samples resume contact  

click image for larger view
Modern History
House & Garden, March 2005

Dignified on 40 resplendent acres, the old stone house bears witness to the measured passage of time. Two grand locust trees, believed to be among Connecticut’s largest and oldest, tower over the Federalist structure. The white picket fence announces that this is a world apart, a universe of family and friends, of lazy weekends.

A young couple fell in love with the place. The outbuildings and established gardens melting into New England woodland suggested a world they wanted for their two little girls, growing up in uncertain times. ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place for a wedding’” the wife recalls saying.

They called Jeffrey Bilhuber who had worked with them on their Manhattan apartment.
“When they said ‘We bought the perfect house,’ I was a little apprehensive,” Bilhuber recalled. Those fears immediately melted. “To turn the corner and see beauty incarnate - you had to catch your breath.”

As soon as he recovered his breath, he lost it again: the clients wanted to move in in five months. It helped that the couple knew exactly what they wanted. “ Lots of seating areas,” said the husband who also wanted state -of-the-art electronics in the family room.
She yearned for round dining room tables to encourage the free flow of conversation.

Because of the sensitive renovations undertaken by the two previous owners, Bilhuber’s team needed only “to exorcise the previous decorating” suitable for a retired couple with college-age children, says Jesse Carrier, the senior designer in Bilhuber’s firm who oversaw the project.

Only the dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms above them were part of the original 1820s structure. “ We didn’t want to turn our back on what is there, we wanted to glorify and enhance it, and improve our clients’ lives,” Bilhuber says. He began by researching Federal interiors, choosing color as the preferred mode of time travel. Dark colors, “were prevalent for trim or millwork because the houses were very smoky.” The notion of dark trim against brighter, lighter saturated wall colors seemed startling even if it was historically correct. That jolt, however, met Bilhuber’s goal of “reawakening the house,” making it modern. “That was the biggest decision we made, the rather daring use of this saturated color, even though it wasn’t daring at all for our forefathers. It was nervy to look backward to move forward.”

The impact of color starts in the entrance foyer with its graceful curved stair. Ebonized treads and rails punctuate light white woodwork and intensely taupe walls. The ebonized flooring peeking out from the edges of a course jute rug draws people into the surrounding public rooms. “It is a house filled with discretion and mystery,” Bilhuber says. “It slowly reveals itself to you, each movement through space adds another layer of pleasure.”

The pleasure is pronounced in the double height kitchen with two fireplaces. A place for congregating, it opens into a solarium that gets year round use as a play center.
Even in the kitchen, Bilhuber used colors, such as saffron and celadon, that draw the eye through the house, tones that reflected the warmth the clients wanted. “This is not a house that necessitated strong primary colors,” Bilhuber said. “It needed nuances that moved into gear, with the basalt color connecting all the dots.”

Both the living room and dining room echo the subtly sensual theme of dark illuminating light. The living room now embraces four seating areas including a bay window banquette and, in the center of the room, a large book table surrounded by a set of six early-nineteenth century Swedish chairs, ready for games or casual dining, occupied the room’s center. The Bilhuber team decided to stucco the walls, adding pigment to the plaster, which added depth and warmth to the creamy shade, a technique used throughout the house. The plaster craftspeople from the New York’s Aaron Barr Studio suggested sealing the walls with a water repellant top coat, a technique that sloughs off hand prints.

The result is a classic American room. A Caio Fonseca painting hangs on ornamental chains attached to a railing for display flexibility. A Gainsborough lolling chair demands a good book; the English walnut tea table cries out for toasted sandwiches. As Bilhuber notes, the room belongs in a house that says “if you don’t have mud on your boots, don’t come in.”

The dining room has a fireplace at each end, and a bull’s-eye mirror twinkles above each basalt-colored mantelpiece. With two Country Swedish tables and a mixed set of mid-century chairs upholstered in deep brown leather, the room’s intimacy is extraordinarily seductive. In candlelight and firelight, “ it is almost like being on a set with everything blacked out,” Carrier says. “The focus is on the faces and the food.”

A similar dark palette in the family room with its vaulted ceiling translates as cozy. Photographs signal that fun is at hand: what appear to be abstract images with modernist gravitas are shots of tractor seats. The lacquered craft paper on the walls and ceiling converted what had been a formal space into a welcoming one. Despite the sophisticated palette – Bilhuber used a blue-green silk moiré on the windows to counter the upholstery’s deep browns and greys – a sense of humor prevails. Drawn up to a low table with a slight lip to contain spills are two African perching stools, perfect for little girls.

Upstairs, Bilhuber flooded the private space with light, a decision that makes the bedrooms exquisitely inviting. The master suite, added in the 1920s, is composed of a bedroom and sitting room that beckons children and dogs for breakfast on trays.

Last summer, the family planted vegetables, making their first mark in the garden. This fall, they will host the wedding of some close friends. Life is being lived and the place is responding. “This house has a sense of history and a sense of continuity” Bilbuber says. “What is successful remains.”