The Queen of Southport

A generously scaled 1882 Queen Ann-Style mansion sits in the heart of Southport’s historic district, just a block from the harbor. Eschewing the excesses and studied fussiness — doilies, ruffles, tassels, heavy drapes and ornate carving — of the late-nineteenth-century Victorian era, the motifs and elements that ornament this Southport home create an aura of restrained elegance. Time marched on, and the home found itself at the turn of another century in need of updating. This jewel of an estate became both a renovation project of considerable scope and a family home about a dozen years ago. The property’s restoration, with its seamless and artful concessions to modern living, sits proudly within a neighborhood of gracious homes.

The story begins when a Westchester couple with nearly grown children were looking for a place to live that would fit their household requirements. They explored Fairfield County’s coastal communities for a place nicely sized, close to the water, and well suited to their busy lives and artistic interests. On discovering this Victorian, the couple was immediately drawn to the home’s proportions, which are large for a residence of its vintage. Its style reminded the husband of his grandmother’s house, and he was intrigued with the prospect of restoring it.

Architect David Scott Parker, whose portfolio of projects contains everything from traditional Nantucket summer places to the U.S. Treasury building in Washington, recalls that the family was quickly engaged by the idea of retrieving the property’s elegant roots but were also aware of its need for modernization.

“Things started off rather simply,” he says. “Our first meeting at the house was on one of those extreme Connecticut summer days, where we were all on the porch, with everyone just dripping from the humidity. I remember asking them, ‘Have you ever considered air conditioning this house?’ ” Of course, this amenity immediately became part of the program. What evolved, though, was more than an update of systems.

HISTORIC ROOTS
Sited on what is now the largest single parcel of land in the village’s historic district, the house was built in 1882 for John Hoyt Perry, a local judge who was also the son of one of three sea captains belonging to a prominent family in Southport. Although the three captain-brothers had built a row of much admired mansions that still grace Southport Harbor, by the judge’s era the waterside lots — because of their proximity to commerce, with its noises, smells and traffic — had yet to ascend to its current status; yachts now gently bob in the once bustling harbor. Judge Perry’s elegant new place, one block away, was designed with expansive park-like grounds that make this home unique among its neighbors.

To enhance its comfort while restoring the house’s vintage grandeur, both the architect and the new owners involved themselves in extensive research, working from the outside in. Parker notes that a 1905 addition to the floor plan greatly expanded the home’s already generous proportions, giving it a beautiful scale, with large, high-ceilinged public rooms. Along with the house and grounds, companion structures — an original carriage house, an existing century-old greenhouse, and a pool — all needed updating. Parker’s firm worked on restoring and enhancing the exterior elements, and then proceeded with interior plans.

WELCOME IN
The wife’s love of cooking and the family’s frequent entertaining dictated that the kitchen would be the first room completed. Unlike the spare and merely functional service kitchens of the era when the house was built, or the somewhat incongruous design that previous owners had installed, the new kitchen is a well-organized and detailed space that honors the traditional lines and period color palette of the original house. At the same time, it is designed for a serious cook who truly enjoys preparing good food.

To take advantage of the kitchen’s large space, cabinets were installed floor-to-ceiling, creating storage for the owner’s extensive batterie de cuisine. To reach the upper cupboards, a rail for a library-style ladder, which folds neatly into its own built-in closet, spans the perimeter of the room. Such thoughtful features grace every corner of the renewed interior.

 

For its part, the house was also a good partner, yielding delightful surprises. One such discovery in the carriage house was a set of leaded glass doors, in two sizes, which had belonged to a butler’s panty. These were incorporated into the kitchen design as doors for glassware cabinets, and in the adjacent breakfast room, which features walls of built-in shelves that hold the owner’s enormous collection of cookbooks, as well as a set of Gourmet magazine, from premier edition to the current issue. The authentic details, found and restored, align the new kitchen with the home’s original style.

Once the kitchen and family dining area were complete, the restoration moved to the public spaces, followed by the family quarters on the upper floors. The architect notes that the interior work evolved in four phases, guided by the owners’ priorities. “As they became more intrigued with the house, one thing led to another, although the process really had some logic to it,” Parker says. “It was a wonderful experience to work with this family. While they are incredibly busy people, they are also extremely well-organized.” He adds that the thought and care with which the clients contributed to the design and detail of the restoration were essential.

Rooms re-emerged in the colors, motifs, furnishings and objects of the Aesthetic Movement, popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the exterior retains the Queen Anne appearance of the original structure, it is the stylistic sensibilities of 1905, when the home was enlarged, that inform the interior spaces. Intricate paneling, geometric carving, leaded-glass transoms and paint decoration that extends beyond walls and mantels to richly embellished ceilings and molding — all refer to the home’s heyday, when horse-drawn carriages and the occasional automobile deposited their occupants under a sheltering porte cochère that leads to the formal entry. “Much of the period detail was still there,” says Parker, “and we re-created good detail that was missing.”

Where original elements were lacking, the architect was guided by the work of leading designers of the period and was encouraged by his clients, who were willing to seek out appropriate finishes and embellishments. To replace a missing original mantel in the grandly scaled dining room, Parker designed a new wooden étagère mantel based upon period examples by Thomas Jeckyll, the original designer of the renowned “Peacock Room” of James McNeill Whistler fame. Decorated with gold, silver and copper leaf, the mantel design incorporates an antique iron fire grate by Jeckyll, fitting new to old.

Re-creating a gilded era while providing a home where its occupants could actually live in the twenty-first century required careful thinking, imagination and whimsy. In many instances, impressively decorated paneling and cabinetry cleverly disguise spaces that might seem jarring to an older aesthetic. This sleight of hand is displayed in the wife’s study and library, which were created by the transformation of a Queen Anne tower bedroom and the attic above it into a light-filled two-story space. Next to her desk, a paneled wall swings open to reveal a secret shallow closet that organizes her collection of DVDs and CDs. In the entry hall, the paneling under the sweeping staircase is a hidden door leading to a climate-controlled “condominium” for the family’s poodles. At the top of the stairs, a closet door, an antique find reclaimed from its original function as the beautifully embellished portal to a bar that once belonged to Judy Garland, now conceals shelves of books.

LIVING FOR TODAY
While the house is faithful to the period in all of its surface details, and the owners expanded their collection of furniture and objects of the era to complete the picture with exquisite precision, the house is decidedly a home, not an opulent museum piece. It is obvious that people live here, comfortably and well. “The owners are very real people,” says Parker, “and everything they did with this house complements its beauty and was a purposeful choice to enhance their own lives.” He uses the grand music room, with its dual fireplaces, exquisitely decorated ebonized paneling and luxurious appointments, as an example of the life well lived in this gracious home. “Three of the couple’s four children are musicians, and so they wanted a place where they could gather lots of friends for musicales. The family uses and enjoys this room, and every bit of this house,” Parker says.

Recalling the project in whole, he adds, “It was really a wonderful collaboration.” He elaborates further with an analogy of a tailor and the garment he creates for his customer. “Good tailoring means that a suit will be well cut and fit just right. Better work will take into account the drape of the fabric, and all the small details that refine the look. But the best tailoring means that the garment is all of the above, plus the fabric has been chosen — color, texture, everything — with the client in mind.”

A quote from Hints on Household Taste: The Classic Handbook of Victorian Interior Decorating, by Charles Eastlake (1868), incised on the original parlor mantel, defines the relationship between this glorious home and its owners: “East or West, Home’s Best.”

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