Gothic Novel

April 16, 2014

A sweet brick cottage for one becomes a grand home for two with-out losing an ounce of its charm.

Text by Dan Shaw    Photography by Robert Benson    Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent

A sweet brick cottage for one becomes a grand home for two with-out losing an ounce of its charm.

Twenty years ago a young Hartford surgeon bought a brick Arts and Crafts–style cottage on ten acres in a bucolic part of Farmington surrounded by traditional, white-clapboard New England colonials. “I grew up in Philadelphia, so I am drawn to brick and stone houses,” he says. “I loved the Gothic details that reminded me of my days at Princeton.”

The two-bedroom home was the perfect bachelor pad. Eventually, though, he met and fell in love with a drama teacher at a nearby prep school, and with two now living in the house, it began to feel cramped, especially for entertaining. When the couple contacted Farmington architects Thomas Soyster and Thomas Taylor of Soyster Taylor Design, they merely wanted to expand their kitchen and add a formal dining room. But the proposed changes  had a domino effect, creating new expectations and possibilities that ultimately led to doubling the size of the house, which now looks like an exquisitely restored 1930s estate. “We did not want you to be able to tell what was old and what was new,” says Soyster, explaining how they searched for matching antique bricks for the facade, rebuilt the old chimneys to match the new ones, and topped the roof with tiles made of recycled tires that look like more-expensive, period slate.

Taking their cue from the existing Gothic motifs, the architects carefully embellished the existing structure, adding a Gothic hood over the front door and running dog scrollwork along the rooflines. They punched out a ceiling to create a double-height, partially wood-paneled foyer and handsome staircase enhanced by vintage-looking Arts and Crafts wallpaper that the homeowners chose. The architects designed a dramatic, octagonal dining room that functions as a “knuckle space” that pivots to the new kitchen and conservatory wing.

“The owners had some very specific requirements and they were very hands-on,” says Taylor. “They needed high ceilings to accommodate their collection of seven eighteenth-century grandfather clocks. They were willing to spend the extra money for custom windows and solid doors, and they went onto eBay themselves to find appropriate period doorknobs and escutcheons.”

The most important room was the kitchen. “When I get home after a day in the operating room, I unwind by cooking,” says the surgeon. The couple hired Nena Donovan Levine, a kitchen designer based in West Hartford, as a consultant to configure the new space to optimize the flow, storage,

The adjacent conservatory, which doubles as a mudroom entrance and breakfast room, has radiant-heat floors powered by a new geothermal system. (“It will pay for itself one day, but we will probably be long gone,” says the doctor, who notes how nice it is to walk shoeless on warm floors.) A Lutyens-style fireplace designed for indoor grilling holds two interior shelves for warming casseroles. With windows on three sides, the garden room is sunny all day long and offers a view of a small apple orchard, the distant hills, and the new dining room. “That you can enjoy the exterior from the interior is one of the unique aspects of this house,” says the surgeon.

The octagonal dining room was designed intentionally as a walk-through space from the living room to the kitchen and butler’s pantry (the old kitchen). “We didn’t want to have a room that we went into only on special occasions,” he says. The room has a fireplace and hand-stenciled walls, and the recessed lights embedded in the ceiling are masked by Gothic quatrefoils.

The Gothic theme is repeated in the formal living room and cozy library. The architects raised the ceiling in the living room to accommodate the clocks, and designed a new mantel with more quatrefoils carved into it, which is flanked by Gothic-spire-shaped bookshelves. The men chose the simple furnishings themselves, making the architecture and views on three sides the focus of the room.

While the living room is cool and serene, the library, with its vaulted ceiling, is cozy but airy. “We read the newspaper on Sunday morning in the living room, and we have cocktails in the evening in the library,” explains the drama teacher.

The new downstairs addition provided a good excuse to build a new master suite above it. “The clients already had Stickley-style furniture, which dictated American craftsman tiles around the fireplace,” says Taylor. The adjacent spa bathroom and walk-in closet are nearly as large as the bedroom. Inspired by the elegance of the baths at Old World London hotels like the Savoy, the architects designed a timeless bathroom with a freestanding soaking tub, a windowed toilet closet, and a windowed steam shower with heated seats and room for two.

The master bedroom leads to the teacher’s study, where he keeps his collection of vintage manual typewriters on the built-in bookcases. In the original plans, it was connected to the kitchen by a simple back staircase that morphed into a spectacular tower based on one the couple had seen in Scotland. Its windows allow the owners to gaze upon the front of the house as they go up and down the staircase.

Although the house has become grand, it remains unpretentious because all the rooms are perfectly proportioned and have a dedicated purpose. The integrity of the design belies, yet honors, the original cottage. “I didn’t want people to come over and say, ‘What a lovely addition,’” says the surgeon. “I wanted them to say, ‘What a lovely house.’”

Indeed, it was a successful operation. •

Architecture: Thomas Soyster and Thomas Taylor, Soyster Taylor Design
Builder: United Construction

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