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A River Runs Through It

History and happenstance intersect in a rambling garden property in Fairfield

 This is a story in which the wispy threads of history and property ownership are inextricably entwined.For twenty years, Polly and John Tucker overlooked this property from their home next door, a structure that historical records suggest was built around 1920 by an electrical engineer named John McWhiten, and was later lauded as an “excellent example” of Colonial Revival architecture. Then, in 1997, when their neighbors were putting the house up for sale, the Tuckers pounced, motivated by the thought that the pastoral property might be subdivided by a residential developer with quarter-acre lots in his dreams.

Their new home, just downstream from their old one and where they’ve now lived for fifteen years, is a structure that began life as a barn some time after 1802 when a farmer named Levi Osborn bought the property—likely including the parcel next door, if not more—for the purposes of maintaining a dairy operation he called Racebrook Farm. Osborn’s alterations to the site may or may not have included the construction of a mill, which would explain the damming of the aforementioned brook into the large pond upstream, which cascades into a waterfall, and the addition of a raceway, or sluiceway, where the swiftly moving water could occasionally pool and gain the further momentum needed to turn the water wheel. The small structure behind the main house, which now serves as John’s office, may have been that mill, or it may have been the milk barn, or it may have been neither—folklore can be so dodgy.

Some time after 1939, when the records show the Colonial Revival and its surrounding property were sold to a Bee Bixby, the larger barn for bovines was converted into a residence for humans, which the Tuckers now call home. Even today, their living room still bears the signs of the building’s history: a vaulted and beamed ceiling reminiscent of a hay loft. The circa-2000 silo was added during the couple’s renovation. Snugged up against the Fairfield-Westport line, today the property seems to pay homage to its fuzzy history, sculpted into a bucolic idyll, part tamed and part wild, through which a brook rambles. Polly, who with her husband owned a folk art gallery in Savannah, Georgia for many years and whose home now features many pieces from their extensive collection, is a gardener who is quick to point out that the design and maintenance of those gardens could not have been achieved without the help of Scott Jamison of Fairfield’s Oliver Nurseries. “I wanted something with bones so that it would hold its shape in winter,” says Tucker on a late December afternoon, when it’s apparent that her wish was fulfilled—all there is to look at is the well-crafted skeleton of her garden. Jamison, the man behind the design, had worked with the Tuckers on their previous property, though he says that this project remains one of his favorites.

“To be very honest, the landscape doesn’t have many minuses,” he says. “It was pretty spectacular to begin with. We just tweaked it.” That this “tweaking” was done almost completely in person, on-site with no drawn plan shows how organic the changes were. Among his touches were the planting of a lush perennial garden—with a few annuals for color—that flanks the car park; the addition of granite slabs from a local quarry that, interspersed with gravel, form a meandering path down the slope from front to back; the removal of several old pines that were obstructing the view; and the one Jamison says is the most salient: about five years ago, the addition of an elevated patio overlooking the stream, which attracts party guests upstairs to the Tuckers’ living room and away from the first-floor kitchen where they tended to congregate before. As it may have been for decades, the creek, which is hemmed in by a stone wall, is the focal point—and the organizing principle—around which the rest of the landscape’s features are designed.

On one side, the side near the house, there is an informal sense of order: a closely cropped lawn; beds of coneflowers, coreopsis, foxglove, hydrangeas, daffodils, sedum, and baptisia, among others; low shrubs, ferns, and ground covers like Lady’s Mantle; a moss-covered bench; Kousa dogwoods, a flowering plum tree, gracious beeches, a fiery Japanese maple. Across the stream, the vista grows rangier. A few volunteer white birches line the stream’s edge and then the lush vegetation that hugs the bank thins out and makes way for a grassy meadow that the Tuckers mow only a few times a year. It terminates in an old stone wall, which marks the boundary of a dense woodland. When they bought this property in 1997, the Tuckers also become the owners of the now marshy pond upstream that was formed when the brook was damned and rerouted through the channel, lending the property the naturalistic character that, all these years later, seems almost timeless. Though the details are murky in some places, it’s clear that the Tuckers are part of a long line of owners who have put their mark on the property over the years—and it’s this unique, collaborative, and respectful effort of more than two centuries that makes it a truly peaceful place that has only gotten better with age.                   

Oliver Nurseries, 203-259-5609; olivernurseries.com