Step Inside a Renovated Barn in Litchfield County

A busy executive and her design team turn a quirky old barn in Litchfield County into a welcoming weekend sanctuary.

Text by Megan FulweilerPhotography by Michael PartenioProduced by Stacy Kunstel

As the CEO of a Manhattan-based human capital company, Michele James was already busy enough. Then someone made an unexpected offer on her country house, and James found herself with just one week to find a new Litchfield County retreat.

Having renovated six homes in the area, ranging from a lakeside cabin to a grand center colonial, James is not one to back off a challenge. So, come the eighth night, she was there with an air mattress in her new getaway—once an old dairy barn—as content as she could be. And content is precisely how she remains.

Sure, the burning bush hedges begged for haircuts, and dozens of trees had grown far too close, but James handed over her heart at the threshold. The quirky 1901 structure had witnessed its share of tenants—cows included, of course, and once, the ambassador to Belgium—but its bones were solid. There was plenty of cosmetic revamping to be done, however, and with summer approaching, James dreaded spending the season engulfed in another makeover. Before signing the deed, she recruited a trusted friend, interior designer Karen Quinn, to determine whether a speedy turnaround was feasible. Quinn, who has worked with James on numerous projects, took one look and fell in love, too. “It’s a jewel-box of a house,” she says of the 3,700-square-foot structure. “We just needed to fit Michele’s life into it, and fast.”

Tucked into a hill, the vertical barn lacked a proper entry. The main access to the building was down the service driveway in back and through, of all places, the laundry room. James enlisted landscape designer Jeff Stevens, owner of New Milford’s Meadowbrook Gardens, to devise a whole new approach to the house. Stevens designed an upper driveway that winds down to a romantic pergola. From there, a path of bluestone leads to a welcoming entry forged from what was once a dairy room. His spectacular solution changed the tenor of the place, giving it a warm, hospitable new feel.

Quinn moved at breakneck speed to brighten the interior. She began by painting most walls her favored formula (a fifty-fifty mix of Benjamin Moore’s Linen White and White) to complement the existing stone floors. Much of the furniture was cherry-picked from the owner’s impressive collection of pieces gathered over the years and stored in an arsenal of sheds. Other pieces came from sources far and near. The deft mix of eras and styles—augmented with the owner’s art and treasures gleaned from all over the globe, including a cache of pre-Columbian artifacts—works like a tonic, enlivening the quirky building to its core with a modern sensibility. “I call it traveled contemporary,” says James.

The window-lined dairy-room-turned-entry contains an Ochre chandelier and a vintage mirror from Privet House in nearby New Preston. There’s a Restoration Hardware chaise for lounging and a gleaming table where James can plunk her keys. Paired with an upholstered settee brought north from Tara Shaw Antiques in New Orleans, the table can double as a picturesque spot for dinner.

Since James enjoys entertaining, there’s also a designated dining room. Quinn found a collection of antique chairs to cluster about a hefty zinc-topped table. A vintage console from Converso Modern in Manhattan contains supplies, while an oil painting of a noble-looking George Washington presides above. Cocktails are whipped up at a swanky Parisian bar residing mere steps away.

The airy living room is located around the corner. Its stellar thirty-five-foot ceiling incorporates photosensitive panels that change color as the day wanes. An art installation left behind by previous owners, the panels appear robin-egg blue when the sun shines then fade to pink, bathing the room in a dreamy glow. As fabulous as it is, such a light show could be potentially problematic for decor. Yet Quinn’s smartly curated, neutral approach welcomes the drama. The twin sofas clad in a pale indoor/outdoor fabric— “again for harmony with the floors,” she says—take everything in stride. A gorgeous marble fireplace dominates one end of the room, while at the other end, a paneled wall conceals the television. Another trip to Privet House yielded the side tables, gilt lamps, and an architectural wooden bench. A personality-filled foot stool and an antique side chair were mined from James’s amazing stash.

Perched in the loft above the living room, the owner’s whimsical talisman—a stuffed owl—keeps watch. An additional nook for gathering, the loft is outfitted with a custom twin-bed-sized chaise Quinn fashioned to accommodate extra company should the two guest bedrooms be filled. A giant paper lantern hovers moon-like over the sophisticated setting, which also includes an antique side chair James nabbed at the Clignancourt flea market in Paris.

As far as heavenly havens go, however, James’s bedroom wins hands down. Sheathed in a Phillip Jeffries hemp wallcovering described by Quinn as the color of “warm wheat,” the room is a luxurious cocoon. There’s not a whiff of the slightly masculine tone that Quinn remembers permeating the barn. How could there be, with a Murano glass chandelier and a feminine Oly silver-gilt canopy bed? Even the Dorothy Draper benches in the marble master bath are as dainty as can be.

From her bedroom, the owner slips out to a meditation garden to decompress. There’s also a graveled terrace with a small table promoting meals or, at least, a glass of wine (the table’s centerpiece is contrived to hold ice and bottles). When James zips up the hill in her golf cart, there sits the pool and the rejuvenated pool house. The latter, with its charming ottoman and carved mirror, is as chic as the renovated barn. As part of his landscape program, Stevens removed trees and an overgrown hedge along the existing pool to “open things up and let in the light.”

Now, having beaten the clock, all the hard-working James needs to do is find time to enjoy her new home. Her resounding success with this bespoke property is proof that, with an enthusiastic and able collaborator like Quinn, anything is possible. •

Interior design: Karen Quinn
Landscape design: Jeff Stevens, Meadowbrook Gardens

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