Forget the old saw that bigger is better. With subcompact cars outselling SUVs and carbon-footprint guilt shrinking America’s appetite for outsized McMansions, Kelly Zimmerman had an entirely different reason for making her new home just 1,700 square feet: It’s as large as the property would allow.
Located on the tip of a narrow peninsula in Fairfield, where land mass is barely 150-feet wide, it sits on one of the most densely built streets in the town. There are some 200 homes stacked shoulder to shoulder along the beach side of the road, like front row orchestra seats with a balcony of beach homes looking on from the mainland behind them. Kelly’s narrow space, with windows only at the front and back, feels like a townhouse condo, although it’s actually a freestanding building.
The home’s trim proportions were dictated by the 20- by 40-foot buildable patch of sand beneath it. The structure is just twenty feet from a seawall that holds back the tide, and on windy nights, Kelly can hear the salt spray pelting the windows of her master bedroom. “I joke that I wear a life preserver to bed during storms,” says Zimmerman, the owner of Kelly & Company One to One Fitness in Westport. She and her partner wake, at least on clear mornings, to sunrises over Long Island.
And it was that view, of course, that drew her here. Living in a conventional colonial in the center of town, she and her then partner purchased an old summer rental on the strip, tore it down and began planning a new year-round house. Kelly wanted a home that would harmonize with her collection of mid-century modern antiques, while maintaining a traditional cottage feel outside to fit the rest of the streetscape. “I looked at every house on the road for inspiration, and there were two that I absolutely loved,” she says. Turned out they were both by the same architect, Richard Swann, and one was his own house. And so Kelly hired a neighbor to design her house—an unusual arrangement that guaranteed that his plan would come from a deep understanding of the location: its tides, its seasons and its views.
His inspiration was clearly the late-nineteenth-century Shingle-Style seaside mansions of Newport. They’re characterized by shingled exteriors, inset porches, rambling asymmetrical shapes and steep roof lines. For Kelly’s tall, skinny home, Swann chose elements that would create a comfortable, homegrown feel. “The sweeping roof ameliorates the sense that it’s a tall and narrow building,” says Swann. But four dormers maximize the interior space, and the arcade—essentially, an inset path that runs below the house—is supported by shingled columns. “They’re more informal and beachy than white turned columns,” he says.
The location also meant some stringent building code requirements. For example, the home is built on stilts. Wrapped in latticework, the sixteen concrete piers around the perimeter create a street-level garage and storage area. Also, rot-prone materials had to be kept at least fourteen feet above sea level. As it turned out, the first two steps of the interior staircase, which leads up to the living space, fall below that point. So, those steps are built of impervious mahogany while the rest of the staircase is made of a light-colored maple. “We talked about ways to make all of the steps match,” Kelly says. “But this is life on the water. They add character and they’re the first thing that everyone sees when they come in the door.”
Upstairs, the aesthetic is straight out of the 1940s. From the wood slab steps to the limestone tile floors to the industrial-grade lighting and hardware, the space’s beauty comes from functional forms and simple materials. Getting it built, though, wasn’t so simple.
After seeing ads for sleek Italian Strato Cucine (kitchen) in a cutting-edge design magazine, Kelly looked for an American distributor. Unable to find one, she began calling the company’s European offices until she reached someone who spoke English. That happened to be in Antwerp, so she headed to Belgium to buy her kitchen. Once designed and manufactured, it was shipped to the United States, along with an installer. “He was this amazing German craftsman,” she says. After working ten consecutive twelve-hour days, and staying at the Sea Grape—the busy pub and motel—the job was done. “He did all of that work while being thousands of miles from home,” Kelly says with admiration.
The bathroom fixtures, too, required international travel: She purchased the Boffi products in Rotterdam. (The company has since opened a Manhattan showroom.) She was, however, able to source everything else locally, including faucets from Danish-designer Arne Jacobsen for Hastings Tile & Bath, available at Klaff’s of Danbury, and lighting by the German company Bega, available at Vanguard lighting in South Windsor. Also, the white wardrobe pieces by Poliform are available at Today’s Kitchen in Stamford, and the wood chest comes from the Brooklyn woodshop of BDDW.
And then there are Kelly’s antiques, all from the mid-century modern period, collected in the shops of Manhattan and South Beach. Her most prized possessions are two Paol Kjaerholm chairs, purchased before Modern became trendy, and now the stuff of pricy Sotheby’s auctions. Every single thing in the house is special, but this is by no means a museum. The chairs are for sitting on—even when a stranger, a magazine writer, is soaked to the bone after taking the full indoor/outdoor tour during an early spring deluge. The scuffmarks and other signs of age on Kelly’s collection only make them more interesting, she says, much like the salt stains on the shingles outside.
Kelly’s preference for minimalist furniture and textile art works tremendously well in the modest footprint of her four-room home. Having a large outbuilding helps too. She built a matching garage at the rear of her property—across the narrow public road. Upstairs is a giant yet-to-be finished room with picture windows looking out over the creek, where she also has a small dock. It may someday be a party space or a studio, but for now it’s a storage area for everything from leftover building materials to bulk non-perishables from the wholesale buying club. And downstairs is another of her most cherished objets d’art: her 1984 Alfa Romeo Spider, one more example of her exquisite eye for gorgeous design with a small footprint.
BDDW, New York City, 212-625-1230
Boffi Soho, New York City, 212-431-8282; boffi-soho.com
Kelly & Company One to One Fitness, Westport, 203-222-8722
Klaff’s of Danbury, Danbury, 203-792-1250; klaffs.com
Richard Swann, 203-255-6778; swannarchitect.com
Strato, Talamona, Italy, +39 0342610869; stratocucine.com
Today’s Kitchen, Stamford, 203-961-0033
Vanguard Lighting, South Windsor, 860-282-0597; vanguardlighting.com