelli, who grew up in Florence, Italy, and has a Ph.D. in Medieval and Renaissance art from the University of Florence, highlighted contemporary art in the gallery he owned and operated from 2000 to 2015. As time went on, however, “Brooklyn started feeling dirty, expensive … loud,” sighs Marvelli, and “we started to look beyond what is ‘cool and hip’ ” for something more solid.
Restoring a historic home to its former glory certainly speaks to the heart. Who, we wonder, once lived within those walls? What stories they …
The avid sailors had fallen hard for the Connecticut shoreline via weekend trips to Stonington, where their vintage Morris yacht, the Rose, was docked. Their quest for permanence in the form of a historic home with original features intact led them to the property on Sill Lane in Old Lyme that had been home to members of the Wade family from 1686 right on through 1922 — that’s seven generations (six of whom lived in the inveterate structure currently on site).
John Wade was the first to arrive. A “capable and experienced man,” according to records on file at the nearby Florence Griswold Museum, who at the urgent request of the townsfolk of Lyme in need of someone to run their faltering gristmill, agreed “withall possible Speed [to] remove myself and family from Brookhaven [Long Island] to the towne of Lyme and use my utmost care ad diligence to Repayer the said mille so that she may be fit for Sarvice.” As part of the bargain, he scored 102 “rods” of land as a homestead.
Impressionist painter and printmaker Platt Hubbard (who happened to have a bit of a thing for the trees of the Connecticut River Valley), entered the picture, so to speak, in 1922. That’s when his partner, distinguished lawyer Walter Magee, purchased the home from Wade family descendants through the female line (the Tinkers) and promptly hired the Olmsted Brothers, the largest landscape-architecture practice in the country in the early 20th century, to transform the property’s barren farmland into lush formal gardens (we’ll get to those in a minute).
“We got lucky,” Marvelli says. “Learning how well-documented the history of the house is was very exciting. That’s uncommon for a little country Colonial.” Thankfully, “no one with a lot of money and little taste had come in and made major changes along the way,” Marvelli says, and the vast majority of the home’s original flooring, doors, hardware, windows (they’re blown glass!) and intricate woodwork and molding remained.
That being said, “This house is not a museum piece,” Marvelli says. “Good design is about good bones,” Padovano explains, and she and Marvelli were first and foremost concerned about design. In fact, when the pair packed for their move from cityscape to countryside, they brought with them Artemisia, their high-end interior-design shop and studio replete with luxury textiles, pillows, carefully chosen antiques and art, to settle on Lyme Street. As designers, the goal for their home was to “preserve and respect what came before, but also end with an interior that is both modern and comfortable,” Marvelli says. A mix of the old and the new.
“No two pieces in each room are from the same time period or even the same country,” Marvelli says, evidenced by the fact that the couple put more than 40,000 miles on their 2017 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited over the course of a year spent traveling up and down the East Coast and beyond to furnish their “new” abode. The updated kitchen glows with both antique copper and modern appliances. An oil on canvas by contemporary artist Juliana Romano hangs above the living room’s 18th-century mantle across from a comfy sofa upholstered in lilac velvet. The bergères chairs in the second-floor morning room that sing with contemporary stripes keep company with both a 17th-century maple secretary and a 19th-century English os de mouton ottoman dressed with Carolina Irving’s 100 percent-linen Indian Flower textile. In a corner of the dining room, upon whose fabulously detailed handcarved moldings the couple used a heat process to strip down to bare wood, a pair of walnut 18th-century Dutch tapestry armchairs pays homage to ornate tapestry frescoes that lined the room’s walls until being destroyed by fire in the 1940s.
In the attic, thousands of stacked books, many of them thick volumes on art history, had to be hoisted three stories and brought in through a window, as were all the furnishings, in order to create a rustic, but sophisticated, treetop retreat.
Oscar Wilde once said, “All beautiful things belong to the same age,” Padovano says. “We strongly believe that if something is of beauty it will look good together.”
“It’s about layering history,” Marvelli says, not to mention patina, color and texture. “You don’t want your home to look, or feel, like you just moved in.” Padovano adds: “When you collect things one at a time you fall in love with them. A home should look like it’s been collected and curated over time, not designed.”
Marvelli waxes philosophical: “A house teaches you if you’re so disposed. You just need to be willing to listen.”
Now, about that Olmsted garden. “Marcello and I have spent our lives in the art world,” Padovano says, and are thus “fine-tuned to aesthetics” and know all about employing a “thoughtful approach.” That being said, each admits to having had “no idea what we were getting into” when it came to restoring the garden, but agreed upon a shared desire “to understand and learn.”
“Ours is a ‘green’ garden,” Padovano says, and, thankfully, many of the century-old trees (notably a towering lilac, holly and a striking magnolia espalier) remain majestically intact. Boxwood gone wild has been restrained and trimmed, “Marcello’s Pond” has been installed within a parterre to replace a reflecting pond lost to time. Internationally recognized horticultural expert Clive Lodge of Cornwall Bridge has even taught the devoted duo the intricacies of pruning their centerpiece allée of 100-year-old beech trees with Victorian urns at each end.
Indeed, Platt Hubbard and Walter Magee may have been “passionate” about both house and garden when they bought the property a century ago, Padovano says (a fact to which a spread in the March 1925 issue of Country Life magazine can attest), but they now have competition. As Padovano revealed in a recent Instagram post showcasing a nattily dressed Marcello astride his new John Deere, the neighbors have a nickname for her ebullient husband: Marcello is now affectionately known around the ’hood as the “Mad Gardener.” Recent projects Marvelli is working on with the help of assistant gardener Duccio (the couple’s enthusiastic field spaniel) is a makeover of the north side of the garden, which will include a new potager, a yew hedge, more lilacs and a pear espalier.
“I knew the landscape was beautiful — that’s what drew us here,” Padovano says, reflecting upon the storied property she has the privilege of helping care for, “but I had no idea of how beautiful the light is. No wonder [the Impressionists] painted here … there’s something very special about the light. It feels like magic. Just right here. Not on the other side of the river. Right here.”
Long may it shine.