Weekends in the Country
July 26, 2016
A designer’s own Litchfield County getaway pays homage to its roots with a modern interpretation of the old farmhouse that once stood there.
Text by Dan Shaw Photography by Laura Moss Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent
It’s only an hour’s drive from Marisa Bistany Perkins’s house in lower Fairfield County to her weekend home in a rural town in Litchfield County, but every Friday night when she and her family arrive it feels like they’re on vacation. Located on twenty acres that once held a dairy and horse farm, the side-hall Greek Revival is a reinterpretation of the original nineteenth-century homestead that was dilapidated beyond repair when Perkins and her husband first saw it six years ago.
“It was severely neglected,” she recalls. “We actually let the fire department burn it down for practice.”
The house they built doesn’t look new at all. “The front is a replica of the original,” she says, explaining that they modified it by adding on a barn room on one end and a mudroom, porch, and garage on the other. “Everyone who sees it is sure it’s an old house.”
Perkins designed it as an antidote to frantic suburban life, not only for her husband and two children, seven-year-old Levi and eight-year-old Hannah, but also for their friends who visit for the weekend. “We wanted it to feel like an inn, so people would feel like they were really away,” she says. “Sometimes we have five families visit at once.”
Perkins, who runs M West Designs (without a website, she boasts, because she gets “all my clients by word of mouth”), did the floor plans and elevations for the five-bedroom house herself.
The heart of the house is a vast yet cozy great room that her husband was instrumental in fine-tuning. A financier who is press shy, he’s an outdoorsman with a rugged aesthetic and an obsessive streak. He oversaw the installation of the antique barn-board ceilings from Canada, telling the contractor which side of the planks to face down, and he micromanaged the laying of the stone for the fireplace.
Perkins’s own attention to detail is evident in the open kitchen with a counter made of Pietra del Cardoso sandstone, a custom copper sink, and a range hood sheathed in rustic barn board. She inserted mirrors into the paneled blue-gray-painted cabinets to reflect the sunset views out the French doors across the sloping lawn to the gently rolling hills in the distance.
A corridor with large windows and skylights (what she describes as an enclosed breezeway) connects the great room to a large den that she calls the barn room. It can be closed off from the rest of the house by sliding barn doors with their original hardware that she bought for $100 at an antique store in Pound Ridge. The doors set the tone for the room, which is furnished in a hybrid Adirondack/Rocky Mountain style.
With a big stone fireplace that incorporates granite from the original house’s foundation, the barn room has a “rustic outdoorsy feeling,” she says. There are big leather sofas with orange fabric cushions and vintage armchairs upholstered in Pendleton fabric. Perkins turned a massive antique butcher’s chopping block into a coffee table by cutting down the legs. What gives the room its soul are the collections of Native American art and artifacts that belonged to her mother-in-law and that sit on Restoration Hardware wood-and-metal shelves that look custom made for the space.
The corridor connector holds two sumptuous leather chairs Perkins bought at Privet House, the superbly curated home store in nearby New Preston. This, she explains, is the quiet spot where she and her husband like to have morning coffee together.
Although the house is determinedly casual, with no formal living room, Perkins wanted a formal dining room by the front door. The room reflects her background in traditional decorating with a twist. “I worked at a large design firm in Greenwich for six years before going out on my own, and my mentor taught me about being eclectic and using pattern on pattern,” she explains. The well-bred room has a handsome table of tiger maple with turned legs made by her brother-in-law. She has surrounded it with wooden chairs with purple leather seats and end chairs upholstered in a scenic Cowtan & Tout fabric. The floor plan allows her to bring in a connecting second table for large groups at Thanksgiving and Christmas, transforming the foyer into an extension of the dining room.
By the staircase leading to the second and third floors, there’s a cabinet of curiosities set into a wall with doors made from old windows. It’s full of things found on her property: animal skulls, an old ax, springs, a honeycomb with a bee on it. “The kids love to explore and bring these things up,” she says.
When the children’s friends come for a sleepover, they stay on the third floor in a dormitory with six mismatched Early American mahogany beds dressed with Pendleton blankets and antique patchwork quilts. “We call it the bunk room—it sort of feels like camp,” Perkins says.
The architecture and interior design are only half the story. While Perkins is proud that they did not cut down any trees, because the property had already been cleared when it was a working farm, the landscape was tweaked by her brother-in-law, who is a golf-course designer. “We have trails so we can hike from our property to Mount Tom, and my husband, who is a big fly fisherman, has access to the Bantam River that runs through our property,” Perkins says.
As she guides a visitor across the lawn and down to the swimming pool, she notes that the steps are made from stones that were part of the original house’s foundation. The pool house, a custom barn from Connecticut Post & Beam, has a tin roof, fireplace, bathroom, and a kitchen separated from the seating area by a pass-through such as you’d find at a beach club snack bar. There is also an outdoor kitchen with a massive grill and a pizza oven.
Ultimately, the house is all about freedom to play and roam. “When my kids come here they literally don’t go inside,” Perkins says. “My husband is usually covered in dirt.”
That her vision for a family retreat was fully realized continually astonishes her. “I pinch myself that this is my house.” •
Architectural and interior design: Marisa Bistany Perkins, M West Designs
Builder: Dan Dumais, Custom Home Building