Photographs by Amy Vischio
As a boy, Kevin Sullivan helped his Irish grandmother grow vegetables on a plot of earth behind the extended family’s two-family house in the Bronx. He had a green thumb for annuals, but the main purpose of the yard was to produce food for the table and mint for his grandmother’s tea.
Today, Sullivan, an investment banker on Wall Street, and his wife, Maureen, can plant anything, and anywhere, they want: They own houses on Montauk and on an island off the Florida coast, plus a co-op in Manhattan. Home and home garden, however, are high on Fairfield’s Greenfield Hill.
The Sullivan property evolved over the years. It is park-like in places—a cascade of smartly set stone terraces and militarily pruned topiary—yet is also casual and very lush, even tropical in summer, with a stunning mix of unusual specimen plantings and an ever-changing palette of annuals. This is a garden worth working hard for all of one’s life.
A Bare Canvas
During their thirty-three-year marriage, Kevin and Maureen bought and renovated a number of houses—he worked construction during summers off from college; she is a painter and decorator—before settling here. Ten years ago, when a modest ranch on three acres became available, Kevin bought the property and began building a 10,000-square-foot, stone-faced Colonial. Since the former owner had kept horses, the gently sloping back lot was mostly bare-dirt corrals and open fields dotted with a small, red barn. By the time Oliver Nurseries in Fairfield was called in, the house’s massive stone foundation rose from the front yard like some ancient Celtic monolith. The builder, Hemingway Construction of Greenwich, also installed a handsome back patio and lower pool and patio.
The original horse barn was converted to a well-appointed garage.
Landscaping-wise, the site was a blank canvas. Scott Jamison, who owns Oliver Nurseries, recalls, “It was a very big house and a very big challenge. Fortunately, Kevin had come to us early on and allowed me to get a sense of the property before we did any implementation. That was incredibly helpful.”
Rather than clear-cut the lot, the landscaper brought in practically all of the big trees and major plantings: purple beech, English oak, weeping katsura, giant dogwoods, Japanese maples. To pair the scale of the house with the property, three forty-foot pin oaks were brought in by tractor trailers and spaced out across the front lawn. But those impressive trees had a dual purpose: “We started with big trees so that the property looked like the house had some maturity and everything wasn’t new and stuck in front,” Jamison explains.
Where the flat front lawn sets up a tableau of the grand façade and spare landscaping, the land that falls gradually away behind the house serves as a natural framework for three tiered patios that are distinctly beautiful outdoor living and recreation areas.
Garden spaces as “exterior rooms” has become something of a cliché, but on this property, it’s fresh. The upper patio, adjacent to the back of the house, spans nearly the width of the structure. The expanse of bluestone is softened by flowerbeds and by a center island containing a paper-bark maple and an assortment of shrub roses, conifers and dwarf specimen plantings. Boxwood and geometric topiary neatly frame the patio corners. This is the spring patio, and the first to be used. When the warmer weather arrives, it’s down a path through hedges and an old stone wall to the lower patio and swimming pool, more gardens, and a fully-equipped pool house.
While many striking pools dot Fairfield County, none this exotic comes to mind. Large-potted palm and banana trees help sustain the tropical illusion. What’s more unusual, yet equally welcome, are the hedges that screen the area from the rest of the property.
Looking back through the hornbeam hedge and well-groomed boxwood, a poolhouse with changing rooms, showers and fully equipped kitchen bookends the lower patio
A row of standard Palbin lilacs runs the length of the pool. Normally, these grow as bushes but here have been grafted onto stems to resemble miniature trees. Juxtaposing them at the far end of the pool is a dome-topped line of hornbeam trees, a deciduous European species commonly used for hedges in England. A neatly sculpted arch in its center lines up for a clear view of the Greenfield Hill Congregational Church steeple a few hundred yards away.
In full leaf and bloom, the hedges look crisp and formal, yet underneath them and all around the pool is a riot of colorful annuals. The Sullivans change the annuals from year to year. Maureen, whose decorating firm is MCS Design, selects the colors; she also cuts flowers for vases that brighten almost every room in the house.
At the far edge of the pool house, another path and set of steps pass through weeping katsuras to the third patio and tennis court. The Sullivans built the court for their son, Kevin Jr., who plays Division-I tennis at Fordham University, his father’s alma mater. From these social areas, another stone path leads guests through the arch in the horn-beam hedge to two barns—one original, the other new—with their own small patios and intriguing gardens.
A Green Commitment
How do gardens grow? The best of them mature over time, with patience, attention to detail and a sincere appreciation of nature and beauty. “The biggest reason for the success of the property is Kevin’s commitment to it,” says Scott Jamison. “A lot of people want a beautiful yard and garden, but not a lot of people are willing to spend what it takes to continue with the maintenance over time.”
For the Sullivans, all of this seems perfectly sensible. “Most people might look at this and ask, ‘Doesn’t all this drive you crazy?’ But to me, it’s the opposite,” says Kevin, who spends Saturdays in the summer swimming, reading, gardening and walking the property. “Growing up, there was a great respect for the house and the backyard. Here, you can walk from garden to garden. To me, that’s very peaceful.”