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American Beauty

A neglected, stately home on a former onion farm and vineyard in Westport, gets a heartfelt face-lift.

The old, neglected house on Westport’s Greens Farms Road had endured much over the centuries. In 1779, during General Tryon’s raid on Greens Farms, British troops torched the farmhouse, leaving it in smoldering half-ruins. During the Great Blizzard of 1888, snow reached the second-story windows and nearly caused the roof to cave in. But its chance for survival during the 21st century, with its lust for land and mega-mansions, was another story.

When Jill and Stephen O’Shea bought Wakeman’s Vineyard —as the onion farm and vineyard was known — in the spring of 2005, neighbors and historic-minded townsfolk were more than curious about the couple’s plans. “They were aggressively protective of it,” Jill says. “People would stop by and say, ‘Hey, what are you going to do with this?’”

Worse, as Jill and contractor Oscar Lopez started their restoration of the property, by removing windows, doors and shutters, the realty-buzzards that had been circling the forgotten house, descended. “While we were in the process of cataloging parts of the home, people in minivans with their kids inside would roll up and load pieces of the house into their cars,” she says. “We finally had to put up a sign that read: not a teardown.”

What, in fact, the O’Sheas and Lopez were doing was preserving a part of Westport history while, at the same time, creating a comfortable and practical home for a modern family of six, including four children ages ten to eighteen. (The home received the 2006 Local Preservation Award from the Westport Historic District Commission.) It was also the start of a new business collaboration between Jill and Oscar, Revive LLC, to renovate old houses with respect and grace.

The Colonial-era home, built by Abraham Higgins in 1760 and sold to Stephen Wakeman II, was erected in stages. The earliest section of the house — the kitchen and adjoining rooms — dates from when the little shingled box sat on a whopping 58 acres. That basic form expanded to include front rooms and entry in 1780, a second story over the kitchen around 1830 and a side porch and bedroom above in the early 1900s. It remained in the Wakeman family until 1913.

Along the way, the house became such a mixture of competing architectural styles and details — Colonial, Greek Revival, Victorian, Federal — that by the time the O’Sheas saw it last year, they weren’t certain what it was. But there was something that attracted Jill to the house: its notable presence. (Jill had noticed the house — and its for sale sign — for months before she dared to go inside.) And, although the rooms inside were small and oddly placed, she says, “The house had great bones.”

Early into the renovation, Jill found some of those bones in the basement: exposed ceiling beams, marked with Roman numerals by 18th century craftsmen. She reasoned that they had once run throughout the rest of the house, too, but were hidden under layers of thick plaster. With the help of Lopez’s crew, Jill carefully removed all of the plaster in the upstairs rooms to reveal similar, hand-squared timbers of chestnut, poplar and oak.

“We did a lot of exposing,” Jill says, who is a former advertising creative director and descendant of the original settlers of Chappaqua, New York. “We took out more than we put in. Our approach was to clean up and simplify.” Adding that she wanted the home’s lines to speak for themselves. “Going into this, I thought I was going to do a traditional Colonial home,” she says. “But I’ve found that you have to work with the existing home’s character or you end up screwing it up. You have to be able to roll with it, because you just don’t know what you’re going to find.”

Exposing the ceilings, moving walls, and removing floors and doors revealed a surprising wealth of details from the past: corncobs hammered into knotholes; a bayonet tucked between beams; early American coins beneath floorboards; period bottles and ceramic shards dumped in a cavity in the foundations and two large stone cisterns under the kitchen floor that were once fed by a thirty-foot-deep, spring-fed well in the basement. In the floor planks on the third floor, the O’Sheas found nautical woodcarvings that they incorporated into the dining room’s mantel piece. Everything original to the home was saved: beams and floorboards were salvaged and the windows were stripped of centuries of paint and repositioned.

“We moved the doors around to where they best worked with the modified floor plan,” Jill explains. “They don’t match one another, but that’s part of the house’s history. It would not have retained the same character if we changed the doors, floors or windows.”

In the kitchen, wood siding, saved from two dilapidated outbuildings on the property, was used on the upper walls and in the cabinets below a granite-topped island. The space was given some extra light by eliminating a small bedroom above, opening up the ceiling and expanding into the adjacent breakfast room.

Where they ran short of indigenous materials, Lopez filled in with old, reclaimed wood from upstate Connecticut. (Before opening his construction company in Westport, he had spent ten years salvaging antique barns from Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont.) “I love the look of old Connecticut wood,” he says.

One of the biggest additions to the home includes a thirty-by-eleven-foot glassed-in walkway that houses a pantry, mudroom, bathroom and closets, and connects the main house with a new barn/garage. It also serves as a divider between the kids’ rough-paneled rec room over the garage and the main house. The O’Sheas also added a farmhouse-style wraparound porch to the north side of the house and a pool in the backyard.

These days, Jill and Stephen still receive inquisitive neighbors and passersby, but they come not to interrogate or castigate them, she explains, but to thank them. “People realize that the house could have easily become another knock-down, replaced with a McMansion, instead of an example to be followed,” Jill says.

Revive, Westport, 216-4868
Oscar Lopez Construction, Westport, 984-2868