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Saving Grace

Mike and Becky Goss's careful renovations and classic decor – with a touch of modern – successfully update a Westport landmark.



Midwesterners who grew up in old houses, Mike and Becky Goss settled for a newly built home when they moved to Westport more than a decade ago. But not long after that, when Becky paid a visit to a woman, who later became her best friend in town, Becky was smitten with her neighbor’s home — a well-preserved, 1873 Italianate gem on a large piece of land, across the street from Longshore Golf Club and not far from Compo Beach.

“I just loved it,” Becky recalls, “and when Mike saw it, he agreed with me. I told my friend that if her neighbor ever hinted that she might be moving, we wanted to hear about it right away.” Opportunity knocked four years later; the couple bid on and bought the house before it ever hit the market.

“After we moved in 1999, we lived in the house for quite a while before we made any changes other than paint colors,” Becky says. “Then, a few years ago, we decided it was time for a larger, updated kitchen and an informal, mudroom entry that could be accessed from the porch.”

They called in Greenwich-based architect Jon Halper, of Halper Owens Architects, to help them get all the details right.

“It’s a beautiful house, set on spectacular grounds,” says Halper. “It has strong, simple lines. The classic Victorian flourishes — deep, bracketed eaves, a wonderful porch — were well preserved. We were in agreement with Becky and Mike that the historical shell should emerge from the project looking fundamentally untouched.”

Mike, who by his own admission has an architect’s interest in the fine points of houses, wanted the new work to fit perfectly with the old. With its curving front staircase, beautiful original millwork and mantelpieces, the Goss’s had retained the evidence of the 19th century craftsmen who built it.

“I was determined that any new work would look right,” Mike says. Part of the addition included reworking a 1920s structure that had not been as carefully built as the original house. Woodwork had to be custom milled to repeat profiles of the old moldings that were used to finish ceilings, doors and window openings. Halper comments: “Our firm has done a number of antique home renovations. In my mind, the task is simple: Respect the existing details and create a kit of new parts that match the old.”

Furnishings were a different story. With young daughters (now teenagers), Becky was not interested in designing and maintaining a museum piece. “I like furnishings that are comfortable, but not too casual. I guess my taste is somewhat traditional, but I also like a little bit of modern in every room.”

Becky’s decorating timetable was spread over several years; key pieces were acquired and then added to, with finds from shops such as Dovecote and Bungalow in Westport and in neighboring towns. “I like to support local businesses,” Becky admits.

Her decorating strategy also includes browsing magazines and books and clipping and filing images of design ideas that appeal to her. “A few years ago, I saw a bathroom that I loved in a magazine. The sink was made from an antique bureau, with a stone top and basin and old-fashioned hardware. When it was time to redo the master bath area, I pulled the clipping and used it to create my bathroom.”

While Mike’s section of the master bath — the “his” master — has a shower and a functional layout, Becky’s is finished with the home’s original claw-foot tub, a custom vanity and a chic upholstered slipper chair.

A key element of Becky’s design scheme is a palette that includes light and neutral tones. The soft grays, muted blues and creamy whites point up the home’s beautiful architectural elements. This subdued background makes color changes easy. Pillows and other accessories in bright hues add the punch that gives each room an extra burst of energy and charm.

Another facet of the decorating plan’s success is the use of distinctive lighting fixtures throughout the home. Again, using her philosophy of “a touch of modern,” many of the fixtures are contemporary designs, eye-pleasing and delightful surprises in their traditional surroundings.

Lots of attention was lavished on kitchen details. Mike and Becky chose an ebonized finish for their custom oak cabinets. “It’s a softer look than black paint, and more dramatic than an ordinary wood stain,” Becky says. “The cabinet color also makes a nice contrast with the finish on the oak floors.”

The new kitchen plan includes a traditional convenience — a walk-in pantry — that stashes many of the modern mechanicals for the kitchen. “We put the microwave, a wine cooler and the sound system in the pantry, so it isn’t on display,” Becky says. “There’s room for food and other supplies there, too, although the kitchen already has plenty of built-in storage space.”

The modern stroke in the kitchen design is in its details. The farmhouse sink and all hardware — right down to the feet on the ebonized cabinets — are stainless steel.

“That little flourish is practical, too,” Halper says of the stainless shoes. “Since the ebonized wood could be damaged by aggressive vacuuming or moisture, the metal feet protect the finish.”

To enhance the comfort of this new household hub, a small sitting area with a fireplace, flanked by beautiful French doors that lead out to the pool, completes the space. “The doors bring lots of light into the kitchen,” notes Becky.

Formal entries are a key feature of Italianate houses, but the Goss family needed a more casual entrance for their busy family, with a spot for changing out of muddy boots and storage for outerwear, backpacks and other clutter. The new mudroom offers a large window seat, built over a radiator — a particularly comfortable spot in winter.

Even though renovations and decorating were accomplished over several years, home and family took changes and disruptions in stride. “We all think the house is just right,” Becky says. “The children would never let us move, though I doubt Mike and I would ever want to.”

Resource:
Halper Owens Architects, Greenwich, 531-5341,
and Washington Depot, 860-868-4000, halperowens.com

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