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Modern History

Inside this antique Southport farmhouse beats a contemporary heart: a polished interior with hidden storage that allows designer Raymond Forehand and his family to live comfortably and free of clutter

If you love beautiful old houses, Southport’s historic district is a choice neighborhood to cruise. Beneath huge, sheltering trees, its narrow streets and lanes are lined with one example after another of classic American architecture—perfectly maintained, vintage eye candy. But on one block, the broad and welcoming front porch of a demure, clapboard and classic farmhouse provides a hint of the unexpected.

Says owners Ray and Ann Marie Forehand, “Everyone knows it as the house with the orange cushions.”

Indeed, this bit of accessorizing for the wicker seating that flanks the front door provides a nontraditional punch of color on a spare and spotless entryway. As the door opens, it becomes obvious that the cushions are a clue to what’s inside.

Ray Forehand is no stranger to the challenges of building and renovation. His firm offers complete design and construction services for homes in Fairfield County and beyond. But this Southport project was unique; he chose it for his own family.


“When we found the house four years ago, it had already been through five or six renovations,” he recalls. “None of the previous work really addressed the problems that are common to most antiques.” Ray ticks off the drawbacks: old systems, no insulation, a warren of cramped rooms, poor natural light.

“This place had all that, and then some,” declares Ray, who with his wife and two children had designs on living with 21st-century amenities, rather than trying to wrap their modern lifestyle around an anachronism. Still, they had lived in Southport for several years, and had no desire to look beyond the village they loved.

So, while following the historic district’s rigorous requirements to keep the home’s original exterior appearance, Forehand and his team gave the house a transformative makeover. In the new plan, everything but the 1860 shell had to go.

In order to provide the light and flow that he and his family wanted, Ray first took an extra step in the approvals process, obtaining a variance for a rear addition to create a family room, back stairway and space for the children’s bedrooms on the second floor.

Then the construction crew gave the 150-year-old house completely new systems and state-of-the-art technology between the clapboards and the interior walls. Insulated, plumbed and wired for maximum efficiency and energy savings, the house, Ray proclaims is “good for another 200 years.”

Coupling the systemic and structural changes with new, maintenance-free finishes and fittings, the resulting interior became as livable as that of any brand-new home that Ray has created for one of his clients.

At the front entry, the priority that the designer gave to a clean, open look is immediately apparent. In place of freestanding furniture, shelves built into wall recesses at console height allow smooth access to the public rooms. This spatial logic—creating built-ins where one would normally add furniture—is a solution Ray used throughout the house. Though at less than 4,000 square feet it is considerably smaller than many of the projects he completes for clients, the home lives large.

“We made the optimum use of space,” says Ray, as he opens a door in the paneled wall beneath the main staircase, revealing a compact and delightfully finished powder room. Unlike many antique homes, where storage space is minimal, the Forehand home features hidden cabinets in every room. In the kitchen, this sleight of hand conceals the modern batterie de cuisine; in the family room, all the high-tech audio and video equipment disappears when not in use. In the private domain, the bedrooms and baths are also equipped with cleverly concealed and ample storage. These subtly rendered built-ins blend seamlessly with walls, giving no clue to their voluminous capacity. The chests, armoires, bureaus and small tables that often clutter a vintage home have become unnecessary in the Forehands’ new old house.

The scheme is so successful that even the Forehand children find it easy to keep their spaces tidy. Because desk, closet and bureau space are all neatly built into the walls, cleanup can happen in short order. 

In place of antiques and bric-a-brac, there is a carefully edited selection of clean-lined, modern furnishings, with everything chosen for easy maintenance as well as looks.

The finished rooms have a simplicity and tranquility that is not unlike the sense of home one gets from houses of the same vintage that are finished “in period”—except that here, the sofas, chairs, tables and lamps are definitely 21st-century.

“We had to walk a fine line between the traditional and the contemporary,” says Ray. “While we had an infinite choice of materials, restraint was the key to making it all work.” He came up with a palette and finishes and fittings that would honor the home’s age and origin, as well as accommodate the requirements of his modern family.

Thus, there’s not an inch of drywall to be seen in the renewed interior; walls are sheathed in wood paneling, Venetian plaster or leather—all traditional and refined treatments, all easy care. For millwork, Ray used rift-sawn oak, with its beautiful grain pattern, throughout the house. The overall result is toned-down and calming.

“We wanted to bring it back to a farmhouse feel,” says Ray. “The house has none of the hard edges that are often associated with modern. It’s very comfortable.”

The in-town house is sited on just a quarter-acre, but Ray wanted the finished plot to include a pool and outdoor cooking facilities that would serve the needs of his family and the Forehands’ frequent entertaining. He also thought that its surroundings should reflect the house’s particular serene aesthetic.

“We wanted a lot from a small space,” he recalls. To meet these requirements, he called on landscape architect Wesley Stout—an old friend—to draw up a plan that he could follow.

What emerged from Stout’s sketches is a series of evergreen plantings that provide a year-round and lush green backdrop. It is a simple scheme; like the house, there are no fussy or high-maintenance details. And, just as its furnishings and finishes provide a calming simplicity to the home’s interior, the design of the plantings and the classic layout offer both privacy and an elegant and relaxed setting for outdoor activity.

While Ray admits that the house is a surprise to anyone trying to guess the decor from its exterior, he is usually rewarded by newcomers’ reactions. Even sticklers for historic detail are won over by Ray’s unique take on the simple country farmhouse.

In fact, some are even a bit envious of his design. He smiles at one recollection.

“When our place was on the house tour in town, many of the people who came to look also live in Southport antiques. They told us later that this place made them want to go home and clear out their furniture.”     

Raymond Forehand Associates, 203-259-7636; rjforehand.com
Wesley Stout Associates, 203-966-3100; wesleystout.com
John Harris, 203-846-2056; artjohnharris.com