Bless This House
March 31, 2011
Text by Stacy Kunstel Photography by Michael Partenio
Call it Divine Providence. Michele and Lee Mergy were living in New Canaan when they cheerfully began to entertain the idea of a summer residence in Michele’s hometown of Old Lyme. Rolling through town one afternoon with their two children in tow they passed the church on Old Lyme Street where, as a child, Michele had attended Mass and taken her first Communion. A for-sale sign stood plugged into the unkempt lawn and the front door had been left wide open.
Curious, the Mergys wandered into the large clapboard structure that had been sitting neglected for at least a few years. The pews where Michele had once bowed her head had long been sold, leaving the building vacant and still. No choir in the loft to summon parishioners, no echoes of sermons past, just a neglected space threatening to mar the otherwise pretty main street. That afternoon the couple went to the broker’s office with an offer. “It was basically an abandoned building,” says Michele. “We walked right in and I said I had to have it.”
It was potential rather than nostalgia that drew Michele to the space. The soaring ceiling, slate-tile floor details and arched stained-glass windows looked to her more like a family home than a house of worship. Being in the picturesque downtown area just a minute’s walk from the ice cream stand, shops and Cooley Gallery wasn’t bad, either.
Built by the Baptist Society in 1843, the church had held congregations since before the Civil War. Sold to the Catholic Church in the 1930s, it served as a community mainstay until it was shuttered in 2003. Purchasing the building took almost eight months, giving Michele more time to plan as well as assemble an architect and builder team, which included family friend Laurent DuPont of Laurent T. DuPont AIA Architects and Mike Avgerinos of Avgerinos Contracting, who had worked with the couple on three other projects.
“I do a lot of historic renovation in my work,” says DuPont. “I jumped at the chance to work on this one. I’m a history buff, and this is an architecture that is truly lovely. It’s a circa-1840s church on a very historic street, where you’ll find a collection of period houses—Italianate, Victorian, Federal—but this was a beautiful, simple, white New England church.”
Creating spaces to live and sleep within the lofty building was the first order of business. The Mergys and DuPont took advantage of the existing choir loft, dividing it into two bedrooms and baths for the Mergy’s fourteen-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter. DuPont kept the area along the balcony exposed as a sitting/play area for the children, setting the bedroom walls away from the sight line from below. “Both Lee and Michele were very sensitive about keeping the character of the church,” says the architect. “We kept the choir loft look and had the open sitting area span the width of the nave.”
Michele and Lee took up residence on the first floor in what were probably changing rooms behind the altar, carving out a small master bath next to the bedroom with a vintage looking claw-foot tub and side-by-side sinks. What was previously the priest’s office to the left of the altar became Lee’s home office. Fond of the sanctuary’s open format, DuPont and the Mergys tried to keep the airy feeling as much as possible in designing rooms for living.
Two walls that float on either side of the center aisle now divide the former sanctuary space into four areas. Two—one a living room the other a space with a pool table—fall under the children’s bedrooms, giving them a lower ceiling height. Two additional sitting areas along with the dining room lie in front of the loft under the full height of the church’s ceiling. “I wanted to keep a loft-like feeling, but we needed some walls for privacy,” says Michele of the minor division between areas. “Two gas fireplaces separate the four spaces,” says DuPont. “The center aisle of the church basically remained the same.”
The end of the nave, where the altar once stood, now holds the kitchen. Two steps up from the home’s main level, it serves as a look-out point with a view of almost every room in the house. DuPont worked with Michele to orient the space to the middle of the church, placing a large wooden island in the center and separating it from the seating area with a balustrade. “I wanted to get the sense of an altar,” says Michele of the kitchen island. “I love antiques, and I love the look of wormy, stained, worn wood.” The island top has the feel of an old butcher-block. A slab of two-inch-thick Carrara marble surrounds the sink, and the perimeter counter and backsplash are also Carrara. Above the island hangs a crystal chandelier, one of ten in the house.
After the renovations the Mergys spent a summer here, then discovered it was too hard to leave. What was initially a summer home felt more like somewhere they would like to live full time. As they waited for the New Canaan house to sell, Michele began filling the open spaces with antiques. While she says she is not a religious person, she found herself more drawn to religious icons now that she’s living in what was God’s house. “In the space I try to recognize all religions,” she says. “There are antiques from various denominations—Buddhist, Hindu, Egyptian, crosses, angels from Germany.”
The furnishings Michele chose reflect a reverence for the space, balanced with a dose of whimsy. Giant stone paws ground the large coffee table in front of a vintage leather sofa. Michele chose mostly English chairs and sofas with exposed seams and tiny nailhead trim upholstered in vintage French linen for the sitting areas. “I thought the simplicity of the upholstery would balance well in the space,” she says. “I wanted it to be a clean, peaceful atmosphere. There’s so much color in stained glass windows that I didn’t want much color in the upholstery. Keeping the upholstery simple feels modern.”
There is a peace that pervades the space, whether intentional or not. “I almost feel like I saved the space because I was a little girl here and had my Holy Communion here,” says Michele.
You could say the heavens opened for the Mergys to move in. “It’s a joyful space and we saved it,” says Michele.
Architecture: Laurent T. DuPont
Builder: Michael Avgerinos