A Traditional Home with a Twist

Neoclassical and contemporary meet in a gracious new home that brings together the best of past and present.

Text by Megan Fulweiler Photography by Michael PartenioProduced by Karin Lidbeck Brent

Practice makes perfect. It may be something of a cliché, but it’s also a truism, at least for interior designer Leslie Rylee and designer/builder Dennis Fisher, who have contrived scores of gorgeous homes together. Their collaborations are known for their unique features, many of which consist of salvaged elements the two cull from myriad sources. This particular project was for Rylee and her family, a pastoral retreat that would offer sanctuary from their busy Manhattan lives. And, right from the start, it seemed there could be no better spot to build on in all of Litchfield County.

The rolling acreage was so pretty it didn’t matter that the existing house was a dated ranch. Rylee and her husband razed the time-stressed abode and erected their 7,000-square-foot neoclassical-style nest in almost the same spot, far from the road, with unending views. Then, to ensure the cinematic vistas remain unchanged, the couple placed fifty of their sixty-eight acres into a conservation trust. The other building on the property—a 1740 farmhouse—they transformed into inviting guest quarters.

Rylee is a longtime admirer of the gracious homes designed by the American architect David Adler, and it’s evident in the design she and Fisher conceived. Grand but not pretentious, the layout includes airy rooms with soaring ceilings.

The living room commands its own wing. With windows and French doors on three sides, the chic space is never without light. Surprisingly, though, Rylee claims the best time is after dark. “This is a nighttime room,” she says. “That’s why I painted it buttery yellow. When the fire glows, the room feels cozy despite its size.” Of course, the antique Oushak rug and vivid pillows covered in a favorite Madeline Weinrib ikat heat up the ambience, too.

This strategy Rylee has developed for subtly warming the lofty rooms rather than injecting blasts of color nicely emphasizes the architecture. It’s difficult to imagine anything more complementary to the entry hall’s graceful staircase, say, than the Phillip Jeffries maize-hued wallcovering. A birdcage turned into a statement chandelier from the Kent antique shop R.T. Facts offsets the formality. And beneath the stairs, a tiny space has been carved for a phone room not unlike one Rylee recalls in her grandmother’s home. “Old houses have a kind of quirkiness because they often include these cool extra spaces,” the designer says. These small bonuses, she explains, make a home feel congenial and lived-in.

Travel down the hall and there’s another such friendly nook, this one sitting at the far end of the dining room, painted forest green and stocked with china. Too welcoming to be used only for special occasions, the dining room, says Rylee, “is on its second life.” For practicality, she recently swapped out the fragile antique carpet she’d originally installed for a durable Serena & Lily jute rug. The natural fiber is a stellar counterpoint to the walls, which are covered in luminous Gracie wallpaper, and the graphic ceiling. Clad in a Schumacher paper, the ceiling sets off a chandelier that the creative Rylee painted black, the better to show off its catchy silhouette.

Both avid cooks, Rylee and her husband—along with their two teenage daughters—spend hours in the kitchen. The appealing space, Rylee explains, was driven by six steel cabinets she unearthed in a crowded garage at R.T. Facts. Newly crowned and bestowed with milk-glass fronts, a pair of them now flank the streamlined hood. Their presence adds character and spice to the pale room, and the glinty steel brings another texture to the room’s mix of materials, which includes a marble island top, zinc counters, and an oak floor as rich as Dutch chocolate.

“I like separate spaces, not big endless rooms,” Rylee says. That explains why the wainscoted family room, although easily accessible from the kitchen, is a destination on its own. There’s a fireplace to ward off chills, French doors to cast open to the terrace when it’s balmy, and enough upholstered seating to make everyone happy. A Portuguese needlepoint rug from the New England Collection lends softness, while favorite art (the large painting is by Gideon Rubin) revs up visual interest.

Not to be outdone, the inviting library, with walls painted a warm brown hue and boasting a stunning reclaimed pine and gesso mantel, is also an irresist ible oasis. The painting above the mantel belonged to Rylee’s mother. In fact, many of the antiques scattered throughout are heirlooms.

Even the Victorian settee in the master suite has a personal history. “It sat in my grandmother’s bedroom,” Rylee recounts. “It was green then as well, and we were never allowed to sit on it, which I was desperate to do.” To safeguard the memory, Rylee re-covered it in verdant Carolina Irving linen. Across the way, the bed’s upholstered headboard sports fourteen-inch strips of luscious silk ikat in a similar colorway, which Rylee cleverly scored on e-Bay. The bed skirt is crisp taffeta reminiscent of ball gowns. But as charming as everything is, it’s Rylee’s dressing table, with its make-believe tusk legs (another e-Bay find), that steals the show.

The leading role in the owner’s bath goes to the sculptural tub. “It was a great buy, but retrofitting it cost a fortune,” Rylee admits with a chuckle. Never mind, the luxuriously deep tub, plus a Jonathan Adler rug and a fetching chandelier from the Urban Electric Company, enhance bathing tenfold, as does a generous bay of windows. A quick glance through the glass reveals grounds that are in the process of being made as handsome as the house. Initially set in motion by garden designer Deborah Munson, the evolving garden is now overseen by landscape designer Elizabeth Halley, who is busy keeping invasive species at bay and establishing a host of fresh plantings. No doubt each tree and shrub will be as carefully thought out as the lovely house itself. Rylee’s refined vision for this special place wouldn’t have it any other way. •

Interior design: Leslie Rylee, Leslie Rylee Decorative Arts & Interiors
Architectural design and construction: Dennis Fisher, Amber Construction & Design
Landscape design: Elizabeth Halley Landscape Design and Deborah Munson Landscape Design

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