Southport Harbor: antique wooden sailboats, curving inlets, grand mansions. Now imagine seeing it all from your backyard. That’s right: Sunrise, with the birds singing; sunset, on a perfect spring evening, a glass of wine in your hand, your stylish, witty spouse at your side. It’s enough to make the rest of us fall to our knees and beg the heavens: Why not me?
Then again, it has to be someone. If popularity determined property ownership, for some reason, it would be difficult to find a couple more appropriate for this Sasco Hill manor than Dwight and Martha Gesswein — he, the president of a jewelry tool distribution company; she, a lifetime trustee of the Discovery Museum and the founder of its annual spring garden tour. With his internationally handsome good looks and her charming demeanor (she even braves comparisons with the other garden maven Martha) and her fabulous hair, you have to roll your eyes, deflate your posturing and admit the inevitable — yes, the Gessweins do look perfect here.
Fayreways — an English manor house and gardens — was built with luxury in mind. It began in 1927 when architect John Hamilton, a professed Anglophile, designed his whitewashed brick beauty — gabled roof with Palladian dormers, lush Boston ivy and all. Straight out of the old estates of Herefordshire and the like, the Gesswein home is a study in classic architecture, from its alcove entrance to the handcarved ornamental moldings around the doorways and fireplaces — all perfectly in keeping with the vaulted ceilings. The steel casement windows conjure images of a small summer gathering, Noel Coward at the piano, darlings dressed in the latest Parisian fashions, flowers overflowing their vessels … bliss. Funny about the Noel Coward reference: He did actually live there, as a summering spot. Legend has it that he invited many celebrities to visit. He was the one to buy the adjoining property to build a pool. Damn the dimensions of the grounds’ classical English symmetry and balance! Have you seen the pool house? Now that it’s in place and tempered by a “shepherding” pasture, you cheer for the reckless rebellion that resulted in such a handsome contribution.
But, let’s not forget the original design. From the back terrace, one’s eyes trace down a perfectly symmetrical path of stone steps lined with rounded ilex bushes to a reflecting pool to a garden — and, oh, yes, to the cascading hillside that descends to the picturesque harbor. It would all be a bit much if it weren’t actually glorious. Throughout, one takes in a complex mixture of shapes and textures that are almost mathematical yet quickly yield to wild plumes of cluster roses.
Being large and English, the gardens are arranged in rooms and perfect for strolling. While these days coy young women are less likely to wander arm in arm to discuss eligible men, we all enjoy privacy for reading, lawn for throwing a ball to the dogs, and rolling hills and apple trees for inspiring romantic thoughts.
The tour should begin in the “statue room.” What other name could be more appropriate? Here stands an antique cast-iron fountain and a statute of a Greek goddess. Encircled by hosta and begonia, the goddess oversees the most private of the gardens, a perfect spot to gather one’s thoughts or share a conversation.
Adjoining this room is the pool house and pool, with its happy cherub statue holding his urn filled with annuals. Many stone container gardens are displayed on the property, all to enhance the original design and showcase new plantings. The Gessweins’ pool is not the largest in Fairfield County. But who cares? It oversees the expanse of Long Island Sound, a golf course and many properties of Sasco Hill. What else needs to be said? Perhaps one interesting bit of trivia worth sharing is that it appeared in the 1968 film The Swimmer, in which Burt Lancaster swims its length. (Anyone for Johnny Depp in that role?)
Steps from the pool is the “pasture” mentioned earlier. Without separating this field, the area may have been simply enveloped into the sweeping scene, but the fence stops the eye pleasurably.
The walkway down to the reflecting pond is what Martha and Dwight call the “Bridal Walk.” Martha explains: “We had a lovely wedding here, where the bride, our niece Sibylle Gesswein, came down the steps, around the pond and across the lawn. Later we went to a large tent where we had dinner and dancing.”
Around the pond, one finds lily pads which have adopted this place, requiring careful pruning. The Gessweins stocked the pond for a 2004 garden tour with a variety of koi. “Once they’re there, they just propagate,” says Martha with a laugh. “They just keep coming back. Now we’re trying to ‘discourage’ them.”
From here the path opens to a large bridalwreath spirea (Spirea prunifolia), encircled with gaura and salvia. It waits at the entry to a rose-covered pergola and Lutyens bench, which is surrounded by colorful astilbe. Beyond, one finds roses, lamb’s ears and old cryptomeria trees.
Off to the right stand apple trees. “The apple orchard is a traditional planting for the period estate,” says Martha, looking at the few remaining trees. “This little tree is on its last legs, but it has taken on a sweet shape,” she concludes in a soft, motherly voice. Perched above is a grounds shed. Quaint, rustic and utilitarian, it houses an antique tractor and antique tools. “They’re not used anymore,” says Martha, “but they tell the stories of years of happy planting.” Modern equipment cohabits in the shed and does the constant work of manicuring the property. Although her sitting room has an antique marble hearth and her French doors are draped in silk, Martha says she simply loves the look of the shed and wouldn’t dream of removing it. (See what I mean about the popularity election?)
If you should tire of perfect scenery, don’t bother with the entrance to the estate. The courtyard is decorated with a healthy weeping cherry tree, ornamental false cypress, Japanese andromeda, cherry laurel, Japanese holly, rhododendron and juniper framed with a low taxus border. And every pebble crackling under your Land Rover’s tires almost certainly pops dutifully right back into place. You’ll find no respite from comfort, elegance and refinement on the grounds or inside the doors of Fayreways — the whole is proper English hospitality in New England.