Ray Minella’s expansive English Manor lacked one thing: Landscaping. That’s where Mark Hicks of Elise Nursery came in
Ray Minella was visiting friends in Lake Placid four years ago when the conversation turned to houses. “I know the best real estate bargain I’ve ever seen,” said one longtime friend who lives in Pound Ridge, New York, close to the New Canaan line. “It’s a mile from my house.”
A former Wall Street investment banker and divorced father of four, Minella was attracted both to the description of the place and to a potential deal. What’s more, over lunch the next day in Manhattan, where he was living at the time, his son Matthew told him, “You know, Dad, you’d feel better if you had a place to put your stuff,” meaning the books, art and cars his father collects. Two days later, he took his son’s advice and drove up to New Canaan.
The 15,400-square-foot English manor was custom built in 2002 by an American Anglophile who had gotten rich selling tax shelters in the U.K. The design for the house was inspired by Fonthill Abbey, a famed Gothic revival country house in England that’s documented in Bill Bryson’s best-selling book At Home. Despite spending millions of his own on the house, the original owner took out a construction loan from a Connecticut bank. When the IRS shut his business down five years later, the bank took possession of the four-acre property. By 2010, it was the largest non-performing loan on the bank’s books. Hoping to unload it, the institution invested another $1 million to $2 million in tying up loose ends and finishing up construction. The day before Minella arrived in New Canaan, the bank had the stone and timber mansion staged for viewing. Minella bought it a week later. Where the grand manor was deficient, however, was in the landscaping. There wasn’t any. “The house looked like an aircraft carrier that had been dropped from a helicopter,” Minella recalls. “It didn’t look like it fit the property.” What’s more, where the front of the house was barren, the rear was filled with construction debris, and beyond the mounds of earth and boulders and scraps of lumber, deep woods shadowed the house.
Minella turned to Mark Hicks, president of Elise Landscapes & Nursery in New Canaan, to take what was essentially a blank canvas and create a landscape that would put the property in scale with the grand manor.
Start From Scratch
Hicks is OK with blank canvases. “That there was no landscaping was obviously a challenge but also a real opportunity,” he says. “A house this size needs a landscape that balances it in order for it to be proportionately comfortable. The property was large enough and had the potential to do that.”
Despite the acreage, the imposing stone mansion is set fairly close to the road. Once Hicks located the upstate New York quarry that produced the Crown Point granite used on the house, he designed an entry courtyard of paving stone from the quarry, then formalized it with a central rose garden and marble fountain inside a classic quatrefoil knot garden of low boxwoods.
In Minella’s view, the courtyard “sets the table visually for the house.” The handsome paving stones appear to swirl around the fountain before flowing to the left and down an extended driveway to the garages and side entrance. The stream-like lay of the stones echoes the water in the fountain and, oddly, softens the impact of all that vertical stone on the facade.
Given the scale of the mansion, it might seem fitting to pack the grounds with a ton of mature shrubs and flowers, but Hicks went the other way with the design. In fact, what’s impressive about the landscaping is how low-key and spare the plantings look. In an airy woodland garden to the right of the courtyard entrance, laurel and rose dance around outcrops of lichen-covered rock. Close to the house, foundation plantings—Boston ivy, weeping hemlock, hydrangea, viburnum—compose an understory that plays against the massive double front door.
Some grand courtyards stop at this point, but here a wide path of Norwegian Buff limestone wanders off to the right, extending the flow. “The trick, and the goal, for us was to have one space blend into the next as you go around the house,” says Hicks. Most interesting, the meandering path leads to private garden spaces that are extensions of the interior rooms where, when home, Minella spends much of his time.
Sources of Inspiration
Whatever the original owner’s shortcomings, he was adventurous in expressing his vision of what the house was about. Spread across the front exterior, four niches display modern ironworks of art that depict activities associated with rooms on the other side of the walls. Outside the dining room, for example, a cornucopia is adorned with fruit, vegetables and kitchen implements. Outside the game and entertainment room, another niche contains bas relief sculptures of a chessboard, a rack of billiard balls and figures of a court jester and cartoon characters.
But this is also a serious house in which serious books are read and serious business is conducted. Exterior niches and sculptures indicate these activities, too. In a similar but more functional way, the shade gardens directly outside the office and library extend these rooms. It isn’t as if Minella needs more physical space now: His children visit intermittently and he lives the better part of the week during the school year in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches law at Cornell University. It’s that the office and library gardens provide both a lovely respite from work and a source of deep relaxation and inspiration.
“For a man with a lot on his mind and in his life, we wanted to create a contemplative, meditative garden to enjoy after doing business,” says Hicks of the first shade garden off the path. “You walk out of the office onto wide Goshen stones and into a very quiet space with boulders, a bench and a perennial, three-season woodland garden.”
The limestone path continues around the western edge of the property, but not before passing through a slate-roofed gateway of granite and mahogany. Hicks designed the structure, in part for drama. “To be interesting,” he says, “there has to be a sense of separation, a threshold you have to cross over and a portal you have to go through.” His larger purpose, however, was scale. “We were again trying to find a sympathetic balance between the indoor and outdoor spaces. The house becomes less imposing because the outdoor spaces have been identified unto themselves, rather than having a big lawn wrapping around the huge edifice.”
What’s more, in replicating the style of the manor, the formal gateway knocks down the mass of the big house a few notches and ties both structures to the land. The gateway leads to a private courtyard garden for the two-story library that’s accessed through sets of double French doors. Like the office garden, it is meditative, private—a granite wall wraps around the back of the space—yet vibrant. There are two benches for company, a fireplace and a second fountain for visual and aural effect. “Without water,” says Hicks, “the property would seem more static.” Off this courtyard is a classic parterre garden that’s defined by boxwood quatrefoils enclosing David Austin roses with a central bronze armillary.
Room by room, these exterior spaces set the table, in turn, for the great expanse of back patio and lawn that lie just around the rear corner of the house.
Hit the Links
Property lines are tight in front and on the sides on the house, yet Hicks and his team also had to contend with a long, relatively narrow backyard hemmed in by woods. For another client, a landscape designer might have suggested a pool and tennis courts. But Minella gets his exercise on the links. So Hicks’ crew removed dozens of trees and graded the land so that it rolls flat for 200 yards before gradually rising another 200 yards to an upper wall of mature trees. In essence, they built a 400-yard fairway, along with an elevated putting green topped with artificial turf off to the right. The stone patio that runs the length of the back of the house serves as a tee.
Still, the property needed something on the far left to balance the stone manor and its five Tudor brick chimneys. At the end of the patio, Hicks designed an outdoor kitchen with raised vegetable garden. Then, down the long left side of the fairway, he put an oblong reflecting pool. At its foot is a slate-roofed gazebo with fireplace in the style of the house and garden gateway. An English border garden between the pool lane and the lawn is separated by a low stone wall. Standing sentry here are a pair of Liquidambar styraciflua—23-foot-high American sweetgums. They play off the chimneys, help pull the eye to the pool and gazebo, and bring the whole back of the property into balance with the manor.
In the end, scale matters as much as size here. “I just wanted the landscape to be in architectural proportion with the size of the house,” says Minella. Now, a year after landscaping has been completed and the plantings have settled in, it does.