The House That Jane Built
An author brings to life a brand-new home that, like a cherished hardbound novel, somehow feels wonderfully familiar and old.
photograph by hülya kolabas
It is famously said that there are only two real plots: a stranger comes to town or a hero goes on a journey. In the story of Jane Green’s life, both plotlines serendipitously intersect on a private road in the Compo Beach area of Westport, Connecticut.
A British import, Jane arrived in Westport in 2001 with four bestselling books under her belt, most notably Jemima J, the compulsively readable tale of a twenty-something’s struggle for self-discovery. Jane penned eight more bestsellers on this side of the Atlantic—in the Westport Library, to be exact—introducing us to women who tango through the nuances of marriage, motherhood, divorce, illness and reinvention with grace and the occasional glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Given the sorority of emotionally rich heroines she has brought to contemporary women’s fiction, it would have been easy for the author to lie back, self-satisfied, on a mountainous stack of her own novels in her perfectly comfortable rental property, and call it a day.
But Jane had a new story to tell, and it beckoned her from a few doors down the road. Its central character was an abandoned house on a one-acre lot, begging to be razed and rebuilt. “My husband Ian and I were married in 2009 and were searching for our first real home,” Jane explains. Initially disinclined to take on the hair-pulling task of building from the ground up (with nightmarish visions of a charmless box dancing in her head), Jane reluctantly put on her hard hat. “We have six children from age eight to sixteen between us, so it was a challenge to find a house that could accommodate everyone,” she says. Her stepdaughter fell in love with the lot and pointed out its beautiful light. Was there even a choice? As fast as you could hear the sound of ground breaking, Jane’s new journey began.
In a passionate quest to steer clear of McMansion territory, Jane took to knocking on the doors of her Compo neighbors whose quaint homes she loved and inquiring after their architects. (“You can get away with a lot when you have a British accent,” she says with a wry smile.) Enter Brooke Girty, whose firm specializes in historic restorations, including one of Katherine Hepburn’s homes. “Because I am English I have a deep appreciation for the old,” says Jane. “It was so important for me to capture the coziness and human-sized rooms of an old house, and once Brooke and I connected I knew it would be an extraordinary collaboration.”
With the same energy that her fingers fire into her MacBook, Jane began scouting and sketching, sizing and selecting, alongside her contractor, Tiefenthaler, and project manager, Marc Laibe of Soundview Construction Advisors. Was the nearly yearlong project, completed last spring, not unlike crafting a book, with cloud-gray walls and hidden doors her new metaphors? “Both processes require a great deal of creativity,” muses Jane, “but when I write, I draw largely on instinct, and when I designed this home I had to do an incredible amount of research.” Jane lets out a little sigh, and you begin to wonder if she was guilty of pulling a few all-nighters in the D&D building.
It wouldn’t have been surprising, given that the author-cum-designer chose every surface, fixture and finish herself, from the reclaimed beams in the kitchen to the metallic-flecked grass cloth on the entryway ceiling. The result is a gentle tension of masculine and feminine energies that is so wholly appealing, you yearn to be one of Jane’s zen cats, curled up under a sun-drenched window. It suddenly seems quite sensible that design could be Jane’s second calling, and sure enough, she reveals that she has a line of home accessories in the works. Still, Jane will admit to getting some guidance on the finishing touches. “I had absolutely no idea what to do with window treatments,” she said. Luckily, her answer was on speed dial. “I rang my good friend Rob Rizzo of Cobble Court and that same afternoon I knew where to put a Roman shade, a sheer, a French pleat...it was a revelation.”
Wander through Jane’s home in search of showroom-glitz furniture, however, and you’ll be more apt to find timeworn antiques and a cat-scratched sofa. Only after peeling back a few layers of Jane, and a few hundred pages of her latest novel, out this month, Another Piece of My Heart, can you fully appreciate why. Her heroine, Andy, is navigating through a new marriage and the complexities of a blended family, much like Jane is herself, but with an important distinction: Andy aims for perfection on every inch of the domestic front—and perpetually falls short. “A house should be a home,” counters Jane. “I’m not interested in perfect...it’s too stressful.”
In fact, Jane purposely only bought one new chair and a set of end tables for the new house, preferring to commingle lived-in pieces from both families. It marks a true departure from her upbringing. “The houses I grew up in were like museums where everything was ‘look but don’t touch,’ and my mother wasn’t comfortable with people coming over,” recalls Jane, now in the midst of making a warm chocolate banana cake for a friend’s birthday. “I wanted this house to feel just the opposite, where everyone can relax as soon as they walk in the door.”
It sounds like her welcoming approach may be working too well: “We regularly have between twenty-five and thirty-five people in the kitchen, with a buffet along the counter,” Jane says. “Kids crowd around the table and adults spill over into the dining room.” Does she worry about the occasional mud print? “There may be dog hair all over my sofa and stains on the carpet but it’s okay, really,” says Jane. For a writer whose recurring theme is women in search of self-acceptance, her words take on new meaning. She pauses for a moment, then continues. “There is a famous saying at the beginning of my latest book that I love, which reads, ‘Happiness is not getting what you want, but wanting what you’ve got.’”
Over three thousand miles, thirteen books, six children, two cats, one Doberman, one husband, one dream house and a few carpet stains later, Jane Green has engineered a plot twist even she might not have realized: She just borrowed a page from her own life.
Architect: Brooke Girty; brookegirtydesign.com
Builder: Tiefenthaler Construction; tiefenthaler.com
Owner's Representative: Soundview Construction Advisors, LLC; 203-532-4020;
Painters: Lubraz Painting; 203-331-8897