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The Art of Living Well

Antiques and art dictate the design and construction of a stunning French country estate in Darien.

photographs by Hulya Kolabas

Some great houses need no introduction. They don’t have stone walls, wrought-iron gates with security codes and intercoms, or pillars topped with lions or eagles. They exist not for public approval—or envy and resentment—but for the private pleasure of living well in them. Homes of this kind can still be showcases for architecture and art, entertaining and family life—only without the fanfare. In one grand French country manor on the water in Darien, all of these things flow seamlessly, quietly and beautifully together.

There’s nothing remarkable about the turn into the home’s long driveway off Long Neck Point Road, save perhaps for the street. The point itself extends far enough into Long Island Sound for clear views of lower Manhattan, which apparently was reason enough for the wealthy to begin building homes on either side of the road in the mid-nineteenth century. “Long Neck Point is the best real estate in Darien,” says Janet Olmsted, a broker with Halstead Properties in town. “The peninsula is long and straight and open, with waterfront properties on either side and sweeping lawns that go down to the shore. Houses here are in demand.” In 2000, Olmsted found this 3.78-acre lot on Long Neck Point for a longtime Darien couple who wanted to be on the water. The property came with a grandfathered deep-water dock and a doddering, century-old English manor house, sized at about 10,000 square feet. Ivy vines did not quite conceal numerous tacked-on additions that had left the place looking like a quirky, patchwork hotel. As it turned out, the new owners—both of them Francophiles and collectors with a taste for modern sculpture and paintings—would spend much of the next decade turning the pile back into a home. Hobbs Inc., a New Canaan company that had worked on the couple’s previous Darien home, was hired for the renovation. Laurie Jones and James Margeotes from the Greenwich firm Jones Byrne Margeotes signed on as architects.

Artful Inspiration

It was clear from the start that art and antiques would largely dictate the design and construction of this house. “The motif was French country but we didn’t want to hit you over the head with it,” says Margeotes. “We didn’t want the architecture to overpower the furnishings.” The same sensibility was at work in the interior. “The style is traditional French, a mixture of Louis the Fifteenth and Louis the Sixteenth,” notes Susan Thorn, a decorator and longtime friend of the family. “It was very important that we make this house look French.” Thorn designed the interior with the couple’s daughter, Courtney Morey, who lives here with her child. The owners had collected French furniture over the years, from Provence as well as New Orleans, and to that collection Thorn and Morey added furnishings found at auction and in antique shops in France. Other pieces were custom-made in Paris. First, though, the old house had to be transformed from a dowdy English manor to a fresh and light-filled French country home. This process involved changing the roof pitch and lines and replacing the copper roof with thick slate. The original footprint was left—and with it the original walnut-paneled library—but not much else. And, as often happens, what began as a relatively modest renovation eventually doubled the size of the residence to some 20,000 square feet.

Sublime Symmetry

With an eye to privacy, the long driveway was designed to curve at first, thereby hiding the grand house from view. It then straightens before encircling a paved parking area in front. “The architectural details reveal themselves as you approach the entrance to the house,” says Margeotes. Also evident are symmetry and balance, which are beautifully realized here. The architects added a new entry gable between the two existing ones to create a formal, and very French, doorway. The cast-cement entablature has a soft look in contrast to the harder stone exterior. Inside, the soaring entry hall with skylights opens onto a marbled plaza and balcony with wrought-iron railings overlooking the living room. This central great room, in turn, looks out to gardens, a vanishing-edge pool, the back lawn and the dock, which extends far into the Sound.But the heart of this renovation is the central, two-story great room, which previously was broken up into smaller quarters. The Hobbs crew took the space down to the studs, then opened the 20-foot-high ceiling and installed steel beams to support not only the extensive span but also the new slate roof.  The room serves as a grand entrance and internal hub, off of which spin the other sections of the house. It’s also the main entertainment area and main gallery for the couple’s extensive art collection. Art is everywhere in the house but it’s most conspicuously on display in the living room.

One reason is scale: The huge room might be encountered in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in Manhattan or the Gardner in Boston. Another reason is the wall space; in this room, it’s reinforced to carry the weight that modern art frequently imposes. High on one living room wall, for instance, is a huge hunk of welded and painted steel by the late contemporary artist John Chamberlain. At the far end of the room, mounted in a vertical column above the windows, are three bas-relief masks made of resin by the sculptor Jim Mathison. While it’s surprising how well this and the adjacent rooms highlight the modern art, less surprising is the level of craftsmanship and the attention to detail. The applied Venetian plaster walls by Art Scene Design in Monroe, Connecticut, are imbued with a creamy pale beige color. While at the service of the collection, they are works of art themselves. So is the ornately decorated ceiling, which was hand-plastered by Balco Construction of New York. The double-elliptical staircases descending from either side of the entrance plaza started as wood templates that were sent to Vermont, cut from limestone blocks and shipped back to Darien for assembly. The wrought-iron railings and intricate grillwork are by Elvelyn Metalworks.

Beautiful Balance

The owners’ penchant for symmetry also is seen in the exterior of this estate, where there’s balance and order. The center of the living room lines up with the center of the pool. At the back of the house, matching boxwood gardens frame a checkerboard patio of Indiana limestone and absolute black granite. (The landscape was designed by Wilber & King Landscape Designers and is maintained by Wildflower Grounds Management in Stamford). To either side of the pool, Beaux Arts steps, which would probably look out of place anywhere else in Connecticut, lead to the water’s edge and clear views of the Manhattan skyline. Two major additions, which project from opposite ends of the rear façade, anchor and balance the place. On one side is an indoor pool and spa wing that feels more French Riviera than French countryside as it is sleek and luxurious—under a broad skylight, the room shimmers by day and glows by night. Overhead is a second-story terrace off the bedroom. Across the checkerboard patio is the second wing—a 50-foot-by-25-foot eat-in kitchen that’s dominated by an enormous marble island from La Pietra in Darien. There are salvaged hand-hewn beams, an antique chestnut floor and views of the lawn and Sound through a broad, curving window.

Elegant Comfort

This is a big house with eight bedrooms, an indoor pool and spa, a kitchen the size of a small restaurant, and a living room that could well serve as a wing of a museum. Yet for the scale, the art and all the imported furnishings, it is still a home. The middle of the couple’s three daughters, Courtney Morey, lives in the house with her young son. One could be forgiven for thinking this is no place for childish things, but there they are—a bright blue and red trampoline and toys in the middle of the kitchen, as vibrant as a contemporary installation at MOMA. The dining room is purposely small for dinner parties with family and friends. Intimate seating and reading areas—with furnishings upholstered in rich, warm fabrics—are within reach of fireplaces and views of the Sound.“I hope we haven’t decorated it ostentatiously,” the owner says, almost apologetically, at the end of a long and gracious tour of the house. “We want our guests to be comfortable.” It would be impossible not to be at ease, as well as charmed and dazzled, in this French country manor on the water.