photographs by john bessler
Everyone loves a diamond in the rough. But when a 1775 house overlooking the water in Darien went on the market in 2004, most prospective buyers thought it was a teardown on a desirable lot—a diamond scarred by neglect that all the polishing in the world couldn’t rejuvenate. Linda Malpass, a realtor with William Pitt Sotheby’s International, saw things differently. “I walked in the front hallway and just fell in love immediately. The house was falling down, there was wallpaper everywhere, but the hallway…,” she says. “I knew Bo would be able to figure it out.”
Her husband, Bo, is a builder, so Linda’s confidence in his ability to transform her new find wasn’t wishful thinking, but just because the house spoke to her (or, more accurately, whimpered) did not mean it was hers. “There was a bidding war,” Linda says. The Malpasses won it, and then promptly began a battle of a different kind: adding enough space to accommodate three teenage children, a dog, a cat, a turtle and a bird without making the old house unrecognizable.
Their solution was to add onto the back of the house, rather than the sides, so that the façade retained its original character. A large, open kitchen and sitting area, plus an upstairs wing for their college-bound son was built, extending the dramatic, grand view from the front door all the way through the back mud room and beyond.
In gutting the old part of the house, Bo discovered that there had been a fire in the kitchen that burned up the stairway into the second floor. The damage was still there but had been covered. “Usually in a fire like that, the structure is lost. I don’t know how that didn’t happen here,” he says. There were other hidden surprises, like a foundation weakened by insects and original chimneys that, like the fire damage, had been plastered over. Bo first raised the house about 10 inches, then set out rebuilding and repairing the interior.
While they were strict about maintaining the footprint of the original structure, the Malpasses were just as determined to create a better flow in the house, as well as add more light. A traditional front door was nixed in favor of a glass one, to maximize sunlight and views. Windows were added upstairs and down, and a cluster of rooms on the second floor became one larger space for the master bedroom. Bo installed crossbeams and skylights, giving the room and the hallway leading to it an open-air, cabana-like feel. At the top of the original stairs, two side-by-side bathrooms were knocked out to create a windowed sitting area off of one of the guest rooms. “We wanted to preserve the character of the old house and create new spaces,” Bo says. It was also crucial to have ample room for visitors—Linda is from England and has relatives who come to stay—and teenagers (at one point, Linda mistakenly refers to her “five kids,” an understandable slip considering their kids’ friends are constantly in tow.) A third-floor attic, also original to the house, was turned into a haven for the two younger children, with scruffy, sky-blue painted floors and groove paneled ceilings.
While the Malpasses honored the history of the house in terms of its construction, Linda’s approach to décor was decidedly off the Colonial map. There are antiques picked up at local stores and on trips to New Hampshire, where Bo spent summers growing up and where the family also owns a home. But the overall feel is one of neutral, modern, interchangeable style. “I just want it to be comfortable. I didn’t want to go with the period,” Linda says. And given the menagerie of animals and kids, her choice of simple, washable slipcovers was a wise one. She uses flowers and throw pillows to add pops of seasonal color. She adds, “I change pillows like I change my underwear.”
If new windows, ethereal paint colors (there are various shades of silvery blue and lavender throughout the house) and crisp fabrics lend an airy quality, Bo’s choice of materials for the house gives warmth and an easy patina appropriate for a lovingly restored, old home. The wide pine floors were stained dark and hand scraped to look aged. Bo found the antique beams that define the kitchen area in New Hampshire and used hefty wood planks from an old wool mill for the top of the island. “They have all the old nail holes and check marks, and they were soaked with lanolin from the wool processing. The oil preserved them, but it took forever to get anything to bond to them,” he says. The sides of the island were made from the kitchen’s original cabinet doors, salvaged during the renovation, making the whole piece a rustic foil to the rest of the room’s pale marble countertops and white cabinetry.
In another nod to the house’s long life on that plot of land, Bo used stones from the property to build the fireplace in the kitchen, which is now a focal point of the home. “The fire rarely goes out in winter. Maybe once or twice while we’re out of town,” he says. He hired a stonemason from New Hampshire to not only build the new fireplace but also to painstakingly restore the old ones in the front of the house by filling around the stones with a mud and hay mortar similar to what was originally used.
And although the constant, cozy fire in the heart of the kitchen makes the house seem perfectly suited for snowy winters, the Malpasses insist it’s a divine summer home, too. Doors off the kitchen area lead directly to the pool, and a glassed-in porch with nautical molding (carved from wood to look like rope) and comfy chaises has a view of the garden.
And after taking such care to restore an old house and make it livable for a large family, it seems the Malpasses would be there for many seasons to come. But this builder/realtor pair have renovated and relocated before. “I would move tomorrow,” says Linda, although she admits that a huge barn built behind the house that holds Bo’s collection of antique cars (“It has lifts and everything,” she says) might be reason to stay put.
At the same time, cars do have wheels. And there’s no doubt that this new version of a historic home would spark another heated bidding war.
Resource Appleton Webster Home, Southport, 912-2100