Tom and Nancy Grant like antiques. so when they went hunting for a new house in the 1960s, they picked the oldest one they could find: an 1809 farmhouse on Redding Road, in the Greenfield Hill section of Fairfield, which had been in the Wakeman family for five generations.
Additions from each generation, however, had turned the simple Georgian into a hodgepodge — and a kind of museum of early electrical wiring. And so in the winter of 1969, the Grants began renovating. But in February of 1972, just as the exterior was being finished, live wires in the old walls probably started the fire that brought the house down.
At this point another couple might have walked away from the past, but Tom and Nancy walked further back into it. With friend Lowell Hess, who owned the historic 1675 John Osborne House in Southport, they designed a reproduction 1724 southern Connecticut center-chimney Georgian Colonial on the expanded Wakeman foundation. The style is familiar to generations of Banks (Tom is a Banks on his mother’s side). It’s the kind of classic house that British troops torched when they rode through Fairfield during the Revolutionary War.
“We thought about doing a more modern house, but early Georgian was just such a lovely period in America,” says Tom, a banker and part-time historian. Besides, he adds, “We thought it would be neat to have a museum-quality house that would tie in with the past.”
Early-Georgian houses on the Old King’s Highway and Old Post Road favored English elements: pediments, columns, Palladian windows, and leaded glass. But the Grant house hews to more primitive examples found in the country. “It reflects that period when Fairfielders were coming out of the seventeenth century,” says Tom. “They were early Puritans, they didn’t entertain a lot, they worked seven days a week. This house would have been the house of a lawyer or doctor or merchant, but he also would have been a farmer.”
To represent the style accurately, Tom and Nancy did some digging of their own. From an eighteenth-century house in Southbury that was scheduled to be dismantled, Tom bought more than 800 panes of window glass, some etched with names and dates. In a barn in Roxbury, he found the main doorway of an antique house from Stratford that had been taken down to make way for I-95. The handsome doorway, which was expanded to fit the new house, features Connecticut rosettes in the corner moldings, a welcoming pineapple atop the pediment, and a Connecticut cross (also known as the Cross of St. Andrew) on the bottom panels to keep witches and demons from crossing the threshold.
Six fireplaces, including a nine-foot walk-in fireplace in the family room, visually warm the low-ceiling, pine-paneled rooms. “The house is authentic looking,” Tom says, “but we have all the conveniences of a modern house: central air, an energy-efficient furnace, modern kitchen appliances, closets instead of pegs for clothes. The idea was to make the house very livable but still look like a museum. Its core is eighteenth century.”
In representing the past, the Grants have created a home with a deep connection to a time when people were attuned to the New England seasons and spent their lives out of doors, working the land. The Grants will be the first to tell you that most good things take time, and that includes gardens. Colonial gardeners certainly knew this. They planted for the long haul, their herbs and flower beds taking root and spreading across the seasons. In one of the earliest-settled sections of Fairfield, the hundreds of trees that appear to blossom magically in time for the Dogwood Festival on Greenfield Hill each spring were planted by volunteers over the course of a century. Today, while some homeowners prefer to watch from the kitchen window as armies of landscapers turn the earth to instant bloom, the Grants are finding deep satisfaction in gardening the old-fashioned way.
Back to Basics
Twelve years ago, Tom and Nancy realized they preferred flowers to tomatoes and began turning their vegetable patch into a classic Colonial herb and flower garden. Both loved being outdoors, and following their daughter’s wedding on the property, Nancy resumed her career as a floral designer. The couple also looked to the history of the ten-acre property and to the Colonial period, with good reason. Tom Grant’s family has been in Fairfield since 1639, and he is an eleventh-generation Banks on his mother’s side. As a teenager, he worked summers on his grandfather Clarence Banks’s 100-acre farm on Banks Road North. Before the Grants bought the land, it was part of an enormous common garden for Fairfield villagers, including Tom’s ancestors. Even earlier, it served as winter grounds for the Unquowa and other local Native American tribes.
When the farmhouse burnt to the ground, Tom and Nancy sold off six of the ten acres but kept the original Wakeman vegetable garden beyond the kitchen window intact. They also expanded the rear patio overlooking the garden. In doing so, they discovered a small marble tombstone in a section of the original patio. Time and weather have made the markings so shallow that they appear to have been written in water, but it seems that Ervin Wakeman died in 1797. The boy, who was only six or seven at his death, lived during what is known as the Little Ice Age in New England — the period from roughly 1790 to 1820 when New England suffered summer frosts and winters were bitterly cold.
When planning the new “old” Nancy asked Rudy Favretti, a garden historian and author of the classic For Every House a Garden, who was also a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Connecticut at the time, for help in designing a period garden.
Colonial gardeners favored order and symmetry within relatively small, enclosed spaces. In part, that referenced eighteenth-century English gardening practices, with which the colonists were familiar, but it also reflected their need to protect an important food resource from the wilds of the new world (keeping deer from tulips and azaleas is one thing; keeping critters from devouring your winter food supplies is another).
What Nancy and Rudy came up with was a traditional eighteenth-century country garden: four roughly square beds, curved on the insides and surrounding a central, circular herb garden, all of which are divided by a broad path that lines up with a garden gate and the back door of the house.
“We took some liberties with the garden’s design,” Nancy says, “but it has an eighteenth-century feel. It would have been the design of a wealthy landowner, of the kind you see a lot of in Williamsburg.”
The Grants’ garden is simultaneously formal and casual, the path grassed for barefoot walking and sixty inches wide for the big carts they use to haul plants and fertilizer in and cut flowers and weeds out. If it has an unhurried look, it’s no doubt because Tom and Nancy have taken their time to enhance and enlarge the original design, starting many of the plants from seed or dividing them from existing plants, and over time filling the enclosed space with a loose assortment of old and new plants.
There are dahlias, many varieties of peonies, hundreds of roses, white snow-in-summers, purple mountain bluets, “Le Reve” Oriental hybrid lilies, self-sowing purple larkspur, foxtail lilies. They cohabit the beds with Old World herbs: lamb’s ears, lady’s mantle, foxglove, catnip and a variety of classic shrubs: viburnum, hydrangea, indigofera, clethra, spirea, quince, beauty bush.
Lilacs border the house and garage, originally a carriage shed on the property. “Old houses always had lilacs at the corners and in the doorways,” Nancy notes.
Although she has retired from the floral design game — “300-guest weddings were a lot of work,” she says — this spring and summer Nancy will be selling flowers from the gardens to local florists. And on June 2, the Grants’ gardens will be a scheduled stop on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days garden tour.
Also this spring, after more than a decade spent getting it the way they want, the Grants will change the garden again by expanding it to create a new vegetable garden behind the boxwood fence. It will be both gastronomic and educational. “We have eight grandchildren,” Nancy says, “and they’ve got to know where vegetables come from.”
As for finding the time to garden the old-fashioned way, Nancy has the answer: “We don’t play golf,” she says, “we garden.”