A Novel Approach
July 20, 2015
Text by Dan Shaw Photography by John Gould Bressler Produced by Karin Lidbeck Brent
Stymied in their search for an old house, a best-selling author and her husband build their own version of a classic New England shingled farmhouse.
Since I was a child, I always wanted to live in a New England farmhouse,” says best-selling novelist Jane Green, who grew up in London. “I love that vernacular. I must have read a lot of novels set in Vermont.”
When she and her husband, Ian Warburg, a venture capitalist, were looking to buy a house for themselves and their blended family of six children, they limited their search to Westport. “My husband will only live by the beach in the town where he grew up,” says Green, who had her own stipulations. “I wanted a pretty house. I love homes that have history and charm.”
However, there were only three houses in Westport that satisfied their requirements—and none of them were on the market. “We’d put notes in their doors asking the homeowners if they’d ever sell, and we never heard back from them,” she says.
The couple realized they would have to “build a new old house,” she says. “Eventually, we stumbled upon the perfect piece of land with beautiful fruit trees, which, of course, all had to be removed!” If their neighbors were initially horrified, they’re no doubt pleased that the house Green and Warburg built has a quaint, low-profile exterior that camouflages its vast size. “Our goal was to build something appropriate for the neighborhood,” Green says.
Green, whose seventeenth novel, Summer Secrets, is coming out this summer, took off a year from writing to oversee the construction of the house, which was designed in collaboration with Brooke Girty, an architect in Lyme who specializes in traditional shingled houses. “Jane is a blast to work with,” says Girty. “She knows what she likes and has a nice sensibility that’s authentic and gracious.”
But not, as it turns out, entirely all-American.
“I can’t suppress my English sensibilities,” Green confesses. “I grew up in the South of France as well as London. There are a lot of European touches in the house, such as the limestone fireplace and the black mullions on the French doors that are like the steel ones you see in France.”
Since she’s a trained chef who loves to cook and entertain, Green obsessed about the kitchen. “It took me six months to find a piece of Carrara marble that looked old-fashioned for the counters,” she says.
The open shelves under the center island—“directly copied from Martha Stewart’s kitchen in Bedford”—are artfully filled with stacks of mismatched bowls and platters. “Everything I buy is white, so they all go together,” Green says.
To give the kitchen antique authenticity, she found wavy restoration glass to go in cabinet doors painted in Martha Stewart Bedford Gray. (The rest of the house is painted in Benjamin Moore Pale Oak, a hue Green describes as “kind of greige.”)
Over the island, she hung three blown-glass fixtures she found, after a protracted search. “They’re a strong focal point and really make the room,” she says.
In the adjacent dining room, Green decided to wrap the walls with bookcases. “I thought a formal dining room was pointless,” she says. Her children do their homework on the antique walnut table, a treasure from her parents’ home in France. “We keep books on top of it most of the time,” she says. “The dining room really became our library.”
The family room that opens onto the kitchen is used not only for everyday meals but also for most of the couple’s entertaining. In warm weather, they prefer to dine on the adjacent covered porch and terrace made of antique fieldstones. “It took a while for us to get it right,” she says. “We wanted the pergola covered in wisteria to look like it was 100 years old.”
The outdoor spaces, including the terraces that lead down to the pool at the bottom of the garden, are crucial to the home’s gestalt. “Gardening is like meditation for me,” she says. “I’m English. It’s in my blood.”
She hired the English landscape designer Simon Johnson, who had worked for nine years with Penelope Hobhouse, the doyenne of English gardening. “He does beautiful structured gardens with lush plantings,” Green says. “This was my second garden with him, but I didn’t go all out, because I don’t have the time to devote to it.”
As busy as her life is, Green still finds time to tend a large vegetable garden. “We eat from it all summer. We grow rhubarb, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini—all the usual things,” she says, noting that it’s not easy, because she has “an annual fight with a woodchuck.” Raising chickens has been just as challenging. “It’s hard because of all the critters,” she says.
In the winter, she and her husband spend more time in the living room, which is just as cozy and laid-back as the family room, with its paneled ceiling and reclaimed wood beams that came from a defunct factory in northwestern Connecticut. The palette of warm neutrals throughout the house is augmented by the layering of textures—linens, seagrass, canvas, and grasscloth. “I wanted the whole house to feel like you could kick off your shoes and curl up on the sofa with a glass of wine,” Green says. Indeed, nothing is precious, including the quintessentially English George Smith armchairs by the living-room fireplace. “Don’t look too closely,” cautions Green. “They have been clawed to death by my cats.”
And yet there are moments of understated elegance, such as the vaguely Swedish front hall with its high-gloss paneled walls and a custom herringbone floor that Green had hand-rubbed piece by piece as it was installed to create an instant patina. In the living room, a Gustavian Mora clock is a sophisticated grace note. “I saw one in the Diane Keaton movie Something’s Gotta Give and I had to have one,” she says.
Like the novels she writes, the house is cinematic and romantic. And she admits to utilizing a bit of stagecraft: after designing the garage to look like a barn, she could not find the right antique dovecote to use as a cupola, so she ended up buying a facsimile with trompe l’oeil nest holes.But the happiness her home has brought her is authentic. As she admires the picket fence out front that’s festooned with climbing roses, Green says, “I got everything I ever dreamed about.” •