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Entertainment Factor

At Donna Craft’s polished and pastoral property, the parties are all about giving back

Among the essential implements in the tool kit of a professional fundraiser is a pleasing property on which to entertain prospective donors. Donna Craft, a fixture on the charity circuit of Fairfield and Easton for the past 15 years, has that in spades.

Known as Maple Hill Farm, her seven-acre parcel straddles the line between the communities she serves and features a gentrified Federal-style house designed in 1958, when the area was still more farmlike, by architect Walter John Skinner.

But this home has not always been part of her arsenal. For 20 years, from a house roughly seven miles across town, the Canadian native pined away for what she considered to be the quintessential New England charmer, with its white shingles and green shutters, its expansive lawns and stately sugar maples, its diminutive 1930s barn, and its arbor of burning bush that turns flame-red in summer. Over time, she committed quite a few acts of home-stalking–early-morning drive-bys, intelligence gathering from neighbors—which grew bolder as her property lust deepened.

Then one day in 2007 she heard a whisper in the real estate wind:  the house might be for sale. Encouraged, she wrote a note to the owner and left it in the mailbox. The owner called the next day and invited her to come see it. Craft made it only as far as the kitchen window, where she took in the view of the pool, the English dwarf boxwood parterres, and the meandering stone walls, before she made up her mind to take it.

 “It was November,” she says. “I could only imagine what it would look like in the spring.”

(She had not yet spied the tiny room, paneled in reclaimed 18th-century cherry wood and featuring a lead sink and decorative details that the previous owner had transported from France and installed specifically for cutting and arranging flowers from the gardens.)

Craft moved in with her husband, Phil, a real estate developer, and their two children in 2008. Almost immediately she began working on the finishing touches that would seal the deal in her charitable endeavors. Out back, she put in a putting green and a tennis court (her son is a ranked player, as was Phil in his youth). And then she hired Milford architect John Wicko to design a pool house. While nibbling on a cucumber canapé or sipping a flute of rose champagne (her drink of choice) from the pool house’s patio, Craft rationalized, How could a would-be philanthropist not pony up?

“It was the height of the recession, so I didn’t want to do anything ostentatious,” she says.

Situated 310 feet away from the main house, the pool house riffs on its silhouette and borrows some of its light and airy details–oval windows, a Federal-style railing that tops the portico and gives the suggestion of a balcony.

“The proportions were critical to keeping it low and engaged with the landscape,” says Wicko, the architect. “It had to be compatible with the main house but not a duplication of it, and it had to possess a pastoral feel.”

Supported by four posts, the pool-house portico covers a patio made of reclaimed bluestone that complements in age and feel the bluestone patio around the pool. The two buildings, and the 30- by 55-foot pool located between them, are aligned on an axis that serves as the property’s organizing principle.

“I love symmetry–I’m very type A,” says Craft, whose upstairs office overlooks the vista, which seems to facilitate the task of planning parties for guests numbering as few as four and as many as 100.

“I think it is important to give back to one’s community in whatever way one can,” she says.

Her many causes include the Center for Women & Families of Eastern Fairfield County, the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center at Bridgeport Hospital, Near & Far Aid, and the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival, among others.

“For me, it’s about events and entertaining. When you have something special, it is important to share it.”

And share it she does. Measuring 700 square feet and featuring ten-foot ceilings and a fireplace surrounded in fieldstone collected from the property, the pool house is an oasis of calm that is wired for sound and suitable for mingling but otherwise electronics-free.

“I don’t sit still well,” she says, alluding to the fact that she is more likely to be found puttering over her peonies, tending to the bonica roses and clematis inside the parterres, or burying the hundreds of tulip and daffodil bulbs she plants every year with her dad. (She’s half Dutch.)

“When I am out in the pool house, it calms me. It’s about a simpler way of life.”

To decorate its interior, Craft sought the expertise of Sarah Kaplan, the proprietor of Dovecote in Westport.

“Donna is a minimalist in a maximalist’s world,” says Kaplan, who estimated the job took a mere four months to complete. “Because she’s so busy, she’s very decisive, and it’s a very good reflection of her personal style—very chic.”

Together they arrived at a glamorous blend of contemporary and vintage elements that evoke the simplicity Craft was after. Fresh and airy in a palette of navy and white, the space features a faux zebra-skin rug, a vintage Lucite bar cart, and a corner banquet, dressed in blue cushions and patterned pillows that, together with a pair of Louis Ghost armchairs, seats 12. The zebra rug, which is grounded by a sisal carpet, nods to the zebra-print wallpaper, in navy and white, that Craft okayed for the bathroom.

“She’s willing to think outside the box,” says Kaplan.

In front of the fireplace, they installed matching custom sofettes upholstered in navy ultra-suede, a Lucite cocktail table (a Dovecote exclusive), and a pair of custom ottomans covered in white terrycloth with navy piping. The sofettes and the ottomans all sit on Lucite feet.

The fully equipped kitchen features Carrera marble countertops and sleek chrome bar stools from Dovecote, and an additional layer of texture derives from abstract art from the 1960s and ‘70s.

It seems likely the coffers of Craft’s causes have been measurably enriched since she began entertaining on her new and improved property, which she often traverses on her John Deere Gator.

Last year she was honored with a special award from the Center for Women & Families, and this year she will receive an award from the Pfriem Breast Care Center.

“Either I have been around for too long or I have done some good work,” quips the self-effacing philanthropist.

“I hope it’s the latter!”

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