Just for Fun
A Darien couple plunges into summer with a backyard paradise
photographs by stacy bass
“We were about two steps inside the door, looked at each other, and said, ‘Done!’” recalls Liz Ann Meier of the moment, a dozen years ago, when she and her husband, Bob, recognized the 1850 Darien hunting lodge for what it was: the dream house they had long been seeking. “We fell madly in love with the place,” she says. Remodeled as a private residence in 1908, their new home had the beautiful proportions and details of its architectural era. The couple and their young children moved in right away and proceeded to spend two years with the house as they found it, getting to know its secrets and its quirks, and planning an interior reconstruction and sympathetic addition.
Once they had a sense of direction about the changes that were needed, they moved out, and project manager Maryann Jones and her construction crew arrived. The program included bringing outdated systems up to date and reconfiguring the existing rooms for optimum flow and light. Returning to their freshly polished and expanded house in 2001, it was time to move outside and tame the woodland landscape.
A mass of evergreens conceals a surprise element: a curving waterslide (see a bit on the opening spread). Resilient landscaping, an expansive deck and generous seating are required to accommodate the family’s round-the-clock summer entertaining schedule.
They had charged architect Robert Cardello with creating a pool house that would fit “like a sibling” with the main house, and hired contractor Larry Socci to replace their old pool and its outdated works with a new, state-of-the-art model. To integrate the home, the pool and the pavilion with their extensive landscape, the couple enlisted designer Carol Guthrie to redirect the driveway, install walkways and stonework, and dress the grounds with plants and shrubs that would add beauty without overly intensive maintenance. The clients, who love entertaining outdoors for three of the four New England seasons, wanted property they could use fully.
“It was a multiyear project,” recalls Guthrie, “and adding to the house set off the first wave.”
“The Meiers had many beautiful trees that we were able to move around to aesthetic advantage,” says the designer, “but that ‘moving around’ was a great deal more involved than it sounds.”
One mature weeping Japanese maple, a specimen that ignites with spectacular fall color, got little notice in its former spot in front of the house. Using extreme care and massive equipment, Carol brought it around to the back, where the Meiers can enjoy its beauty from their breakfast room.
“Bob and Liz Ann knew they were taking a chance—there are no guarantees with mature transplants,” acknowledges Guthrie. “But most of the moves were successful, and they saved some of the property’s best assets.”
Architect Robert Cardello calls the grand pool house the “mini-house.”
The designer also worked hard on the approach to the house and grounds, which sit atop the second-highest point in Darien. Instead of a straight-line incline to the front of the home, she gave the driveway a sinuous path, so that arrival provides a dramatic perspective.
Some parts of the property’s steep slopes required significant earth-moving and contouring. The architect’s design for the pool house—a structure that makes many overt references to the fieldstone-clad main house—sited it by necessity below the house and visible from the front approach. So Guthrie’s topographical changes included a new and richly designed connection between home and what Cardello calls the “mini-house.”
“Because the drop was so large, we had opportunities to do things that look very natural in this woodland setting,” Guthrie recalls. She shaped three levels from the backyard to the pool, including a spa surrounded by rock ledge, and a waterfall leading down to the level of the pool house.
“I went to a stone farm to select some huge boulders to hold up the hill,” says Guthrie. “People are always surprised to find that only a third of these enormous stones shows above ground; we bury the rest.” She notes the importance of hardscape elements when planning a garden. “Landscape design is very much about utilizing and creating space, probably more than it is about plants.”
On the Meier property, the extensive use of stone creates a bone structure for the palette of plants and shrubs that Liz Ann and Guthrie selected for the softscape. The designer utilized various types of evergreens, from full and round to low, horizontal creepers. For flowering perennials she selected the varieties that would offer the best qualities of each genus, from hydrangeas to shasta daisies. Guthrie points out that the arrangement of walls, ledges, paths and deck allows the plants to spill around the rock. “It’s not unlike the way the water spills down around the ledges and the spa.”
Immense boulders form a framework for lush plantings and a waterfall on the sloping site.
Woven within this grand scheme of water, rock and plant life, however, are the elements of the landscape that fulfill one additional Meier family requirement for their property: fun.
“Everyone was amazed that we wanted such an extensive deck around the pool,” recalls Liz Ann. “But when the warm weather arrives, we are there, all the time, from morning to night. We love to give parties, have our friends and our children’s friends over, and just enjoy living outdoors.”
Though a pool is often de rigueur in a landscape oriented toward entertaining, one element of the Meiers’ poolside scheme is much more of a rarity for a single-family property: the couple’s double-S-curved, fifty-two-foot waterslide—a quick way to negotiate the slope from home to pool.
On the day that her pool company installed it, Liz Ann recalls the jaw-dropping effect of the slide on her landscape. “It looked huge, and kind of overwhelmed things.” She quickly got on the phone with Carol Guthrie, who mobilized her nurserymen to overplant the structure with massive quantities of shrubs and other greenery.
“I told Carol to do whatever she needed to do to camouflage it,” says Liz Ann. While some parts of the garden filled in more gradually, this installation obscured the slide overnight.
Despite the intense labor the cover-up required, the family has never regretted their unique pool accoutrement. It offers an element of surprise that sets their outdoor space apart from other backyard pleasure pavilions.
“It was more than worth the effort,” declares Liz Ann. She and her husband delight in everyone’s enjoyment of this exuberant addition to their artfully composed landscape.
The combination of enjoyable amenities, set against a beautiful backdrop, has become the centerpiece for a backyard social scene that they happily share with a wide circle of friends and family.
Says Carol Guthrie of her clients, “These people have more fun than anyone else I know.”