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Living Sculpture

This stately, historic Westport home embraces the past—but never stops growing

Since Mother Nature moves at her own pace, many garden designers never get to see the evolution of their labors—but Cindy Shumate has been lucky. “This property has truly been a life’s work for me,” says the landscape designer. She started working at this Westport home around eighteen years ago for previous owners who enlisted her to create an English perennial garden. 

When the owners of the 1870s farmhouse changed, the help didn’t. “The homeowners will say they inherited me with the property,” says Shumate with a laugh. The three of them regularly walk around the grounds and decide if they need more texture here or more color there, like “layering on paint in an oil painting,” says Shumate. “We played with color and shape, and as the opportunity to add more space came along, we expanded our thoughts.”

Over the past decade, the owners had the good fortune to be able to buy three surrounding properties. They tore down the buildings and erased the lines between the properties, swelling their acreage from one to five and a half acres. “Five acres is my favorite number to work with,” says Shumate. “It provides enough room to have freedom to create different areas to explore while still being on a human scale—you can still walk it.”

That creative freedom led to a magnificent yet approachable landscape design that beckons you from every angle. “These grounds are not something you stand back and look at from inside the house–you want to be in them.  They’re magnetic!” says Shumate. The expanse of the land allowed the owners to carve out different “rooms” in the great outdoors—like a three-quarter-size croquet court, a Zen meditation garden, a great lawn, an orchard, a terraced vegetable garden, and a quintessential English perennial garden surrounding the pool. “There have been tents and parties all over this property, and each of the ‘rooms’ has a different flavor, depending on what kind of entertaining you are doing,” says Shumate. There are wonderful, small details around every nook and cranny—like the candy-apple-red gate leading to the vegetable garden and the pixie-sized stone shed that charmingly disguises some not-so-pretty plumbing.  

A striking characteristic of this garden is the use of texture and shape. Sometimes it’s about contrast, as in the close juxtaposition of soft and feathery grasses with tall, spiky, vertical taxus. In other cases, it’s a texture you want to reach out and touch, like the collection of weeping Alaskan cedars, inspired by the broom scene in Fantasia. “There is joy and fun and a lot of whimsy—it’s not stuffy!” says Shumate. The boxwood garden was influenced by Gertrude Jekyll, a prominent British gardener in the early 1900s. Geometric squares of boxwood surround dwarf lilac trees and purple-hued catnip. “On this tree, the flower is half the size of a normal lilac, but the fragrance is way more intense,” says Shumate.

No matter where you look on this property, you’ll find a purposeful element leading your eye. Standing from the house looking toward the pool, Shumate wanted something to punctuate the space so she built a latticework screen behind it. The pattern of triangles and
diamonds in the screen mirrors the architectural designs of the Victorian farmhouse. Three stone pyramids, reminiscent of the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy, are scattered around the grounds, providing dramatic focal points. “It’s a very European idea, having a point in the distance that becomes a destination,” says Shumate. “It pulls you in and leads you there.” It also acts as a guidepost, providing perspective in such a large layout.

The stone pyramids are just one of the many stone elements in the landscape, and the interplay between lush greenery and somber stone is visually arresting. The stone wall and steps leading to the orchard were the foundation of one of the neighboring homes. The meditation garden, paved with raked pebbles, has a custom-carved stone slab that juts out of the surrounding wall, a heavy object that appears to float in mid-air. They chose to build rain gutters from stone instead of pavement—an element Shumate has seen in really old homes in Connecticut—adding a certain elegance to a practical application. And for all the opulence of the outdoors, this design is practical—there are no annuals to replant every season, and the plants were all chosen with an eye toward simplicity and long-term growth. “I’m working with living sculptures,” says Shumate, “so you have to understand when you plant what this is going to look like five, ten, or even eighteen years down the road—and still be satisfied.” 

The outdoors are ever changing, as one would expect, but the home’s interior has been evolving as well. Jane Dillon, the interior designer, has worked on this property for the past twelve years, and has witnessed a metamorphosis of sorts. Originally, the decor was more traditional, to coordinate with the Victorian heritage of the house. But as the evergreens grew outside, so did the owner’s tastes—moving from eclectic traditional to a transitional period to the pared-down and sleek contemporary they love today. “Furniture is tactile rather than patterned,” says Dillon. “Art is more of an important asset instead of just decoration. There are still a few lovely old pieces here and there, but the look is generally more tailored.”

The music room still retains its old-school vibe. One of the two parlors in the house, it features a grand piano, a working fireplace, and a seating niche in the window with original millwork. “The piano is a great interest in this family,” says Dillon. “All three of the kids as well as their mother play, and it’s such a lovely European element to have a room dedicated to it.”

The master bedroom suite and a second-story Adirondack porch were part of a larger addition to the house. This room encapsulates their transitional period when the homeowners were interested in more of a “Moderne” style. The burgundy leather French club chairs from the ‘20s inspired the look of the whole room, featuring custom-made doors and windows with an Asian aesthetic, flagstone floors, and a curved, streamlined bath console and antique English mirror.

The renovation of the kitchen was the final step in their evolution. It was designed as a glass cube overlooking the impressive yard—the orchard, the evergreen garden and a stone patio with beautiful ornamental grasses. In addition to opening the walls to the outdoors, the homeowners wanted “to increase the size so it was a much more commodious space in which to dine, relax, and cook,” says Dillon. The bright red table and modern chairs are the perfect perch for dining in, as is the breakfast bar/homework station with a thick Carrerra marble countertop. “This kitchen has several venues in one space,” says Dillon. “The Corbusier chairs next to the glass walls are a great place to read the paper and have a cup of coffee in the morning.” The wood cabinetry and pitched beadboard ceiling (a nod to its Victorian roots) are painted a neutral light silver for an uncluttered, clean look—in fact, only one paint color was used throughout the first floor and circulation space of the second floor. The rest of the house has the same restrained palette and pared-down style—even though the homeowners are avid collectors (of books, silver, porcelain, glass, and art), the home is peacefully uncluttered.

“This is a unique house in Connecticut,” says Dillon. “It simultaneously honors the neighborhood and its history and reflects the owners’ changing tastes. It’ll be interesting to see what it becomes in the coming years.” A true statement—both inside and out.       

Jane Dillon Design Group, 505-244-9085
Cindy Shumate, 203-855-5313
Oliver Nurseries, 203-259-5609
Ralph Pucci International, ralphpucci.net
Holly Hunt showroom, hollyhunt.com