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The Perfect Accessory

photographs by stacy bass

In 1999, a couple that had spent happy years surrounded by the majestic landscape of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, made a cross-country move to Fairfield County. While they knew they were leaving their beloved mountains and big-sky scenery behind, they weren’t ready to sacrifice a feeling of open spaces for a new home in the more densely populated neighborhoods of southwestern Connecticut.

Hunting for the perfect spot, they found an 1860 jewel—in need of a little polishing—in Fairfield’s bucolic Greenfield Hill. Charmed by the home’s expansive, level lot, with beautiful plantings of shrubs and mature specimen trees, they purchased the property and undertook a yearlong renovation.

Once the main house was restored and updated to move-in condition, their attention turned to an old three-car garage that had deteriorated beyond any possibility of renovation. To replace it, they called in Martina Burin, a principal in the Fairfield firm of Vicente-Burin Architects, to translate their thoughts and wishes for a new structure into workable plans.

The wife, who had supervised the building of three houses that preceded their newest project, had some basic parameters for the ideal replacement. The couple wanted a simple, barn-like structure that would coexist harmoniously with the traditional lines of the house, fit seamlessly on the property and be more than a storage place for cars. She recalls, “I wanted a comfortable spot for our guests when we have an overflow in the house, and a retreat where my husband and I can relax. Because I knew I could make some great garden spaces on the property, I also wanted a place to do all the planting activities I love. The growing season was so short in Wyoming, I really looked forward to having a good climate for my hobby in Fairfield.”

The resulting collaboration between architect and owners became something of a mutual admiration society. While the homeowners praise Martina’s sensitive interpretation of the couple’s needs, she found that the owners’ ability to act decisively on her suggestions made the project a smooth and enjoyable one. “I showed them a few sketches after they had given me a some photographs that illustrated their ideas. They picked this concept right away. The whole process, from design to finish, took less than a year,” Martina says.

The completed structure, cast with dominant rooflines that follow the classic saltbox shape, and augmented by subordinate shed roofs and a light-drawing cupola on the uppermost ridge, is elegant in its simplicity and refined in its details. Custom touches, such as simple curved brackets used between the shed roofs and their supporting posts, or the delicate chamfered detail of both exterior and interior vertical supports, give the spaces a personalized yet uncomplicated finish.

All the requested elements are included: plenty of space for three cars and storage, as well as a welcoming mudroom entry for the guest quarters and a potting shed for the owner’s gardening pursuits. To further delight the owner, Martina custom-designed her potting bench with a water-shedding zinc top and drawer, and sturdy mahogany components. Builder David Burke (now retired to New Mexico)—another important component of the project’s success—executed Burin’s blueprints, from cupola to potting bench, with letter-perfect detail.

Inside the main entry, a flight of stairs with three elegantly placed windows leads to the upper-level guest quarters. The high, vaulted ceilings that shelter the space—a sitting area, minimal but comfortable kitchen facilities, sleeping room and bath—create an airy feel without sacrificing the essential warmth of the upper floor’s modest footprint.

The owner chose a delicate palette for the interiors that amplifies and softens the abundant natural light; small, modern and understated lighting fixtures focus their uplights and downlights on a well-edited and eclectic mix of comfortable furnishings, both modern and vintage.

To decorate and accessorize, the owner drew from her Wyoming attic, as well as a variety of local Connecticut sources: the Wilton Antiques Show, Darien’s Good Food Good Things, Burrwood Antiques in Fairfield, Lynnens in Greenwich and Pickets in Greenfield Hill. Augmenting the local finds are classic pieces from George Smith, a quilt from Bunny Williams, kitchen island chairs from DWR.

While the space is perfectly suited for the comfort of their guests, the owners also appreciate its serene ambiance and beautiful garden views as a relaxing retreat for their own enjoyment. “My husband likes to watch television here, and we’ll both come out to watch movies,” the wife says.

She also hosts an annual girls’ weekend for five lifelong friends, and the guests quarters not only provide sleeping space, but also a fun place for everyone to enjoy one another’s company. “My friends live all over the country now,” the wife says. “So our girls’ weekend gives us a chance to gather and catch up on everything that’s happened since the last get-together.”

Since its completion, the guesthouse/garage/garden shed is now fully utilized. Working with landscape designer Rob Wilber, of Wilber & King Nurseries, and his associate designer Sarah Burrill-Manco, the owner installed a new cutting garden with just the right mix of structure and cottage garden informality to become a lush and delightful element of the property’s breathtaking landscape. It also provides a splendid view from the guest quarters’ windows, and an ongoing project that the owner can tackle from the convenient location of her potting shed.

Recently, Wilber installed a shade garden, sheltered by trees and augmented with lush plantings of woodland perennials. “It was unused space before the installation,” the owner marvels. “And now it adds something very special to our property.”

Sarah adds, “We’re still experimenting with different plants—ferns, rhododendrons—and it’s just the first season for this installation. But it’s looking to become a full-fledged and beautiful secret garden. It’s a pleasure to work with an owner who is really engaged with her landscape. It makes her beautiful property even more special.”

Design Within Reach, Greenwich, 203-422-2013, and Westport,
203-227-9709; dwr.com
Good Food Good Things, Darien, 203-656-1920
Lynnens, Greenwich, 203-629-3659; lynnens.com
Pickets, Fairfield, 203-254-0012
Vicente-Burin Architects, Fairfield, 203-319-9571; vbarchitect.com
Wilber & King Nurseries, Guilford, 203-458-8733; wilberandking.com