A Rural Retreat in Litchfield County
October 25, 2016
A contemporary farmhouse evokes country living without the clichés.
Text by Debra Judge Silber Photography by John Gould Bressler Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent
Around architect Paul Harris’s office, the house in Washington soon became known as “the three sisters,” a reference to the three simple gabled structures whose relationship would give the contemporary farmhouse its shape.
The Westport-based architect hadn’t necessarily intended to create a home out of separate parts, nor had his New York City–based client pushed him in that direction. But the building site, planted at the intersection of three sweeping meadows, dictated otherwise. “The more we began to design it, the more the building became three buildings,” Harris recalls. “We named it The Three Sisters, recognizing that they stand out from each other, each one oriented slightly differently to address each of the three meadows around them.”
The larger siblings, both white clapboard rectangles capped with cedar shingles, are attached at the hip by a single-story wing with an angled roof to form the house itself. The smallest, a detached garage, sits across a courtyard from the larger structure to form a close-knit family group. Firmly planted on fourteen acres of farmland, the related structures might appear, at a glance, as an old rural farmhouse and its outbuildings. Except, that is, for the oversized windows and the angular metal roof that link the two traditional structures.
“This part of Washington is quintessential old rural Connecticut. Even though it’s become popular, it still looks the way it has for many, many years,” says Harris. “I tried to find a regional, recognizable vernacular for that area, and then push the envelope to make it more progressive.”
Harris’s farmhouse expands on tradition, offering a spacious, light-filled interior that reflects the transformation of a country life from one involving dawn-to-dusk labor to one promising a respite and renewal from the owner’s high-pressure, urban existence. The master suite and guest bedrooms are located in different sections on the second floor, allowing privacy for both parties. The lower floor, by contrast, is an open plan, with gathering spaces—the kitchen and a living area dominated by a massive stone fireplace—side-by-side in the connecting wing. Tucked under a deep overhang on the house’s southwest face, a long, low deck contemplates a neighbor’s barn—an authentic marker of an agricultural life—on the other side of the meadow.
The barn was a focal point for Harris and for his client. “All of the primary rooms have an opportunity at one place or another to have a view of that barn,” the architect says, rattling off details of the view from each room in the house, including the window in the library, which was positioned to frame the barn as if it were a painting. “We tried to create some very deliberately, and some we just got lucky with.”
Ask his client, though, and you’ll hear that the luck really lay in having a thoughtful architect. “He had a fantastic vision for this house,” she says of Harris, whom she met through a college friend. “We started talking, and he just started sketching it out. I probably interfered a couple of times, but I didn’t interfere very much. And I am so pleased with the result.”
Using scale and modern materials, Harris, who worked with Danbury-based builder Jim Blansfield, married traditional farmhouse details with the home’s contemporary vibe. “It was important to understand the traditions, but we wanted to articulate them in a more up-to-date way,” Harris explains. Case in point: the six four-pane windows, all seven feet tall, whose grouping makes one corner of the sitting room disappear. “These emulate a mid-nineteenth-century window, except they’re so blown out of proportion,” Harris says. “We’re pulling in on a regional, recognizable window, but making it large enough that it becomes a picture window. By ganging them together, it becomes more about the view than the actual window.”
Another vestige of tradition is found upstairs, where the thirteen-foot ceiling in the master bedroom angles down to meet the wall, suggesting a room tucked under the eaves. “It recreates that feeling in an old house where the roofline is visible, like you would find in an older saltbox or colonial,” Harris explains.
Downstairs, the library closes off from the main room with two barn-style doors. Other than their operation, there’s nothing about the doors that suggests a farming connection. “We didn’t go out and search for artifacts or antique pieces from other buildings,” Harris explains. “We tried to let the finishes be a little more up-to-date, and let the furnishings take care of the rest.”
Those furnishings, selected by New Preston interior designer Joanna Seitz, communicate country without the clichés. Seitz, whose J. Seitz & Co. has been a local design resource for thirty-two years, specializes in one-of-a-kind pieces that add personality to classic interiors.
“The client was looking for a modern country look,” Seitz says, “something simple and somewhat minimalist, but comfortable and livable.” The designer translated that vision into seating upholstered in Belgian linen, unfussy tables, and oversized but understated vintage industrial lighting from her store’s collection. Among her favorite pieces is a small stool with curled legs that replicate antelope horns—one of several examples of the subtle animal references scattered throughout the house. More prominent examples are the large paintings of rural creatures. Two of these, a hen hanging in the kitchen and a rabbit mounted in the sitting area, were created by the client’s good friend, the artist Patrice Lombardi. A third, in which a steer faces off its observers from over the fireplace, came from Seitz’s shop.
Barnyard personalities may be confined to oil-on-canvas, but outside, deer and wild turkey wander by, framed in the windows. So, too, is the daily drama of daylight playing out across the fields, visible from every room of the house. “As the sun passes, the meadows are lit like a stage throughout the day, as if someone were turning the lights on and off. It happens every day, and it evolves with the seasons,” Harris says.
At the end of the day, the most important relationship the “sisters” have, he notes, is with the world around them. “The most successful thing about this house is the way you experience that land, those views, and that barn, which always brings you back and anchors you where you are.” •