Tailored and fresh, with plenty of handpicked details, this Westport house is the hottest property on the beach
Photograph by Stacy Bass
The ride to this house, no matter which way you approach it, is a seductive one. It hugs the concave coast at Compo Beach, past Elvira’s little deli market and Positano’s waterfront restaurant, and then swings out toward the Sound, toward a little island reachable only by a foot bridge. You park your car in a sandy asphalt lot on the mainland, where each resident of the island has a weather-beaten shingled garage, and then walk across a wooden bridge over a tidal stream to a tiny hill of sand.
Like a secret garden, the house is enclosed in a wide-slatted fence that looks as though it's successfully shrugged off a few nor’easters. A brick path leads to a broad front door, and once inside, you catch your breath in your throat, for the entire rear wall of the house is glass, through which you see a manicured dune, tousled like blond hair after a swim, and then nothing but water for as far as you can see but for the slim line of Long Island's North Shore.
It’s no surprise that this gem of a residence was engineered, painstakingly so, by Wende Cohen, the woman behind the Bungalow boutique in Westport’s Sconset Square, the home furnishings shop where handpicked antique glass chandeliers dangle above coral pieces carved into the shapes of doughnuts and giant fluted clam shells heaped with pewter-colored flats adorned in toe baubles. The house took five and a half years to build, a drop in the bucket compared with the 14 she has spent growing her business. (During part of that time, she leased a Higgins World War II landing craft to deliver building materials, construction machinery, dumpsters, trailers, and portable toilets).
Brooke Girty, the architect who designed the house, knows the ins and outs of every change order in the process. For several months she pushed and squeezed the drawings to arrive at a scheme that salvaged the original unwinterized summer cottage that had been in this spot since the 1920s. But by the time they would have brought that house up to code within the parameters of today’s coastal flooding guidelines, Girty says, it would have been a mere shell of itself. So after many months of angst, they knocked it down and started fresh. The result is just under 5,000 square feet, every inch of it programmed for maximum utility.
“You could have built a skyscraper with all this steel,” says Cohen, who these days lives in the house, called Sandbar, only part-time with her husband, Rick Levin, and their young son. (Hikers and skiers, they found another house in Aspen they couldn’t resist.)
Girty spent between six and eight months on the designs and details and then worked hand in hand with Cohen through construction, having won Cohen’s confidence with the New England shingle-style homes she has designed in places like Fenwick, in Old Saybrook, where half of the renovated turn-of-the-century houses bear her signature.
Though it fits squarely into the genre of turn-of-the-century “vacation architecture,” as Girty likes to say, the house possesses a distinctively European flavor, thanks to Cohen’s many sourcing trips to France, Belgium, and elsewhere. Its most salient feature by far is its intricately detailed millwork, which Girty (whose firm, Brooke Girty Design, is based in Lyme) says required numerous rounds of drawings and mock-ups, samples held in place by painter’s tape.
This was especially true for the staircase to the second floor, a dreamy spiral that, with its pale-gray reclaimed treads, evokes the inside of a nautilus shell. The banister, mounted on hand-forged bronze balusters, never crinkles into that gooseneck silhouette that Cohen loathed but swoops gently around the bend.
A merchant with an eye for pieces that will sell, Cohen hand-selected objects and finishes based on taste and gut feel and then designed the space around them. A massive Chinese-elm console table in the foyer determined the height of the wall’s molding, while a Deco-glass and brass pendant fixture she found in France became the inspiration for the open kitchen. She ordered two-inch slabs of Calacutta marble to give the kitchen its solid grounding and stock-piled brass knobs, hooks, and pulls that lend the space its warm gleam. The floors are reclaimed French oak boards of random widths arranged in a herringbone pattern.
“I wanted the palette to be quiet,” says Cohen, referring to the Belgian linen upholstery, the bleached rattan dining chairs, and the 200-year-old slate dining table, “so that the art would pop.” Among the contemporary pieces that deliver that punch are a mesmerizing sunrise by Eric Freeman, a pair of meteorites by Ross Bleckner that hangs over one the home’s five fireplaces, and a massive oil in the foyer by Fuller Potter.
But it may be the shellac-like white paint—high gloss on steroids—custom-mixed by paint guru Donald Kaufman that really sets the tone. “He arrived with a suitcase full of white,” Cohen says. “And then he added pigment. It’s actually got a lot of pink in it.”
Upstairs, the master bedroom suite occupies the entire waterfront side of the house and features a large balcony that evokes that of a cruise ship. (The children in Cohen and Levin's blended family also enjoy views from their bedrooms, though not of the Sound.) Flanking the main room on either side is a bathroom/dressing room. His side includes an old French brass telescope and a television; hers includes a tub centered in the window, glass-fronted cabinets for her shoes, and a tiny X-bench by Rene Prou that she stripped and had finished in nickel.
“The balcony was designed to expand the bedroom,” says Girty. “It gives you a bit of remove from the people on the beach. You really feel as though you’re tucked up there.” So removed and tucked, in fact, that there’s a private outdoor shower.
To flesh out her ideas, particularly when it came to fabrics and upholstery, Cohen hired interior designer Amber Sweedler of A.L.S. Interiors in Westport.
“One thing I loved about working with Wende is that she appreciates a wide variety of styles and is not afraid to mix things together. This produces a look that feels tailored yet fresh, with unique elements.”
- A.L.S. Interiors, 203-221-8027
- Brooke Girty, AIA, 860-434-1401, brookegirtydesign.com
- Bungalow, 203-227-4406